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Weekend Cooking: Building A Better Meatball

DAmicos meatball


Nash D'Amico's classic meatball. Photo by Chuck Cook

Posted: June 2, 2017 at 4:16 pm   /   by   /   comments (1)

For an item that sounds so simple—a rolled ball of ground meat often enhanced with spices, herbs, sauce or cheese—it’s easy to mess up. Mediocre versions abound: dense, dry, tough and flavorless.

Ideal meatballs have an ethereal quality to them. These are tender and moist. The meat has texture and holds together without falling apart. These globes of wonder—rarely found in the wild—have flavor on their own and aren’t entirely dependent on the sauce.

Here are the typical crimes against a treat favored by meat-eaters everywhere.

1. Over-processing the meat. In an eagerness to ensure seasonings are well distributed, often the meat often ends up in a mixer or food processor. Once there, it then gets beaten into stringy pulp. The result is an overly dense meatball with no texture. If you’re going to use a mixer, be careful. Use the paddle attachment and stop once the seasoning is adequately distributed.

Nash D'Amico

Nash D’Amico says the best way to distribute seasoning through ground meat is the old-fashioned method: use your hands. Photo by Phaedra Cook

2. Not distributing the seasoning thoroughly. The seasonings should still be distributed evenly but the ideal tools for family-sized batches aren’t machines: they’re at the end of your arms. D’Amico’s in Rice Village has long been serving meatballs regarded as some of the best in Houston. Owner Nash D’Amico says, “The most important thing in making meatballs with any recipe is to make sure all the ingredients are totally mixed in and evenly distributed. You need to get into the mixture with your hands and work at it to make sure everything is thoroughly blended. Using a spoon won’t work.” A nominal investment in some disposable kitchen gloves makes this process cleaner and more comfortable.

3. Not using enough fat. Fat is flavor. This is not the time to whip out the 97-percent ground beef—at least, not by itself. If you do use a low-fat meat, including ground turkey, make up the difference with a richer meat selection. Most of the fat renders out during cooking anyway. Of course, grinding your own meat gives you the most control over the fat-to-lean ratio. If you have a stand mixer that allows for attachments, this might be the excuse you needed to invest in the meat-grinding one.

4. Not lightening up the blend. Meat is heavy. Some of the most successful meatball recipes use an additional component to reduce density. Breadcrumbs are common, but one of the recipes below uses cooked risotto for great results.

With the “do nots” out of the way, here are some winning recipes to try.

D’Amico’s Italian Market Café Meatballs
Courtesy of owner Nash D’Amico
Makes 14-16 four-ounce meatballs

2 lbs. ground beef
2 whole eggs
½ cup green onions, chopped (about three stalks, white and green parts)
1 ½ cup Pecorino Romano Cheese, grated
1 ½ cup seasoned bread Crumbs
1 cup whole milk
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1 Tbsp fresh garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
1 tsp fresh basil, finely chopped
¼ tsp freshly ground Black Pepper
½ tsp coarse kosher Salt

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground beef, parsley, onion, oregano, basil, salt and bread crumbs. Mix well with your hands.

Lightly beat the eggs. Pour the milk and beaten eggs into the meat mixture. Mix well. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using hands, form mixture into balls, about 3-inches in diameter.

Spray a large baking sheet with non-stick spray. Place balls one-half inch apart. Bake in oven for about 30 minutes or until meatballs are a golden brown.

Dimitri Voutsinas

Chef Dimitri Voutsinas’ meatballs were recently deemed “best of the best” by attendees of a recent meatball competition at Damian’s in Houston. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Classic Sunday Supper Meatballs and Smoked Venison & Ricotta Meatballs In Agrodolce
Courtesy of Chef Dimitri Voutsinas, Emmaline

At the recent “Meatball Brawl” competition at Damian’s Cucina Italiana, chef Dimitri Voutsinas’ meatballs were voted by attendees as their favorite. Voutsinas actually served two kinds—classic and smoked venison versions. Recipes for both are included, but this is definitely the easier of the two. Both were served with a side of polenta.

