Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"A Man and His Meatballs" & "Two Meatballs in The Italian Kitchen" - Meatballs two ways for National Meatball Day

Date I made these recipes:  March 19, 2017 – for National Meatball Day (March 9, 2017)

A Man & His Meatballs – The Hilarious but True Story of a Self-Taught Chef and Restaurateur -  with 75 Recipes by John LaFemina with Pam Manela
Published by Regan – An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
ISBN: 13: 978-0-06-085335-8; © 2006
Recipe:  Veal, beef, and pork meatballs with ricotta filling – p. 169-170

Two Meatballs in The Italian Kitchen by Pino Luongo & Mark Strausman
Published by Artisan
ISBN: 13: 978-1-57965-345-3; © 2007
Recipe:  Fresh Pasta with[Veal]Meatballs and Mushrooms  - p. 52

Let me just jump right to the moral of this story:  When push comes to shove, make your own family's damned meatballs on National Meatball Day and just be done with it!

Let me now return you to the beginning of our story, already in progress.  Turns out March 9th is National Meatball Day.  I had no idea. 

Now, it's not that other cultures don't have their own meatballs because they do, but given that I'm Sicilian, it just seemed logical to me to make Italian meatballs because that is what I know and love.

My late Aunt Rose has a great meatball recipe. I've made it a thousand times, but since it is in a family cookbook and not a cookbook that I purchased, I decided to give it a miss to make something that was in a "cookbook" cookbook because well, you know, that would be the point of my blog!

So I searched my collection titles for "meatballs" and came up with the two cookbooks listed above, A Man & His Meatballs, and Two Meatballs in The Italian Kitchen, and call me crazy, but I do not think it is too much to expect that two cookbooks containing the word "meatball" in the title should then include lots of recipes for meatballs, plural.

I am going to have to start lowering my expectations about these things because I was way off on my expectations and assumptions.

The first book I pulled off the shelf, A Man and His Meatballs, contained one – ONE – and only one meatball recipe and it was the one I made. What?  Honestly, I was a little disturbed by this discovery although I will say the recipe was quite tasty.  The making of it/them though, was fraught with peril as you shall see.

The second book I pulled off the shelf, Two Meatballs in The Italian Kitchen, contained six meatball recipes plus two recipes for meatloaf that were included in the meatball section.  Well now, I don't know about you, but a meatball is a meatball and a meatloaf is not a meatball, right?  Exactly.

Of the meatballs listed in this book, here were our choices as listed in the Recipe Index:
  • Pan-fried:  In a word, yawn. These days, I either bake my meatballs or I immerse them into the tomato sauce or chicken broth so they can gently "poach."  I like the taste better and it is less messy that way.
  • Veal Meatballs with Green Apple:  I cannot.  I just cannot with this recipe. Ugh.
  • Meatballs with Spaghetti Coco Pazzo (Coco Pazzo is a restaurant name):  So these essentially are "house" meatballs which is fine, but like I said, I could have easily made my Aunt's recipe (with her sauce to boot) and called it a day.
  • Fresh Pasta with [veal] Meatballs and Mushrooms:  this is the dish I made and it worked out fine...eventually
  • And then there were your dueling meatloaf recipes, one from Mark and one from Pino, your two authors.
 I'm afraid I'm going to have to DQ (disqualify) these last two recipes on the grounds that they are not meatballs as intended for National Meatball Day and therefore do not count.  That then left me with four, and then I whittled the four recipes down to one and that "one" would then join the other "one" (and "only" recipe) from the other meatball book for a total of two recipes i.e. meatballs two ways.

Now let me just say that in the past, I've made two recipes at a time without much of a hiccup but today was not that day.  I am big enough to accept 80% of the blame because of things I did or did not do to move these recipes along, but the other 20% has to fall on the recipe/cookbook's authors because it just does!  It can't be all my fault, right?  If anything, I am guilty of being overambitious although I didn't realize that until the whole saga was over and done with. 

Let's start out then, talking about some of the issues starting with the first recipe for the Veal, beef, and pork meatballs with ricotta filling.  This recipe (I made a half recipe) called for meatballs the size of apples and I just could not bring myself to do that to a meatball and so I made them about golf-ball size.  This may have been why the [smaller] meatballs were a tad overcooked as I didn't adjust the cooking size from 60 minutes to something less than 60 minutes. 

