Cleanin’ Out My Cabinets: Meatballs

A few weeks ago I caught up with a friend from college that occasionally reads the blog.  During the course of a relatively serious discussion about MBA internship opportunities, he said something along the line of, “more importantly, do you have a good meatball recipe?”  Gotta say, it made me feel pretty inadequate.  Not only did I not have a good meatball recipe, I couldn’t even say that I’ve ever liked a traditional meatball I’d made.  Sure, I’ve cooked lots of enjoyable turkey meatballs during ill-fated attempts at diets, but I didn’t have a go-to normal recipe.  I dodged the question and moved along.

With a lot of heavy snowfall recently, I didn’t have to wait too long to take a shot at honing my meatball craft.  My goal was to replicate the absurdly good meatballs from Vila Di Roma in Philadelphia, but of course I didn’t follow the one known aspect of that recipe: 100% 80/20 ground beef.  Instead I started with a pound of pork and a pound of veal.

Every time I see the "meatloaf mix" at the grocery store that supposedly includes beef, veal, and pork I shake my head and wonder who would buy that.  Then I get hungry because of how delicious that combination sounds

Every time I see the “meatloaf mix” at the grocery store (that supposedly includes beef, veal, and pork) I shake my head and wonder who would buy that.  Then I get hungry because of how delicious that combination sounds

In my search for a Vila Di Roma copycat recipe I came across one that used veal and pork and went by the name “the best meatballs recipe”.  Since I am an idiot and believe everything I read on the internet, I decided to work off this recipe and make some changes here and there.  The title may have been a touch overzealous.

I despise following recipes for good reason: I think I know better than their instructions and some of the time, I am correct.  When I am wrong, I forget about it, but when I am right I am pissed that I blindly followed a recipe when it seemed like I was adding to much or too little of something.  With that in mind, here’s the 2 eggs, parsley, seasoning, and fresh grated cheese the recipe recommended.

To invoke the classic Seinfeld Lloyd Braun, glasses and gum episode, "Am I crazy, or is that a lotta cheese?", "IT'S A LOTTA CHEESE!"

To invoke the classic Seinfeld Lloyd Braun, glasses and gum episode, “Am I crazy, or is that a lotta cheese?”, “IT’S A LOTTA CHEESE!”

Using my hands, I went through the grotesque (to watch) process of mixing ground meat with other ingredients.  No ground meat is safe from how unappetizing I can make this process look.  Adding salt and pepper to hamburger patties becomes some sort of bizarre, jiggling dance when I’m in charge.  Whatever, it’s effective and you’ll never get a poorly distributed ingredient in my house.

After this was fully mixed, I added in a few slices of cubed, slightly stale bread and a half cup of warm water.  I am as skeptical now as I was then, but I was surprised by how many meatball recipes called for this.

With the addition of water and bread, I was way off the Vila Di Roma script at this point, so I decided to check back in on a few articles about their meatballs.  That’s where I got a hot tip on coating your hands with olive oil before rolling your meatballs.

Certainly not turning the unappetizing train around with this pic, but it was nice to not have ground meat stuck to my fingers for once when making these

Certainly not turning the unappetizing train around with this pic, but it was nice to not have ground meat stuck to my fingers for once when making these

As usual, I started with a few really small meatballs.  Then, once I made a few bigger ones and liked how they looked I went back and added some more meat to the first few. Once I had 10 or 12 done, I didn’t like how big they all looked and went back through pullign a little meat off of each and re-rolling.  Cooking always seems to bring out the undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive mess inside of me.  Regardless, after a few minutes I had this tray of 24.

If you think I was capable of leaving that last slot open and didn't pull a bit of meat off of a bunch of them to even the number and fill the tray, you aren't reading the blog enough.  Not comfortable with the fact that I am making OCD jokes so soon after Girls drove the topic into the ground

If you think I was capable of leaving that last slot open and didn’t pull a bit of meat off of a bunch of them to even the number and fill the tray, you aren’t reading the blog enough.  Not comfortable with the fact that I am making OCD jokes so soon after Girls drove the topic into the ground

Meatballs are pretty cool to look at in this state.  Don’t believe me?  Here comes the arty natural light shot by the window!

Isn't it nice that for once I am showing a big tray of balls and there isn't anything gross going on?  Seemingly a first for me, need to make something gross soon and get this ship righted

Isn’t it nice that for once I am showing a big tray of balls and there isn’t anything gross going on? Seemingly a first for me, need to make something gross soon and get this ship righted

The meatballs went into a 400F oven and I started working on a simple marinara sauce to compliment them.  I mean really simple.  A couple cans of whole peeled tomatoes chopped up well and dumped on top of a few cloves of minced garlic sauteeing in olive oil.  I let that cook for 15 or so, then added some white wine, basil, salt and black pepper.

Lotsa salt.  I elected not to do the sugar thing since they were canned tomatoes and the wine added a little sweetness

Lotsa salt.  I elected not to do the sugar thing since they were canned tomatoes and the wine added a little sweetness

This simmered together with some regular stirring for about 30 more minutes, at which point the meatballs were about ready to join the party.

