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.

Shin Steak Osso Bucco

I love osso bucco and generally order it whenever I see it on a menu.  Actually, let’s say a reputable restaurant menu.  I learned that lesson a few years ago at a subpar Italian restaurant that clearly didn’t understand the importance of slow cooking the veal shanks leaving me with fat and chewiness.

Despite my love of the dish and braised meats in general, I’ve never cooked osso bucco myself.  This is likely due to my love of using cheap cuts and not being willing to spend the cash to purchase veal shanks.  When I noticed something labeled “shin steaks” at Stop and Shop, I recognized an opportunity.

I didn’t need to go to the butcher’s window to get an explanation on this; I figured it was basically an osso bucco cut from a full sized cow.  And, hey, the price is right for this cheap DB bastid!

According to Wikipedia (I was going to pretend I knew this before a crisis of conscience), osso bucco means “bone with a hole”.  While a shin steak from a full-sized cow qualifies as osso bucco, it still isn’t the traditional veal variety.  It’s basically a cross section slice of a beef shank.  So, lets call this version of the dish Awso Bucco (copyright Conor Russel inc, 2011) moving forward.

I started out by trimming the fat and outer connective tissue from the shin steaks then tying them up with kitchen twine to prevent them from falling apart.

That one on the far left was a total rip off at $2.86 due to the large bone. I’m not the Monopoly man over here!

The shin steaks were seasoned heavily with salt and pepper then went into Big Yellow with a little olive oil to brown for a bit.

To continue with the Monopoly references, the shin steak on the far left was like Baltic Ave.  You knew it would be fun and better than expected, but you’d be pissed if it was your only option

While the steaks browned, I threw an onion, a couple ribs of celery, a few peeled carrots, and 4 cloves of garlic in the food processor and gave them a good choppin’.

Saw this in one of the recipes I referenced. It made complete sense to me instead of chopping the vegetables small by hand.  You could see how much it would break down and make for a nice texture after braising

After about 7 or 8 minutes, I flipped the steaks and started browning the other side.

I was going to pretend the kitchen twine wasn’t noticeably missing from this picture but figured someone would point it out.  The steaks were too thin and I am horrible at tying knots, so the string had to go

After a few more minutes I pulled the shin steaks from the pot and dumped the contents of the food processor in to cook for a bit.

This type of heavily food processor-ed vegetables never looks right, but previous attempts include the delicious mushroom paste I made for venison tacos and my traditional ginger, garlic and onion base for fried rice

Since the food processor basically makes a garlic/onion/carrot/celery juice with pulp, the vegetables don’t really brown or caramelize, they just cook.  Not sure how to expound on that eloquently, but there are no visual signs that things are cooking once you put them in the pot.  After a few minutes you just shrug your shoulders and add some tomatoes.

Went with a 14oz can of diced tomatoes and a few spoonfuls of tomato paste. Deprived you of a self-taken pour shot here, but I think you’ll survive

Then a bottle of white wine once the tomatoes have cooked with the vegetables for five minutes.

Now that’s a pour shot!  Charles Shaw Sauvignon Blanc, ‘course

Once the braising liquid reduced a bit over high heat, I threw in a couple bay leaves and strategically placed the shin steaks back in the pot.

By strategically placed, I just mean that I made sure they weren’t pressed against each other. I was the middle school chaperone to this Awso Bucco dance

Lid went on and Big Yellow headed into the oven for three hours at 300F, checking occasionally to make sure that too much liquid hadn’t cooked off.  After the full three hours, you should have something that looks like this:

Looked good, but wanted to reduce that liquid a little bit

Since there was a little excess liquid, I took the lid off and cooked uncovered for another 30 minutes.  Which was a perfect cue to start the mushroom and corn risotto I chose to pair with the Awso instead of polenta.

I like polenta when it’s crispy fried in cake form, but I wouldn’t do that well so I decided to go with risotto for bringing in the sweet corn flavor

After 30 minutes uncovered, the liquid had mostly cooked off, and we had a decent looking pot of braised loveliness.

Kristi was game for eating this, but I was already looking at the marrow in her portion knowing she wouldn’t touch it

Very simple meal to plate; pile of risotto, then the Awso and a big spoonful of the sauce from the pot over everything.

That is a perfect plate of 20-degree-day dinner. Best enjoyed with a giant glass of red wine and a fireplace

The sauce was rich and tasted strongly of white wine in very a good way.  There’s just something phenomenal about slow cooked sauce with tomatoes, mirepoix, and white wine.  The Awso was the perfect texture; not quite fall-apart stew meat, but insanely tender and delicious.  The sweet risotto was a solid counterpoint to the richness of the Awso, though the corn got a little sticky in the cooking process.

With all of my marrow talkin’, you didn’t think I’d actually forget to mention it?

Big bone, big chunk of marrow. See! That MBA education made me more smarter! Correction: more smarters

The marrow was good, had all the best flavors from the sauce and a melt in your mouth texture.  Wish I had made some bread to smear it on.

Next week we’ll be talking pies.