Then there was the filling which was supposed to be light enough (my interpretation) to pipe into the meatball using a pastry bag.  Again, no.  What I did instead was to cut off the top of the meatball, spoon on (more like paste on) some filling and put the top on so that it looked more like a meat cream puff than anything.  So when it came to looks, this recipe failed, but the flavor was there except for the slight toughness of the meatball.  I can live with that.[1]

The [veal] meatballs used in the Fresh Pasta with [Veal] Meatballs and Mushrooms (and peas) recipe was another matter and we must discuss this, we must!

I could probably count on one hand – make that two fingers – the number of times I've made a meatball recipe using just veal, but I'm not a fan.  Why?  Because in my [limited] experience, I don't think veal alone hangs together in a meatball very well, even with the addition of bread crumbs.  Veal plus beef or pork, like the first meatball recipe I made, turned out much better but these turned into kind of a mess.  In the end, I improvised and the dish turned out just fine but the meat sure didn't resemble a meatball as was intended by the recipe and the author.

Like I said at the beginning, I should have just made my aunt's very delicious meatballs and called it a day.

If by now you are scared off by these recipes (don't be—it was mostly me), then head back to each book to find alternates to each dish as there are plenty.  Let's start our discussion then, with the contents of A Man and His Meatballs.

This book is half stories, half recipes.  The story portion is all about the creation of his restaurant, Apizz, now closed, and all the trials and tribulations that come with restaurant creation, and let me just say that what was true then (2006), is true now:  opening a restaurant is hard work and costs a fortune. For those of you who think (erroneously) that this would just be a "dream come true," please read then re-read then re-read again the first half of this book. 

Okay, end of the "fair warning" section.  Part II of this book is filled with recipes for "Appetizers & Antipasti," "Soups;" "Salads;" "Pasta & Risotto;" "Meats & Poultry;" "Fish;" "Basic Recipes (like sauces, etc.)," and "Desserts," and honestly, I am pretty  hungry right now.  My only critique, and it's small, is I wish he had swapped out other pasta dishes for the risotto and gnocchi recipes included here.  That said, he paired gnocchi with "Honey-Braised Short Ribs" (p. 153) and I am all about short ribs so there's that.

Like I said before, had I just made his apple-sized meatballs as directed, this would have likely been a home run.  Live and learn.

As to Two Meatballs in The Italian Kitchen, this book is fun because these two "meatballs" (I keep thinking of the word "goombah" which has several meanings but I'm settling on "close friends") each include their favorite recipes for all kinds of dishes, some of which may appeal to you more than the pasta dish I made (which again, was good, if not nothing like they intended).  Here is there Table of Contents:
  • Stand-Alone Soups
  • The Great Meatball Debate
  • Dried Pasta and the Unification of the Two Meatballs
  • Fresh Pasta Like Mama Used to Make:  Essential Techniques and Well-Matched Sauces
  • Risotto and Farrotto (Farro is a grain)
  • Two Meatballs Go Fishing
  • Meat and Poultry:  Rustic Oven Cooking
  • Cucina al Fresco:  Grilling Italian-Style
  • The Twenty-First Region of Italy:  Italian-American Cooking
  • Sunday Means Dinner
  • The Two Meatballs Go Veggie
  • Dessert at Last

I'm intrigued by the chapter about Italian-American Cooking because Pino came to the US from Italy and like a lot of chefs from the "homeland," comments about the hybrid cooking developed by other Italian/Sicilian immigrants to America.  Even my own grandparents adapted their cooking to their new homeland, especially once the grandchildren came on the scene.  They still kept some of their homeland favorites but there was not one grandchild who didn't turn up a nose at the thought of eating tripe so there it is.

Okay, then, you can do the extra-curricular reading on your own and select other recipes if you choose, but here then, are meatballs "two ways" for National Meatball Day.

