Anatomy of a Meatball

A good meatball begins as a tried-and-true recipe, either passed down through family lore, or traded with a neighbor, or copied out of a cookbook, catalog, website, or magazine.  It gets made, to exacting proportions, over and over, until the dish fits comfortably like a worn pair of jeans and your body and mind go on autopilot when you’re in the kitchen.

One day, based purely on a shortage of this ingredient, or an abundance of that, the meatball recipe gets a dash of improvisation, and evolves.  You add something that you hadn’t thought of adding before, or add a little less or more of something else, or substitute one ingredient for something else, and not only did you still end up with meatballs, they were better, because they were no longer someone else’s recipe, they were your meatballs.

Tuesday was spaghetti and meatballs night.  These are my meatballs.

In its most basic form, a meatball is a lightly blended combination of one or more types of meat, bread, some dairy, and various herbs and seasonings.  Beyond the meat, bread, and dairy, your greatest potential for customization comes in the seasonings.  What I am listing here is what I did on Tuesday night, which was largely dictated by what was on hand and what was growing in the garden – your mileage will definitely vary based on the unique riffs that you take off of the main tune.

Here’s my list of ingredients.  The recipe is highly scalable, so go crazy with your bad self.

1.5 lbs ground beef, 80% lean
1 slice bread
2 eggs
4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Bunch of herbs, 1 1/2 tsp salt, bunch of ground pepper

Olive oil for frying

Useful items – flexible spatula, high-sided frying pan, tongs

You Want The Sauce, Too?

28oz can of chopped or crushed tomatoes
More garlic, chopped
Oregano, or some other herb
Red wine

The Meat

Most recipes call for a blend of beef, pork, and veal, which contributes to a more delicately textured meatball than if you use just one kind.  Most times, I am too lazy or frugal to hunt for ground pork and veal, so I use beef exclusively.  The most important rule is this – the more fat in your meatball mix, the better the meatballs.  I tried using 95% lean beef one time, and the results were horrible – dry, crumbly, rubbery meatballs that absolutely refused to absorb any sauce.  I always use 80% lean; if you’re concerned about the fat content, realize that a lot of fat will be poured out and not end up in the finished dish.  Then again, if you are really worried about fat content, you shouldn’t really be eating beef anyway.


Rule of thumb, one egg per pound of meat, erring on the egg side.  So, I had a 1 1/2 pound pack of ground beef, so I used 2 eggs to make the meatballs.  Lightly beat the eggs with a fork before adding them to the mix.


Some recipes call for soaking bread in milk, others call for bread crumbs.  I don’t see a difference in the end results – I like to give a slice of bread a brief spin in the food processor to make it into crumbs.  So long as, in the end, your bread has formed a pasty mush with your liquid, you’ll be fine.  You could probably get away with canned crumbs provided they are not too old and dry.


I’ve seen recipes that use plain yogurt, and others that use milk.  Again, for reasons of expediency, I use milk because it’s what’s most commonly on hand.  I’ve used yogurt before, and you really can’t taste it in the end result, so the purpose of dairy is really as a moistening agent here.

The Extras

Here’s where you get to have fun and customize according to what you like, what’s on hand, or what seems to be a good idea at the time.  Beyond the usuals of salt and pepper, the variations of herbs and spices that you can add to a meatball recipe are really flexible.

My personal taste enjoys a lot of garlic, and a nice hit of grated parmesan, so, at least to me, those two add-ins are essential to my meatball recipe.  I generally chop about three or four garlic cloves into the mix, along with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grated parmesan.  When I went out to the garden, I snipped a handful of italian parsley, some thyme branches, and a bunch of oregano.  After rinsing these clippings, I roughly chopped the parsley and thyme and tossed them into the bowl with the rest of my dry ingredients (bread crumbs, salt, pepper, parmesan, garlic) and gave the whole thing a good toss.  I reserved the oregano for the sauce.

