Monday, December 13, 2010

MEATBALLS: THE LAZY START



Comfort food abounds at this time of year, and there’s little more comforting than a plate of good ol’ spaghetti and meatballs. There’s something about the latter that elevates the former into a different category of nostalgia, as though one can roll an entire childhood of memories into a glob of protein, and when done right they can be transformative.

As with any dish that’s been rendered ubiquitous, there’s more than a million ways to murder a proper meatball, and so we thought we’d test drive a few recipes to find a definitive way to make the perfect spaghetti and meatballs. (And by definitive, we mean completely subjective: a plate spaghetti and meatballs derives its perfection from context, and if your grandma made your favourite plate of meatballs ever, well, there’s the perfection we all seek.)

We started with the culinary everyman, Jamie Oliver. Why? Apart from Julia Child, there’s arguably no one more commonplace as Jamie – we’re all invited to be on first names basis with the guy – the proverbial chef-next-door that we’d all consider having a beer with (which is likely why he is also the second highest selling author in Britain, first place having gone to JK Rowling). His recipes are more loose guidelines than rigid criteria, and if there’s a less intimidating place to start experimenting with a classic dish, we can’t think of it.

After looking at a few different recipes, the other thing we noticed about Jamie Oliver’s is the relative brevity of the cooking time involved. There’s no hours of braising to sit through here, and the whole process doesn’t take much more than an hour (discounting the amount of time it takes for a huge pot of water to boil). The ingredients are also easy to come by: there’s no special cuts of meat or exotic herbs and spices necessary.



Here’s the recipe (taken from Jamie’s Food Revolution):

4 sprigs of fresh rosemary
12 cream or plain crackers (go with salteens on this one)
2 heaped teaspoons of Dijon mustard
1 pound ground beef, pork or a mixture of the two
1 heaped tablespoon dried oregano
1 large egg
a small bunch of fresh basil
1 medium onion
2 cloves garlic
½ a fresh or dried red chile pepper
2 x 14oz cans of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
spaghetti
olive oil
sea salt and pepper
Parmesan cheese for grating


1. Making the meatballs. Pick the rosemary leaves off the woody stalks and finely chop them. Wrap the crackers in a kitchen towel and smash up until fine, breaking up any big bits with your hands. Add to a mixing bowl with mustard, ground meat, chopped rosemary and oregano. Crack in the egg and add a good pinch of salt and pepper. With clean hands, scrunch and mix up well. Divide into 4 large balls. With wet hands, divide each ball into six and roll into little meatballs – you should end up with 24. Drizzle them with olive oil and jiggle them about so they all get coated. Put them on a plate, cover and place in refrigerator until needed.
Notes: Since we’re in store for a series of holiday dinners over the next few weeks, we went with a half-pound of extra lean ground beef, but mixed that with a half-pound of lean ground pork for a little bit of fat to keep things moist. With that said, we also went with a bit more mustard to add a bit of extra moisture, closer to 1.5 tablespoons than the mere two teaspoons. When you’re chopping up the rosemary, you’ve got to spend extra time to get it coarse-salt-fine, if possible, as rosemary leaves can be a bit stiff to chew; the same goes for crushing the crackers, which we did with a pestle.  We're not entirely sure why he's chosen to go with crackers instead of breadcrumbs, but I'm going to assume that you'll know the type of cracker will have an impact on the resulting flavours involved.  Mixing everything by hand gives you a good feel for how well the ingredients have mixed and how the texture of the meat going forward, so don’t cop out with utensils. When rolling into meatballs, don’t pack them tightly, unless meat rocks are your thing. Keep’em loose, and slightly smaller than a golf ball. No giant softballs here, okay?


2. Cooking the pasta, meatballs and sauce. Pick the basil leaves, keeping any smaller ones to one side for later. Peel and finely chop the onion and the garlic. Finely slice the chile. Put a large pan of salted water on to boil. Next, heat a large frying pan on medium heat and add 2 lugs of olive oil. Add your onion to the frying pan and stir around for 7 minutes or until softened and lightly golden. Then add your garlic and chile, and as soon as they start to get some colour, add the large basil leaves. Add the tomatoes and the balsamic vinegar. Bring to the boil and season to taste. Meanwhile, heat another large frying pan and add a lug of olive oil and your meatballs. Stir them around and cook for 8 -10 minutes until golden (check they’re cooked by opening one up. There should be no sign of pink. Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer until the past is ready, then remove from the heat. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package instructions.
Notes: If there’s one lesson we’ve learnt over the years, it’s the virtue of patience when cooking onions. When the recipe calls for onions to be softened, don’t rush it, as you’ll be losing a lot of flavour that the sauce will ultimately depend on. This is abundantly true for Jamie Oliver’s “one minute” tomato sauce, which really doesn’t cook for long enough to develop any real depth of flavour, relying instead on the balsamic vinegar. With that said, we put in only a dash of crushed chilis (including the seeds) instead of a whole one, just enough for a hint of heat but not enough to set the house on fire. We also went with a 28oz can of whole DOP San Marzano tomatoes (just crush them by hand), which are grown from the volcanic soil of the Sarnese Nocerino region of Italy, are generally fleshier, sweeter and less acidic, which was helpful considering the lack of time and cooking involved in the recipe. When it comes to cooking the meatballs, I’m assuming that Jamie Oliver wants to avoid any of the fat from rendering into the sauce, and so you’ll want to cook them until they’re just cooked through: any longer and they’ll overcook in the sauce.

3. Serving it up: Saving some of the cooking water, drain the pasta in a colander. Return the pasta to the pan. Spoon half the tomato sauce into the pasta, adding a little splash of your reserved water to loosen. Serve on a large platter or in separate bowls, with the rest of the sauce and meatballs on top. Sprinkle over the small basil leaves and some grated Parmesan.
Notes: We’re assuming you know this already, but tossing the pasta in the sauce – without rinsing it under cold water – helps to flavour the pasta further and the sauce to cling to the touch of extra starch coating the pasta. If done while the pasta is still hot, you avoid having the starch from crystallizing and becoming insoluble, and increase the amount of sauce the spaghetti can absorb.



Overall, we were pretty pleased with the meatballs this recipe produced, which ended up tasting a bit like small, compact little sausages without the casing. Since the meatballs rely heavily on the mustard and rosemary for flavour instead of any long braising process, the extra mustard really goes a long way, and so you’ll want to vary it around 1 tablespoon’s worth; two teaspoons just doesn’t seem quite enough. As for the sauce, I suppose there’s benefit in being able to get it done in a matter of minutes, but there’s really nothing spectacular about it and not a huge depth of flavour. We can’t really fault Jamie Oliver for this: he’s really developed the recipe for the everyday family in an effort to show them quick and easy ways to eat healthier, and so the recipe isn’t really meant for obsessive compulsive bloggers with a digital soapbox at their disposal. But all in all, there’s a lot of ragtag charm in this recipe, and it provides more than a solid place to start.

Joe.
the clutterer Web Developer

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