"Whoa!!!  You gonna eat that?  Just let me know, because I think that looks amazing!!" - my imaginary supportive cooking friend

“Whoa!!! You gonna eat that?  Just let me know, because I think that looks amazing!!” – my imaginary supportive cooking friend

This was the exact moment that I finally accepted the best way to cook meatballs is something I’m just not willing to do in my house: deep frying.  Fry them up quick to lock in all the fat and cheese stuff that cooked out of these.  The oven wasn’t hot enough to harden the outside quickly.  Oh and I also used way too much cheese.

Quick sidebar: as a kid we used to eat something called “booger chicken” in the Ryan household.  It was bone in chicken thighs and drumsticks baked in an oven with a coating of garlic powder and salt plus a pat of butter on each piece of chicken.  Possibly margarine actually.  Obviously it tasted delicious, but the real root of my love of booger chicken was the “crispies”.   I would sit on the floor by the open oven and use a grapefruit spoon to scrape the bottom of the pan, eating the crispy pieces of seasoned chicken fat and burned butter left behind.  Before writing that I didn’t realize how bad it would look in print.  It was delicious, awful for me, and led to my constant battle with what tastes really good vs. what is healthy.

Anyhoo, that burnt and browned crap between the meatballs?  I would eat that with a grapefruit spoon three times a day and six on Sunday.  It was that delicious; just cheese, animal fat, salt, self loathing and happiness.  If those things go together.  I had to throw it away before I ate too much of it.

Back to the simmering sauce.

This looked far better than expected given the minimal cooking time.  Thank good golly for that Cooks Illustrated book Tim gripes about

This looked far better than expected given the minimal cooking time.  Thank good golly for that Cooks Illustrated book Tim gave me and I wasn’t properly grateful for

Once the meatballs were pried out of their cheesy cement, they looked a little closer to the meatballs I had hoped to make, so I added them to the sauce to simmer for another 30 minutes.

I am 95% certain that we got this pan when my sister-in-law was considering throwing it away.  It has been used 5 times a week for 5 years and I honestly don't know what I will do with myself when I finally have to retire it

I am 95% certain that we got this pan when my sister-in-law was considering throwing it away.  It has been used 5 times a week for 5 years and I honestly don’t know what I will do with myself when I finally have to retire it

I could have left these simmering all day or for multiple days, but I was hungry when the thirty minutes were up and dove in.  How bout a dusting of cheese and one more natural lighting shot before the requisite recap?

This is the best window shot yet and does make the food look more appetixing than the straight down shots from overhead that my belly is blurily poking into the bottom of

This is the best window shot yet and does make the food look more appetizing than the straight down shots from overhead that my belly is blurily poking into the bottom of

The meatballs and sauce were delicious, even if they weren’t quite what I was hoping for.  The Vila Di Roma variety are almost crunchy on the outside and hold together well but have a wonderful tender and uniform consistency inside.  The flavor is mostly just beef with hints of traditional Italian seasonings, all wrapped up in their salty and delicious sauce.  Mine weren’t like that.

I couldn’t have told you that the meatballs I made had pork and veal in them, but you knew it wasn’t beef.  The consistency was slightly rubbery due to the amount of cheese and egg involved, but pretty uniform and not chewy at all.  The flavor was great, if slightly underwhelming because nothing really stood out.  I’m making these meatballs sound awful but we happily ate them for 24 hours with pasta, sub rolls, and on their own.  They were very tasty, just not what I was hoping for.

Next time aroung I’m going all beef and stinking up the house with some deep frying.  I will get these meatballs right, I live too far from Philly not to.

Weird Crap I Cook: Italian Liver Sausage

“This isn’t going to have a happy ending.” – Detective William Somerset, Seven

Yeah, that about sums it up.

Last Sunday I headed to the Italian Market with Tim to show him the market where I purchase all of the raw ingredients to make great meals while he criticizes me.  The Italian Market has a couple restaurants, fresh pasta vendors, cheese and cured meat stores, seafood, and a large assortment of butcher shops.  Most of the butchers sell freshly broken down meats, but a few make assorted sausages including my favorite butcher: Cappuccio’s.

Cappuccio’s has a lot of standard butcher shop fare, along with some more exotic items like veal kidneys that got this DB’s mind racing.  However, I still have a little bit of an organ meat hangover from Morocco so I instead focused on their large variety of homemade sausages.

Thought I would need to hit up Google images for this photo but was psyched to see that Carolyn, Kristi's mom, took this shot when they visited in January. I never remember my camera anymore, so the Best of Philly post will likely be all google imaged

Just as I decided to go with their pork, provolone, and broccoli rabe sausage, Tim marched in front of me in line and ordered two pounds for himself.  Freaking jerk, givin’ me pressure to adhere to social norms and not order the same thing, I’ll show him.  Which is how I ended up inquiring about the “Sicilian liver sausages” hanging outside of the refrigerated case that looked like this:

The familiar background should be a hint: I bought it

 

This stuff was hard as a rock and looked extremely dry and deflated.  I, of course, was very intrigued.