To this bowl, I then added about 1/4 cup of milk, and the two beaten eggs.  Using a whisk, I stirred the contents of the bowl until I had a uniform mixture, then folded in the ground meat using my hands.  At this point, I put the bowl into the fridge so that it could firm up a bit – if you’re pressed for time, you can skip the chilling.

Here’s the cooking part.  Take a large frying pan, preferably with tall sides (the meatballs will tend to splatter) and heat a small amount of olive oil on medium-high heat for about three minutes, then turn the pan so that the oil coats the bottom evenly.

Wet your hands.  Take a 1/4 cup measure and measure out 1/4 cup of meatball mix from the mound, then plop it into your palm and roll it up into a meatball.  The mixture should form a loose clump that holds together, but is not bouncy-bouncy hard.  As you complete each meatball, place it carefully into the pan.  You should be able to get a decent number of meatballs going in a ring around the edge of the pan, and a couple more in the center.  Don’t crowd them.

After a few minutes, take a flexible spatula and shimmy it under each meatball, to separate it from the pan (don’t use tongs, you’ll rip the meatballs in half).  After loosening the meatballs, use the tongs to carefully turn them to cook the other side.  If you’re a perfectionist, you can repeat this process twice more, but generally browning them on two sides is enough to keep them from falling apart.  I’ve never done this in a nonstick pan, so maybe using one would enable you to skip the flexible spatula.

As the meatballs progress to a more done state, you can begin pushing the initial batch to one side of the pan to finish cooking as you form and place more meatballs into the empty space.  Don’t be overly concerned about overcooking them – they are large enough, and contain enough fat, to not dry out.  As the first batch of meatballs seem done, you can transfer them to a paper towel with the tongs as you finish cooking the rest.

After all is said and done, you should now have a lovely batch of meatballs.  At this point, you can let them cool completely and refrigerate or freeze them, eat them as they are, or finish them in some tomato sauce, as I have done here.

For the tomato sauce, I chopped more garlic, and set up my oregano and found myself some leftover red wine.  I drained all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan and threw in the garlic, along with a little more olive oil.  When the garlic turned golden, but before it burned, I added the oregano and about a cup of red wine to the pan and scraped up all of the sticky meat leavings with a wooden spoon, then added a 28oz can of chopped tomatoes.  Let this come to a simmer, add the meatballs (turn them to coat evenly with sauce) and let the whole thing cook, covered, at a low simmer for about 35 minutes.

August 14, 2008   Comments

The Dry Run – Fresh Pasta with Duck Ragu

While I’d like to say that I’ve never attempted to make fresh pasta before, I know I’d be lying. I just can’t remember when I would have done it, though.

Here’s the deal – I have had, in our apartment before we moved, and now, in the basement, an Atlas brand manual pasta maker. It’s the kind that clamps to the side of a table and has a hand crank. I don’t remember ever using it, but the box has still got the price tag from Fortunoff on it, and when I opened it, inside was a yellowed, crunchy newspaper clipping about making your own pasta.

The clipping is dated from 1990.

So, eighteen years ago, I bought this pasta maker, probably tried it once, and then put it away. But now, I’m older, wiser, and more nimble with my kitchen skillz.

It’s time to give it another shot.

As you may remember, we have a dinner party coming up, and in fact, it’s been moved up to this Friday evening. I’ve already tried a short rib recipe, which I concluded was too heavy for this time of year. I finally did decide on a soup course, a pasta course, and then a main course, which, at this point, will probably be shrimp.

This is my dry run for the pasta course. The recipe for the pasta dough comes out of a recent issue of Saveur, and the duck ragu is from last month’s issue of Gourmet, which I normally would not have picked up except I was stuck in Houston airport and needed reading material.

As it turns out, making fresh pasta is really easy. It’s just flour (3 C), eggs (3, plus one yolk), a little bit of salt, and some water (1 T) and olive oil (1 T). Using a large plastic sheet that is designed for rolling out pie dough, I mound the flour in the middle, make a little space in the center, and throw everything else in there. Take a fork, whisk the eggs to break them up, and then incorporate the flour a little bit at a time, until your arm starts getting tired because the dough is getting stiff. Switch to your hands, knead the dough for about ten minutes, then wrap the ball in plastic wrap and leave it alone for 30 minutes. This would be the time where you clamp the pasta maker to your kitchen counter, and set out a number of sheets of parchment paper, which will serve as your resting areas for your pasta sheets. You can probably start the sauce at this point.

