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.

Cleanin’ Out My Cabinets: Grilled Pizza with Crawfish and Corn

Although summer is awesome, I appreciate the climate in Fall and Spring when it’s comfortable to hang outside in a jacket and I don’t sweat profusely every time I light the grill.  Fall also marks the return of pumpkin beer and pizza making season.  Pumpkin beers aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they are at their best when combined with a carefully poured Guinness for a Black’n Pump.

Five years ago when I first discovered Shipyard Pumpkinhead with Kwips, Con and Trisha I thought it was the most delicious beer I’d ever tasted.  I quickly OD’ed and can’t drink straight Pumpkinhead these days, but this combo is phenomenal

The Pumpkinhead spice and sweetness are cut by the Guinness and it generally becomes a nice, easy drinking beer for the fall, albeit ne that I will get sick of every year by November.  On the other hand, the pizza making is always a fall to spring favorite because I get to sample toppings combinations I’ve never come across in my storied pizza-eating career.  I just have to make them first.

This year, with my trusty Stealth Griller in the fold, I’ve started experimenting with grilled pizza.  The concept was first explained to me by my previous boss Anne-Marie to which I replied with a confused look and “you put the dough right on the grill?!?!” before shrugging my shoulders and chuckling like she was insane.  More recently, this has become a specialty of my friend Buschy who, despite his unrefined palate, was able to provide some great pointers for this endeavor.

I think everyone would agree that 40% of the battle for great pizza is a well thought out topping combination.  Or, whatever I have in the freezer and haven’t come up with a good way to use.  In this case, Louisiana crawfish.

I was terrified of why the crawfish was yellow despite supposedly only being cooked and cleaned, but apparently it was just an awful choice of semi-transparent packaging by Pat Huval.  Thankfully, he offers me four ways to contact him and  discuss, right on the package

Crawfish (or crayfish or crawdads or mudbugs) look like tiny fresh-water lobsters.  You pretty much only eat the tail which tastes a little more like crab than lobster but with the texture of shrimp.  Great stuff when done right.

The crawfish came courtesy of Dupee who has been Geologying (I believe that’s what his line of work is called) in Louisiana and flew back with 6 frozen one pound packages.  Looked like it was caught and packaged in a real backwoods operation, which made me more excited than scared for some reason.

With an idea of the types of ingredients that always compliment shellfish, I started out by sauteeing 6 cloves of chopped garlic in butter.  After a few minutes, and with the garlic starting to brown slightly around the edges, I added the thawed pound of crawfish.

The return of the action shot!  Kristi had no issues documenting this one, though it wasn’t the most exciting project for her.  Ghost hands because I move so fast!

After the crawfish and garlic cooked together for a bit I added crushed red pepper, a half cup of white wine, and a little salt.  Let that simmer for 10ish minutes to cook off most of the excess liquid before adding a handful of chopped parsley.

While the crawfish mixture simmered, I boiled three ears of corn for 5 minutes before rinsing them in cold water to stop the cook and cutting the kernels off the cobs. 

I slowly added the corn wanting to make sure I didn’t add too much before mumbling “eff it” and dumping the whole pile in.  ‘Course.

This combination works with pretty much every shellfish and always comes out delicious.  With a little cream and sherry instead of white wine this would make and excellent pasta sauce.  There’s no way I lose weight as long as I am writing this blog

WIth the topping complete, it was time to move on to the pizza.

I fired up the grill, brushed it as clean as I could get it, and preheated it on high.  While that came up to temperature, I cut a pizza dough in half, stretched it into shape and coated one side with salt, pepper and a generous amount of olive oil.

Great Scott!  Little time travel action going on here since I took pictures on two different nights. I could have probably gotten away with it but I am too honest to deceive you people.  Aside from the whole “I know what I am doing in the kitchen” deception

Before placing on the grill I rubbed the grate with a rag soaked in olive oil to reduce the chance of the sticking.  The dough went onto the grill oil side down before closing the lid and turning off the center burner.

After a few short minutes, I had this:

Loved seeing how bubbly the dough got.  Could also see I was letting it get a little overdone around the edges, but it was my first time through and always love a well charred pizza.  I only think about myself when I am cooking

The doughs came off the grill without sticking at all and were crusted enough that they stayed flat on the spatula despite minimal support.  Once inside, I coated the uncooked side of the dough with a little more olive oil then flipped it on the cookie sheet.

Pulled the time shifting switcheroo here.  This post is like Memento or something.  The first round was pretty dark when they came off and would make for a bummer of a picture (despite coming out great in the end), so I’ll use the picture from a few nights later when I got the technique down

The grilled side got a light covering of shredded mozzarella, then a good layer of the crawfish and corn mixture topped with a sprinkling of romano cheese.  Then back onto the grill that I left on high while I topped the pizza so it would stay hot.

Had to throw some burgers on too.  Need to establish a few years of fault free odd meals before my friends and family will trust me enough to not have some backup normal food.  I don’t blame them, I once fed them goat head and brains without telling them what it was!  Awful picture by the way

After 4-5 more minutes with the lid down and the heat lowered slightly to allow the cheese to melt, the pizzas came off and hit the cutting board.

Forgot to take a picture while they were both intact. I’m happy to say that this happened quickly, another few minutes and there would have only been a slice left

The most important part, the crust, was excellent.  Crispy but soft and bubbly inside with the flavors of the salt, pepper, and olive oil coating adding great seasoning.  The crawfish was much milder in flavor than the smell when I first opened the package and not fishy at all.  Because the corn and crawfish cooked together, the topping had a deliciously consistent shellfish/garlicky/winey/buttery flavor, but with the contrasting textures of the corn and crawfish in every bite.  The sprinkling of cheese on top added a lot of sharpness which I thought was excellent though Kristi found the cheese overwhelming until the slices cooled down a bit.

You will likely see a lot more grilled pizzas on here, the dough just comes out far better than a standard 500F oven.  Let’s see what I got next week.