Some days, I know just what I want for dinner. My wife (who is, regrettably, not Italian) thinks that is a weird Italian thing. But whatever the reason, some days, I just know.
Most days, though, it’s a bit of an interactive process to figure out what to make for dinner. I have a picky teenager, a spice–averse wife, and a limited budget; these are the challenges.
The weather is an influencing factor too. Cold rainy days call for chili or soup; hot summer days call for barbecue, or pasta salad, or heck–with–it we’re eating ice cream today. Today’s weather is mild, not really pushing for any particular cuisine.
I generally start out my planning process by looking at ingredients. Unless I have a serious yen for one dish, or I’m going shopping anyway, I prefer to make dinner out of what I have in the house.
The fridge has smoked sausage, hamburger, and frozen drumsticks. None of them looks too exciting on its own. But it has been a while since I’ve made either meatballs or meatloaf.
Meatballs and meatloaf are quite similar. Hamburg, plus some stuff to make it not quite so dense. Today, since the weather is warm, I would rather not run the oven for long, so meatballs win out.
My meatball recipe, like many of my recipes, traces its roots through my mother, my grandmother, and back to the island of Sicily. This recipe is quick, simple, and American. Like all of my recipes it should be modified to suit your taste.
Let’s meet the ingredients:
- Ground beef. Ideally, about 85% ground chuck. Ground chuck has a beefier flavor than generic ground beef, and 85% is just about right to be moist, but not greasy.
- Meatloaf mix is a mixture of ground beef, ground pork and ground veal. It turns out paler, softer meatballs than ground chuck. Tasty, but significantly more expensive for not much advantage.
- Sandwich bread, with the crust removed. If your favorite bread has nuts and twigs, you may find disconcerting gritty bits in your meatballs. This may be the one time I recommend plain cheap white bread.
- Garlic! I like the convenience of minced garlic from a bottle, but garlic powder will do. If all you have are cloves of garlic, you should mince them quite finely.
- Parmesan cheese. The shaker-bottle stuff is fine. You can use nine dollar a pound artisanal cheese, but it won’t taste any better than the prepackaged stuff. If you want me to build a recipe for really fancy meatballs, tell me in a comment!
- Spices. With the reasonably slow cooking and moist environment of a meatball, dried spices do just fine. If your parsley is brownish or dusty, toss it and buy new; it usually has about a six month shelf life.
In a large mixing bowl, drop three slices of bread (with crusts removed and discarded) and half cup of milk. Once the bread soaks up the milk, shred it. Add the egg, Parmesan, garlic and spices. Mix it into a gloopy mess. Add the ground chuck, remove your rings, and use your hands to mix and smoosh the beef and gloop together until they’re fully mixed. Try not to over mix, as this leads to tougher meatballs.
Next, you need to make an important decision. Meatballs in Italy tend to be much smaller than American meatballs (in fact most things in Italy tend to be much smaller than their American counterpart!). Depending on your audience, family tradition, and mouth size, you may prefer meatballs ranging from a tablespoon of meat mixture up to about three quarters of a cup. Whatever size you choose, make sure all of the meatballs are pretty close to the same size.
One trick to make meatballs quickly, used in most restaurants, is to grab an ice cream scoop, or a melon baller or if small meatballs are your preference.
Wash your hands and leave them wet. The meat mixture won’t stick to wet hands as much as it will to dry ones.
In any case, scoop up a measured portion of the meat mixture and drop it into your hand. Roll the proto-meatball between your hands until it is round, then set it on a plate, not quite touching any of the other meatballs. If the meatballs stick to your hands, make sure your hands are quite wet.
Lather, rinse, repeat until you are out of meat mix. The temptation to grow to bigger meatballs as you get tired of rolling them is strong; don’t give in.
Now, you have choices. You can fry, grill, broil, or bake the meatballs. Or you can use a Nuwave oven, if you have one- it is the easiest method here and turns out quite decent meatballs.
All the time shown below assume 2 ounce meatballs, such as you would get from a common ice cream scoop. If your meatballs are much smaller, adjust the time down accordingly. If you like tremendous meatballs, adjust the time up significantly.