Here are some additional tips from Voutsinas:

“I use grams for all my measurements because that is much more accurate and precise. Always measure ingredients, cut, dice and grate before you start. Mise en place, or weigh out and have all your ingredients in smaller dishes so you are just combining ingredients. You don’t want to be opening cans of tomato while your garlic is burning in the oil!

Chef Dimitri Voutsinas’ competition-winning meatballs. Foreground: a Classic Sunday Supper meatball. Background: Smoked Venison & Ricotta meatball. Photo by Phaedra Cook

Classic Sunday Supper Meatballs
Makes 20 three-inch, 80-gram balls

1.5 lbs ground pork
.5 lbs ground beef
175g heavy cream
280g ricotta cheese
1 whole egg
155g Pecorino cheese, grated
200g panko bread crumbs
4g salt
2g black pepper

Tomato Sauce
Makes about 3 quarts

3000g of canned crushed tomatoes (I use whole canned tomatoes and purée the sauce with an immersion blender or food mill halfway through cooking)
30g olive oil
10g garlic, chopped
3g chili flakes
13g salt
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 bunch basil
3 stems fresh oregano

Set broiler to high with an oven rack in the middle position. If you don’t have a broil setting, just set your oven temperature to 550 degrees Fahrenheit.

1. Start the sauce. Using butcher’s twine, tie together bay leaves, oregano and basil to make a bouquet garni (herb bouquet). Sauté the garlic in olive oil until very golden brown but NOT BURNED! Add the chili flakes, salt, and bouquet garni. Stir for 1 minute just to make the chili and herbs fragrant. Add all tomato. Careful when you add the tomato; it will spit and bubble. Mix well and let come to a simmer.

If using whole canned tomatoes, remove the bouquet garni and puree with an immersion blender or food mill. Return to a pot, place back on the fire and simmer for 30 minutes.

If you used the pureed canned tomato, just continue to cook at a low simmer for 30 minutes.

2. While your sauce is simmering, Combine panko bread crumbs, salt, pepper, egg, ricotta, pecorino and heavy cream in a bowl. Mix until well combined and let sit for 10 minutes so the bread crumbs absorb most of the liquid.

3. Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the meats and lightly mix until just barely combined.

4. Add all wet ingredients and paddle on medium speed, or mix by hand until well combined and there are no lumps of bread or cheese. Mix well but DO NOT OVERMIX.

5. Lightly coat an oven safe pan or dish with olive oil. Roll meat blend into 80-gram or two to three-inch balls and loosely place in the pan. Place pan on middle rack of oven. Cook just until very brown but not cooked through. Alternately, pan-fry the meatballs in about a half-inch of oil until nicely browned.

6. Place partially cooked meatballs in tomato sauce, cover, and simmer until balls are cooked through, about 30-40 minutes more or when the inside of a meatball measures 165 degrees when tested with a kitchen thermometer.

Serve with fresh chiffonade of basil and fresh grated Pecorino Romano cheese.

For The Ambitious Cook: Smoked Venison and Ricotta Meatballs In Agrodolce

This is the more challenging of Voutsinas’ two competition entries.(“Agrodolce,” by the way, is an Italian sweet and sour sauce.) For this recipe, Voutsinas used a “smoking gun,” which he says is, “a handheld device with a hose attachment that will burn wood dust and create cold smoke.” The device costs about $100 and is available from various retailers, including Polyscience, Bed Bath & Beyond and Williams Sonoma. The cheater method is to simply add some liquid smoke to the meat mixture. (Try a tablespoon to start. We prefer liquid smoke brands with no added sugar or coloring.)

This particular recipe uses ground venison and pork belly. You probably will not find these at a typical grocery store (perhaps Sprouts or Whole Foods, but call ahead first), so below is a list of places our esteemed readers say to check.