Veal, Beef, and Pork Meatballs with Ricotta Filling – 8 to 10 servings- from A Man and His Meatballs
For the meatballs:
3 cups cubed crustless filone or regular Italian bread (about ½ loaf)
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork (Ann's Note to Twin City residentsLunds & Byerlys carries a mixture of these three meats.)
1 egg
½ onion, chopped
¼ chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Pinch of oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (p. 197) (Ann's NoteI thawed some of my own sauce that I had in the freezer so I skipped this step.  You can use your own sauce in whatever form that takes, or you can make his sauce, ingredients and recipe below.)
For the stuffing:
1 cup ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 ½ teaspoons salt
Black pepper to taste
To finish the meatballs:
1cup Basic Tomato Sauce
½ cup ricotta cheese
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
For the sauce (makes 5-6 cups):
¼ cup chopped shallots
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
¼ cup olive oil
Two 28-ounce cans whole plum tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons salt
Pinch of black pepper
Pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)

To make the sauce:
In a large stockpot over medium heat, cook the shallots and garlic in the oil until they soften, 6 to 8 minutes.  Add the tomatoes, oregano, salt, black pepper, red pepper, and ½ cup of water.

Raise the heat to high and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and breaking up the tomatoes slightly with a wooden spoon.  Lower the heat to medium and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes.  The sauce can be stored in the freezer in an airtight container for up to 3 months. (Ann's Noteyou will need about 3 cups of this sauce for a full meatball recipe.)

To make the meatballs:
Preheat the oven to 350F.  Run the cubed bread under water and gently squeeze out the excess liquid.  Put the bread in a large mixing bowl.  Add the remaining meatballs ingredients to the bowl, except for the tomato sauce, and mix well with your hands.  Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions.  Using your hands, roll each portion into a large round meatballs, about the size of an apple.  Place the meatballs in a medium to large baking dish.  Ann's Noterecall if you will, my comment from above which was that I decided not to make my meatballs the size of an apple, opting instead for golf balls.  I think I should have stuck with apples as the smaller-sized meatballs were a tad overdone.  Plus, my golf game sort of stinks which should have been another sign.

In a separate bowl, combine 2 cups Basic Tomato Sauce (see above) and 2 cups water. Spoon the tomato sauce and water mixture over the meatballs until the liquid comes three-quarters of the way up (if more liquid is needed, add water).  Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the meatballs for 1 hour, turning the dish after 30 minutes.  Remove the baking dish from the oven, drain and discard the liquid, and let the meatballs cool to room temperature.  (The meatballs can also in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.)

To make the stuffing
Combine the ricotta cheese with the Parmigiano, salt, and pepper in a medium mixing bowl.

Using an apple corer or small knife, core out a hole to the bottom of the meatball that is about ½ inch in diameter.  Fill the hole with the cheese mixture, use a pastry bag).

Ann's NoteAs I mentioned above, this step did not go as planned.  First, my meatballs were just a tad overdone and boring a hole big enough to pipe the mixture into just wasn't going to work too well.  Second, the mixture was just a tad thick for a pastry bag.  I'm not sure if what I made was what the chef/author intended, but he wasn't here coaching me along so there you go.  Third, if we were having company, I might have tried to go along [with the recipe directions] to get along, but we were not having company, and so, dear reader, I punted.  I cut the top off the meatball, spooned a ton of the mixture into my non-apple-sized meatballs, put the top back on and that was that, no apologies.

To finish the meatballs
Spoon the 1 cup of tomato sauce evenly over the meatballs and heat for 10 to 15 minutes at 350F.  Remove the pan from the oven.  Place 1 tablespoon of ricotta cheese over top of each meatball (it should look like the cheese is oozing out of the center), sprinkle with Parmigiano cheese, and heat for an additional 3 minutes.

Ann's Final NoteThis step never happened and not just because I ran out of ricotta, but because I ran out of patience as well. All that said, the taste was great and they didn't look too bad, but these suckers in no way resembled the photo in the cookbook and you probably shouldn't expect yours to, either!

