Although only a stray Schnauzer from the wrong side of the tracks would consider them romantic, meatballs, like so many mince dishes, do seem to occupy a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s their diminutive size, their simplicity, or maybe it’s just those damn Disney dogs, but I can’t think of many other dishes I’d rather curl up with on a dark, damp evening.
Just about every culture has its own take on the chopped and seasoned ball of meat. From the kofte, whose mighty dominion stretches from India to north Africa and the Balkans, to our very own faggots, it’s a concept with universal appeal. I can’t even begin to try and choose between Chinese lion’s head dumplings and Dutch gehaktbal so I won’t: this piece is devoted to the Italian-style meatball, often served with spaghetti and that Italian-American classic, “red sauce”. The principles, however, can be profitably applied elsewhere.
I’d always assumed that Lady and her Tramp were bolting down beef by the bins, but it turns out that Italian meatballs often come in more sophisticated flavours than your average can of chow. A combination of beef or veal and pork is common (although Covent Garden’s Da Polpo offers such exotica as duck and porcini and lamb and mint – for the humble meatball is having a bit of a Moment).
The meat aspect seems an important one to sort out before rolling any further down this particular path, so I start with the Ginger Pig Meat Book recipe, which, oddly enough, contains no pig of any persuasion, just minced beef.
The alternatives are all supplied by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose own River Cottage Meat Book recipe calls for an equal amount of beef and pork, but also suggests adding half as much veal as well if one so desires. Too late, I read the small print – instead of the mince I’ve already purchased, he recommends sausagemeat for the pork element, so I end up making three different versions of his meatballs: beef and pork mince, beef and pork sausagemeat, and beef, veal and pork mince.
We all agree that the beef-only version is disappointing; once fried, the meatballs have a powerful taste of dripping, but are otherwise rather bland. Pork adds a pleasant savoury dimension, but the sausagemeat is a step too far towards the peppery frikadellen-style meatball. The veal, despite claims online that it makes the best meatballs of all, is wasted here, its delicate flavour completely overpowered by the other two meats.
Binding and texture
Meat sorted, it’s time to address the problem I’ve always had with meatballs – keeping them together in the pan. Rather than serving up a collection of lumps and crumbs, I’m determined to find a binding that actually does its job in that department. The Ginger Pig and Hugh both use egg, but as Anna observes, their meatballs are rather dense, and, without a sauce, quite dry as well.
I have high hopes for Angela Hartnett’s recipe, from Cucina, which, as well as egg, includes breadcrumbs soaked in milk – “the secret of making light meatballs” apparently. I make one version as per her recipe, using both breadcrumbs and egg, and one with just breadcrumbs; both are utterly delicious, and much less heavy than my previous efforts, but those with egg are much wetter and more difficult to shape (which is presumably why she suggests shaping them with floury hands), and, if I’m nitpicking, have a slightly gloopy texture. The Silver Spoon, meanwhile, uses just a yolk in its recipe, but similarly I don’t see the point; if you don’t need it, leave it out.
A tip from across the pond: a poster on foodie forum egullet.com claims that “I once heard that grated zucchini lightens up meatballs and, once I tried it, I’ve never gone back. You can’t pick out the flavor in the finished meatball but it lends an ethereal, cloud like lightness to it.”
My boyfriend Richard is unconvinced when I email him excitedly about this development (“It would surely make them very slightly greener and more mushy?”) but as he knows nothing about such matters, I press ahead, using 50g of grated courgette to 300g meat in the absence of any more precise guidance. Sadly, although this has all the makings of an unlikely breakthrough, the meatballs are indeed greenish, and undeniably rather dense. She’s right though, you can’t taste the vegetable.
One extra ingredient I definitely can taste, however, are the anchovies in the Silver Spoon’s polpette alle acciughe. The two finely chopped little fish still manage to steal the show from the meat – much as I love them, their strident maritime flavour has no place in the homely meatball.
Garlic, I think, is equally unwelcome: as Richard eloquently observes “onioneyness is a good thing in a meatball”, and, in something so small, there’s no room for both of them. Ditto Angela and Hugh’s parmesan – I prefer to grate mine on top. I do allow myself one indulgence though: fennel seeds work wonderfully with pork, and, when caramelised, add a slight crunch to the cooked meatballs which makes me very happy indeed on the plate.
The Ginger Pig and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall both colour their meatballs in the pan, and then bake them in a tomato sauce, while Angela Hartnett simply adds the sauce to the pan of browned meatballs and simmers them on the hob until cooked through. A poster on egullet advocates baking them on a sheet, and then combining them with sauce when cooked, because this is more convenient and moreover adds no extra fat – and “I noticed long ago that slowly cooking meatballs in a tomato sauce (like cooking any other meat in a sauce) leaches out flavor, gelatins, etc”.
I don’t like them baked – they’re dry, and it seems an awful waste of electricity when they can be cooked so quickly on the hob – but, after frying some alone, and simmering others in a sauce, as Hartnett recommends, I can confirm that they do taste better cooked solo. If your sauce is good enough, it shouldn’t need all those delicious meat juices in any case.
Meatballs may be modish, but I think they’re best done simply: beef and pork, peppery parsley, sweet onion and the aromatic anise of fennel seeds, lightened with breadcrumbs and quick fried to give a deep brown, caramelised crust. If they were good enough for Lady and the Tramp …
6 tbsp milk
1 thick slice of white bread, crusts removed
300g minced beef
200g minced pork
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tsp fennel seeds, toasted (optional)
Olive oil, to fry
1. Pour the milk into a shallow bowl and add the bread. Leave to soak for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, put the other ingredients, except for the oil, into a large bowl, season well, and mix with your hands until thoroughly combined.
2. Mash the bread into a milky paste with a fork and then add it to meatball mixture and mix in well. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pan over a medium-high heat and fry 1 tsp of the mixture until cooked through. Allow to cool slightly, and then taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
3. Shape the mixture into balls – I like to make them the size of a chocolate truffle – add another 2 tbsp olive oil to the pan, and then fry the meatballs in batches until nicely caramelised all over, then turn down the heat and fry more gently until cooked through.
4. Serve with a tomato sauce and spaghetti or sautéed potatoes.
Are meatballs the world’s favourite food, or an Italian-American abomination best left to Carmela Soprano’s fridge? Which country makes the best version, and what do you serve them with?