Ainsworth Meats, 32599 FM 2978, Magnolia
B&W Meat Company, 4801 North Shepherd
Central Market, 3815 Westheimer
Fisher Ham & Meat Company, Spring https://www.fisherhamandmeat.com/
Katerra Exotics, Katy https://www.katerraexotics.com/
Pete’s Fine Meats, 5505 Richmond

For Pork Belly or Jowls
Antie’s Meat Market & Deli, 1807 East Broadway, Ste 113, Pearland
Asian Markets, in general
The Barry Farm, Needville (Send them email.) thebarryfarm@yahoo.com
Central Market/H-E-B (maybe): A chef says, “H-E-B or Central Market should be able to special order a smoked jowl product.”
Harrison Farms at Eastside Farmers Market
H-Mart (two locations): According to a reader, “They have it sometimes.”
Revival Market
Richardson Farms at Memorial Villages Farmers Market

For Venison
Broken Arrow Ranch (order online)

Smoked Venison and Ricotta Meatballs In Agrodolce

Place the meat in a baking dish and spread out on the bottom. Cover with plastic wrap. Do the same to the ricotta separately. (The more surface area of the meat and ricotta there is, the better the smoke will be absorbed.) Open a small edge of the plastic wrap and insert the hose. Fill with as much smoke as possible. Remove the hose and replace the plastic wrap in order to tightly cover the dish. Repeat this step until you reach the amount of smoke flavor you prefer.

Venison Meatballs
Makes 20 three-inch, 80-gram balls

1 ½ lbs cold-smoked ground venison
½ lbs ground pork belly or pork jowls
173g heavy cream
280g smoked ricotta cheese
1 whole egg
175g Pecorino cheese, grated
175g panko bread crumbs
4g salt
2g black pepper

Agrodolce Sauce
Makes about 3 quarts

1000g diced canned tomato
294g red onion
168g yellow onion
640g red pepper
462g green pepper
252g pickled mustard seed
126g apple cider vinegar
85g sugar
4 stems fresh oregano finely chopped.
2g celery seed
2g turmeric

Pickled Mustard Seeds
150g rice vinegar
100g white wine vinegar
50g white sugar
100g yellow mustard seed

1. Combine the vinegars and sugar. Cook until sugar is dissolved. Add mustard seed and let simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed. Reserve for later

2. Medium-dice all vegetables and, working in batches, pulse in a food processor until finely chopped.

3. Put all chopped vegetables (including the juice released), pickled mustard seed, vinegar, sugar, celery seed, and turmeric into a pot deep enough to hold everything with room to spare.

4. Simmer on medium heat for about 30 minutes until slightly thickened and all flavors have melded. Add tomato and stir until well combined. Reduce heat and cover.

2. While your sauce is simmering, Combine panko breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, egg, smoked ricotta, pecorino and heavy cream in a bowl. Mix until well-combined and let sit for 10 minutes so that the breadcrumbs absorb most of the liquid.

3. Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the meats and lightly mix until just barely combined.

4. Add all wet ingredients and paddle on medium speed, or mix by hand until well-combined and there are no lumps of bread or cheese. Mix extremely well, but DO NOT OVERMIX.

5. Lightly coat an oven-safe pan or dish with olive oil, roll into 80 gram or 2- to 3-inch balls and loosely place in the pan and place on the middle rack of oven. Cook just until very brown but not cooked through. Alternately, you can pan-fry the meatballs in a pan in about a ½ inch of oil until nicely browned.

6. Place partially cooked meatballs in tomato sauce, cover, and simmer until balls are cooked through; about 30-40 minutes or when the inside of a meatball measures 165 degrees when tested with a kitchen thermometer.

Comments (1)

  • June 2, 2017 at 6:04 pm Maureen Hall

    Brandi Key makes amazingly soft and flavorful meatballs at Coppa!
    I was taught to use equal parts beef, pork and veal and I use quick oats instead of breadcrumbs!

Comments are closed.