Fresh Pasta with [Veal] Meatballs and Mushrooms (and peas!) – serves 6 as main course
For the meatballs
8 ounces ground veal
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 large egg yolk
½ cup bread crumbs
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the rest of the dish
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling (optional)
1 medium onion, chopped
12 ounces white button mushrooms, wiped clean, stems removed, and sliced ½ inch thick
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ cups fresh sweet peas or thawed tiny frozen peas
½ cup cups vegetable stock or vegetable broth made with Knorr powdered bouillon (Ann's NoteI used chicken stock because I had just enough on hand.)
6 fresh mint leaves
1 ½ pounds pasta all chitarra or tagliolini made from Fresh Egg Pasta Dough (p. 94) Ann's Note: These two fresh pastas are similar to spaghetti and I used the dried spaghetti I had on hand.  It saved time and possibly saved my husband from another round of my swearing!
To finish it
4 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ cup pasta cooking liquid

Place the meatballs in a large bowl, add the Parmigiano, egg yolk, bread crumbs, garlic and parsley, and season well with salt and pepper.  Mix thoroughly but delicately so as not to compress the meat, which would toughen it.

Take a piece of the meat mixture about the size of a small grape and roll the mixture between the palms of your hands into a small ball.  Place on a plate, and repeat with the remaining meat mixture.

Line a large shallow plate with paper towels.  Set aside.

Heat 1 cup of the olive oil in a 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat.  Place only as many meatballs in the pan as you can without crowding them and panfry until browned and crisp on one side, about 3 minutes.  Flip and cook until the other side is browned and crisp, about 2 minutes more.  Remove the meatballs from the pan with a spatula and place on the prepared plate to drain.  Repeat with any remaining meatballs.

Ann's Notes [brace thyself]This all started out well but quickly broke down in the making thereof.  Let's start with the meatball size itself as I feel like this got the whole ball rolling downhill in a hurry.  The recipe said to shape the meat mixture the size of a small grape, and maybe I used the wrong-size "grape" as my model for the size of my meatballs because they were hard to handle.  They looked pretty but when I tried to flip those suckers after the requisite three minutes, they stuck to the pan and nothing short of dynamite got them off the bottom.  I tried a small spatula, tiny tongs, regular-size tongs – nada. So while a few meatballs here and there held their shapes, the rest started to fall apart.  And so this is when I had my "Psycho" moment which is to say I got out a plastic meat chopper and just started hacking away at those grape-sized meatballs that were both sticking and disintegrating at the same time. Let me add that as I was tacking out my wrath on the poor meatball, Andy gave me a look that said "Are you crazy?" while at the same time backing away from the stove!  Once I satisfied myself that the meat (now resembling ground beef) was cooked, I removed it to the paper towel as directed to drain and then carried on below.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in another large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 4 minutes.  Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, and sauté 5 minutes.  Add the peas, toss and cook until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 2 to 3 minutes.  Add the stock and mint and cook for another 5 minutes.  Taste and, if necessary, adjust the seasoning.  Add the meatballs, toss well, and set aside, covered, to keep warm.  Ann's Note:  Well, all these instructions are well and good but that's not how I did it.  I think I let the onions cook for 4 minutes but then I shorted the time on the mushrooms, added the peas before they were ready, added stock...then more stock...then more stock to prevent everything from sticking (still, and with the temperature as low as I could get it), skipped the mint, added the meat mixture back to the dish, heated for a minute or so, then served.  Mama ain't got time to play today!

Fill a 10-quart stockpot with 7 quarts of water.  Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt and bring to a boil.  Add the pasta and cook until al dente.

To finish the dish, reserve ½ cup of the cooking liquid, then drain the pasta and stir it into the sauce.  Add the butter, the Parmigiano, and a few tablespoons of the reserved cooking water, and heat over very low heat.  Taste and adjust the seasoning, then toss thoroughly, drizzling with more olive oil if desired.

Ann's Final Note:  By this time, I just wanted to eat, already and so skipped adding the butter and the Parmigiano.  As I told my husband, the other meatball dish has ricotta and Parmigiano so did we really need more calories in this dish?  We did not! In hindsight, I should have just committed to making one dish or the other, but not both, but I didn't and so then had to run with several Plan B's during my time in the kitchen.  Nobody died in the making thereof, but like I said, I should have just stuck with my aunt's recipe and called it a day.  Who knew National Meatball Day would be so educational?  Not I, reader.  Not I!

[1] By the way and this is Breaking News:  I just now discovered a video of chef/author John LaFemina making these signature meatballs with Martha Stewart and oh sure, now I find it!:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zp2R5RPVlaA

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