Every pasta recipe I’ve seen seems to follow the same pattern. Take your dough ball, cut it into four pieces, taking one and leaving the others wrapped, and form it into a rough, flat rectangle with your hands. With the rollers set to the widest setting, feed the dough through the rollers, fold into thirds like you were dropping it into the mail, and run it through again. Do this four or five times.

Set the rollers to their next thinnest setting, and run your dough through again. You don’t need to fold it anymore. Keep reducing the width of the rollers and running the dough through until you’re at the last, and thinnest, setting. Around three-quarters of the way through, you will wish that you had set aside more counter space for this project, since the pasta sheet will get progressively longer as it gets thinner – I keep a knife nearby and like to cut the sheet in half (remember what setting you were on when you did this) to keep things more manageable.

If the sheet is a little tacky, dust it with some flour – don’t worry about drying it out, the extra flour will come out in the cooking water. As you are done with each sheet, dust it on both sides with flour and, draping it over your forearms, set it down on parchment while you roll out the rest of the dough. I find the act of rolling pasta very relaxing and therapeutic, especially feeling the cool pasta sheets against my arms, and the cutting.

Oh yes, the cutting. Once you are done making all of your pasta sheets, take your first sheet (which will have dried a bit) and roll it up loosely, so you have something akin to a canneloni or egg roll. Using a sharp knife, cut the roll into ribbons (keep in mind that when you boil them, these noodles will get wider, so try for thin cuts). Sprinkle flour over the ribbons and work your fingers into them to separate them into noodles. Repeat with the other sheets, forming a loose pile of flour-dusted noodles on your parchment. This is a task that can easily be delegated to others, so if you are in a hurry you can get your sheets turned into noodles faster by aggregating the work.

I suppose this is the right time to talk about the duck ragu. You can find the recipe in Gourmet, but, in a nutshell, you take a duck breast and saute it, skin down, in butter and olive oil for six minutes, then two minutes on the other side. Set that aside, throw in some garlic, onion, half of a cup of red wine, rosemary, chicken stock, and chopped canned tomatoes. Stir it all up, put the duck breast back in, set the heat on low, covered, and get back to your noodles. After an hour, you take the duck breast out, chop up the whole thing, defat and reduce the sauce, and put the meat back in. It’s really easy and amazingly good.

Time to put it all together. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil – and realize that it will take about 3000% longer to boil the water than it will to actually use it to cook the noodles. Seriously. Once your water is boiling, throw some salt in there, and put your pile of noodles into a colander, and set the timer for one minute, thirty seconds. Really. One minute. Thirty seconds. Put your noodles into the water and start your timer – use something to stir the noodles so that they don’t stick to one another.

You now have exactly one minute and thirty seconds to put a small amount of hot duck ragu at the bottom of a bowl. There’s a story behind this, actually – the first time I had tried this recipe, my noodles stuck together as soon as I drained them (also, I cooked them for three minutes, so that may have had something to do with it) and when I put the ragu on top, it kind of sat there on top of a block of noodles (which is, actually, the picture that you see here). My neighbor recommended draining the noodles, but then immediately tossing them with the sauce, which helps to separate the noodles.

So, that’s what we’re doing here. When your timer gets close to the end, drain the noodles in a colander and immediately mix them with some of the duck ragu. The fat in the sauce will coat the noodles and keep them (mostly) separate. That’s it, you’re done.

Because of its simplicity and the ability to make the sauce ahead of time, this dish is most definitely going to comprise the pasta course for Friday night. Running it through two dry runs has enabled me to tweak the cooking time for the noodles, as well as learning the trick about tossing it with the sauce.

April 21, 2008   Comments