Frying: set up a frying pan (preferably cast-iron 9 inch) with oil over medium heat. When the oil reaches 350° gently insert 4 to 6 meatballs and keep them moving. When the meatballs have a decent crust all around, remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels, and start frying the next batch.
Grilling: much like frying, only with a lot less oil. Get a nonstick frying pan, heat it for a minute over medium heat, and add about a dozen meatballs (if they’re small; large meatballs will have smaller batches). Leave them in the pan for about three minutes, then stir them to start cooking another surface. Once you have three or four surfaces of each meatball crispy, set those meatballs aside and start on the next batch.
Broiling: best for large meatballs, because small ones will go from raw to scorched in no time. Put all the meatballs on a broiler safe tray with a grease drain. If you don’t have a broiler tray with a grease drain, a broiler tray with a cooling rack can substitute. Broil under 500° for about four minutes (assuming large meatballs: small meatballs will cook more quickly). Turn the meatballs, broil for the same amount of time.
Baking: my least favorite method. Baked meatballs don’t get as much of the interesting crust and flavor that the other methods give you, but this method does work; and for big batches, it is one of the most efficient methods. Put the meatballs on a cookie sheet not quite touching, and bake at 425° for 10 minutes. Turn the meatballs, bake for another 6.
Nuwave Oven: the easiest of the methods I’ve shown here. Lay out the meatballs on the 4 inch rack, not quite touching. Bake for 5 minutes, then flip, then bake for 5 more.
Now, if you’re planning to serve these on spaghetti with sauce, your meatballs will benefit from an hour simmering in the sauce. If you’re planning to serve them without a simmer, it’s time for the meat thermometer. The USDA says cook to an internal temp of 160°F for ground meats
. If you’re simmering the meatballs for an hour, they’ll certainly reach that internal temperature. If you’re not simmering them, jab a few of the larger and/or paler meatballs with your meat thermometer and cook them until they’re safely at 160°F (71°C).
I’ll come back with a few recipes for sauces in a few days.
Basic Italian Meatballs:
3 slices white bread, crusts removed and discarded
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 tsp dried parsley
1 large egg, beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 lb 85% ground chuck
- In a large mixing bowl, soak the bread in the milk, then shred the sopping bread.
- Add the egg, cheese, spices, salt and pepper, and mix well.
- Add the ground chuck and mix with your hands. Mix just until it is well blended; overmixing leads to tough meatballs.
- Scoop out a measured portion (an ice cream scoop works well for large meatballs; a melon baller works well for smaller ones). Use your hands to form the meatball, roll it briefly to round, and set aside on a cookie tray or plate.
- When you’ve formed all the meatballs, choose your cooking method:
- Nuwave oven: The easiest.
- Lay out the meatballs on the 4″ rack
- Cook for five minutes, flip the meatballs, cook for five more.
- In a cast-iron frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until it is shimmering hot (around 350°).
- Working in small batches, fry the meatballs for about five minutes on a side, then stir, and fry for five more.
- When the meatballs have three or four crispy sides, remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
- Broiling is best for larger meatballs. If your meatballs are less than 2 ounces each, broiling is likely to result in overcooked, tough meatballs.
- Lay out the meatballs on a broiler pan with a grease drain.
- Broil at 500° for four minutes, flip the meatballs, cook for four more minutes.
- Get a cookie sheet with walls and place a cooling rack in it.
- Lay the meatballs so that they don’t quite touch
- Bake at 425° for 10 minutes, flip the meatballs, cook for 5 more minutes.
- Be careful- the grease from the meatballs will be quite hot, so when you move the cookie tray, don’t burn yourself!
- The long slow simmer.
- Best for smaller meatballs.
- Using a slow cooker will most likely not give you meatballs, but a bolognese sauce with meat evenly distributed. Tasty, but we’re making meatballs today.
- If you’re making a Ragu sauce or a soup which will simmer for more than an hour, you can simply add the raw meatballs to the sauce and let them cook in it. You won’t get the tasty crust, though, so this is not my favorite method.
- Add the meatballs to the already–simmering pot. Continue to simmer for one hour, then check a meatball for doneness.
- At the end of any of these cooking methods, check one of the larger or paler meatballs for doneness. Your meat thermometer should show 160°F/71°C. If the internal temperature is not up to code, cook the whole batch until it is.