Sunday is a slow day at the Italian market and they are mostly just selling the leftovers from the weekend, so the shops staff accordingly.  We weren’t exactly working with Mr. Cappuccio.  This became clear when the sign on the sausages said “Sicilian Liver Sausage” and the butcher said “Northern Italian Sausage” to us when we asked.  As it turned out, the butcher was right about that, he was just wrong about everything else including cooking directions.

Breaking my organ meat hiatus, I bought the smallest strand of sausage that they had and headed home.  A couple days later I returned home from school hungry for lunch (business school makes you feel like a 5 year old again) and decided to cook up the sausage.  Which is what this post is about.

Looked a little like dried chiles. Smelled like dried chiles mixed with wet dog

According to the B team at Cappuccios, the best way to cook the liver sausage is in a pan with water, covered for about 20 minutes.

Every window was open in the apartment and I specifically timed it so that Kristi wouldn’t be home for 6 hours. Serious smells as this really got going

After 20 minutes, I took the lid off annnnnddd… it really didn’t look any different.  I was expecting them to hydrate and plump up but there was none of that, just a lot of funky looking water.

Like I said, that's some funky looking water. Wasn't expecting that. Maybe that color reflects all the good flavors that it was drawing out of the sausages that I couldn't find anywhere when I ate it

After an additional ten minutes, I figured they weren’t going to tenderize much further and pulled them out to trim and test.  First step was removing all of the ties and excess casing.

Honestly, my thought at this point was that it was looking reasonably edible, like charred kielbasa or blood sausage

I cut off a piece and tasted it.

Can't tell whether tis picture looks innocuous or extremely intimidating

When the sausage was described to me, I expected the liver to be pureed and mixed with fat and some sort of cornmeal, rice, or oatmeal.  Instead, its a coarse chopped pig liver with a few spices.  The first bite was rough since the pieces of liver were rubbery, the casing was thick, and it was pretty dry.  The second bite was a better but overall this was not the easy to eat meal I was expecting since I was hoping it would be like Italian scrapple.

At this point, I had no ideas.  I was very close to completely giving up and throwing away the sausage.  Instead, I made the remarkably intelligent decision to add some more ingredients to be ruined by the sausage.  Started it out with throwing red onion and red pepper into a hot pan and letting them caramelize for ten minutes before adding pieces of the sausage.

You can tell from certain pieces in this picture how ridiculously dry the sausage was

After some time cooking together, I added tomato sauce and a few tablespoons of capers.  Because I really like capers and figured the salty/vinegary flavor would help cover up some of the unpleasant strong flavors from the sausage.

I really love capers. Kristi had a caper intervention with me because I kept ruining meals she loved with them

I stirred and simmered this together for 10-15 minutes before shoveling (some of) it into a sub roll, adding a sprinkle (in Peter terms) of cheese, and melting it under the broiler for a couple minutes.

Combine melted cheese and tomato sauce on a sub roll and its always going to look edible. Even if it's hiding some evil

I settled in for my late lunch and started eating.  The first few bites were decent, the sauce had some flavors I like and the hints of liver flavor were good.  However, every second or third bite tasted gamey, irony, and like the intestinal tract.  I have had this experience before with the Italian Market.

This sub was purchased on the same January Italian Market trip with Kristi's parents. It barely even looks like a sandwich in this picture because it got so soggy on the thirty minute walk home

Tripe, beef tongue, and chiles braised together and thrown on a sub roll. Plus some peppers and onions.  The tongue was quite good, but the pieces of tripe tasted very poorly cleaned and like they hadn’t been boiled on their own before braising.  That sub taught me that the occasional bite tasting like a poop chute makes the other bites not worth it.

So, while I ate the whole tripe/tongue sandwich, I decided it was no longer worth it with the liver sausage and gave up a little over halfway through.  All remaining piece of this meal were thrown into a bag and put into the trash outside to help get the smell out of the apartment.  At least the nice folks at Vila Di Roma let me in 2 hours before they opened to pickup a to-go order of meatballs so the trip wasn’t a complete bust.

These are sooooo good. I have to buy them every time I visit the market

A short postscript: I went back to the market this past Saturday since we had friends in town visiting and hit Cappuccio’s to buy some of their edible sausages.  Saturday is the big day for them, so they had their best crew working.  When I asked about the liver sausage and explained my trouble cooking it, the guy behind the counter said cooking in olive oil over water is the way to go.  The sausage won’t ever plump up the way I expected, but the casing and hard chunks of liver will break down a bit.  Regardless, he said 90% of his customers just eat it in it’s dried form like its a Slim Jim, which we both agreed was disgusting.  I won’t be cooking this sausage again.

Nothing beats kicking off a food blog post with a quote from a Morgan Freeman character, but it was my attempt to forewarn that post was a little all over the place and only mildly edible.  ‘Til next time.