Meatballs have been occupying my mind for months. I’m not quite sure why. We were a spaghetti and meat sauce house, not meatballs. I don’t even remember having spaghetti and meatballs at a restaurant or friend’s house. I’ve never had the ones at Ikea. They weren’t a crockpot party staple. I feel my eating of meatballs is much more recent, within the last five years or so. I’ve never felt meatball-averse, just unfortunate luck, I suppose. I think this winter’s occupation is due to watching some boys sitting next to me tear into their meatball parm heroes the last time I was at Parm.
My meat craving is, as mentioned, a slow burn. Giving me time lots of time to obsess has less to do with a quest for perfection and more to do with creating ample desire. I am a carnivore on average once a week, so building to a climax is fun for me. My meatball craving coincided nicely with my resolution to learn more cooking techniques. And there was no shortage of winter-from-hell weekends to choose from to squirrel away in the comfort of an apartment with tropical radiator heating and attempt such a project. My research into recipes hit right around the Superbowl (crockpot party staple) AND Serious Eats’ meatball week, so there was plenty of meatball material to sift through. I remembered I had once seen something by Rachel Roddy about a one pot/two meal idea with meatballs that stuck. Then there was that post by The Wednesday Chef. And then Melissa Clark got in on the parmigiana recipes. Bases were covered.
I liked Rachel’s idea of getting more than one meal out of the meatballs, and not because I’m a fan of leftovers. Because I’m anything but. This would be a secondary learning opportunity. Why don’t you like leftovers? So many ask. They’re so good! Economical! So many things are better the next day! On that last point, I agree. But for such things, I consider them make-ahead. Not leftovers. The act of reheating changes most things in my opinion, and not in a good way. The real reason I don’t like leftovers is because that is all there was in my house for most of the childhood and adolescence that I remember. Most of us had working moms in the 80s, that’s not exceptional to my story, but my mother transitioned to a job where her work carried through the dinner hour. Most weeknights she wasn’t home until post-8 pm. In my bubble, this was exceptional. Add to that a dad who didn’t cook, and our fridge was full of, (I’m currently laughing) make-ahead meals and leftovers for us to reheat in the microwave. For me, it got old almost immediately, so I transitioned to assembling my own dinners. The only leftovers I enjoy now are from the big food holidays. Otherwise, it is a dish I never eat. A doggy bag is something I never carry. I prefer freshly toasted pieces of bread over yesterday’s x, y, z.
But, I don’t like wasting ingredients that I’ve spent money on (I can be cheap), and I knew it would be impossible to make just a few meatballs and a small portion of sauce for one meal. I also wanted to eat meatballs relatively unadorned (like with spaghetti) to get a sense of how well I might have made them and in a big fat sandwich. I would have to eat leftovers. But I would gussy them up enough to find bliss.
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons for me in making meatballs is getting comfortable touching raw meat. This is a primary reason for why I don’t cook meat often. Being a germaphobe, I fear that my small kitchen becomes a site of contamination no matter how diligent I am. It’s easier for me just to avoid it. Which then just feeds the vicious circle of not being comfortable cooking it. My workaround is to ask the butcher for a pair of their latex gloves.
I followed the newest Serious Eats recipe but did not get super nerdy with the additions of gelatin and stock. I halved the recipe and got the expected five large balls from it. I had no problems except that I think I probably could have diced my onion and garlic finer. I can be very lazy when it comes to precise knife skills. Oh, and I forgot the pancetta. After browning under the broiler, they finished cooking in a sauce from Melissa Clark, which I was very happy with and would return to again if I needed a basic tomato sauce.
Eating them atop spaghetti allowed me to gauge if they were moist enough without the forgotten pork fat (the gelatin is considered optional), and I would say yes. Dry is not a word I would use to describe them. They had that great bit of give from the crust when you cut through with your fork. I think I would miss that in the recipes I read that called for poaching balls in a sauce. I am not adept enough in texture to know if I overhandled them during forming, though.
As nice as that bowl was, the meatball parm hero was better. How could it not have been? I again went to Serious Eats for the construction, and the only change I made was adding basil. Oh, and I made my own semolina hero roll. It was a very serious weekend of hibernation. With the hero planned as a Sunday night meal, I kind of screwed myself in being able to buy a fresh roll. Most of the good Italian bakeries in the city close early on Sundays or are not open at all. A baguette would just not do if I was going to do something great with my leftovers. I wanted some authenticity. I scaled down a King Arthur recipe, and despite not doing a very good job at shaping the little loaf, it worked perfectly. Serious Eats’ suggestion to cut the large balls in half was a good one, as it prevented whole balls from falling out when taking a bite. That’s not to say there was no mess. But unlike the boys at Parm, I had no one see me get sauce on my chin.