Tuesday, January 4, 2011

MEATBALLS: A16


After our first foray into the world of meatballs with one of Jamie Oliver’s recipes, one of our Italian friends called us out on our inaugural choice. “No offense, Joe, but how much can you really expect from a spaghetti and meatballs recipe from someone whose last name is Oliver?”


It might seem odd for us to go with a guy whose last name is Appleman, then, but we’re hoping to get a pass. Nate Appleman made his name at San Francisco’s A16, cooking Southern Italian cuisine with a focus on the Campania region, and winning the James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2009. (Appleman left A16 for NYC to start up Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, and is now – surprisingly – working for Chipotle’s.)

A16 is known for its “Meatball Mondays,” the only night one can order them at the restaurant. At one point in time, the restaurant sold twice as many meatballs as any other item on its menu. Their cookbook, published in 2008 while Appleman was still at the helm, and winner of the International Association of Culinary Professional’s “Book of the Year” award in 2009, includes the recipe for the meatballs, based on a traditional Italian “polpette,” made with herbs, cheese, bread, eggs and meat. While we’ve never been to Meatball Monday at the restaurant, it seemed like a no-brainer to test it out.

The catch? It seems that, despite what one would assume is the definitive version in their book, differing versions have been printed elsewhere in print and online. Both the San Francisco Chronicle and Food & Wine have their versions online, though the former predates Appleman’s tenor as executive chef at A16, and the latter seems like a variation of the one in the book.

Here’s the recipe from the book:


10oz boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor
10 oz beef chuck, cut into 1 inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor
6 oz day-old country bread, torn into chunks and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor
2 oz pork fat, cut into 1 inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes and then finely chopped in a food processor
2 oz prosciutto, cut into 1 inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes and then finely chopped in a food processor
1 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried chile flakes
2/3 cup fresh ricotta, drained if necessary
3 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup whole milk
one 28oz can San Marzano tomatoes with juices
handful of fresh basil leaves
block of grana for grating
extra virgin olive oil for finishing

Notes: If you’re like me, you don’t have a meat grinder laying around the house and haven’t saved up enough to get a good food processor (trust me, a blender’s not going to help out this time). Luckily, most good butchers will grind different cuts for you, and if you ask nicely they’ll also give you their extra trimmings for free. This is a godsend, particularly if you want to avoid having to explain to your wife why it is you have to hunt down and buy pork fat.

When it comes to grinding pork fat and prosciutto on your own without a grinder or a food processor, have patience. We tried to finely chop both by hand, and freezing both helps immensely. If you’re stuck with this predicament as well, give a bit more freezing time, but only enough to firm them up for chopping. The fat will defrost quickly if handling by hand, so you’ll have to get this part done quickly.

Also, the availability of San Marzanos seems to vary from time to time (in Vancouver, at least), and while we were able to find San Marzano brand tomatoes, there wasn’t the usual DOP designation on the can. We also used high quality bread crumbs instead of making our own from day old bread, but more on that below.

1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Coat 2 rimmed baking sheets with olive oil.
2. In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, 1 tablespoon of salt, oregano, fennel seeds and chile flakes and mix with your hands just until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small nugget of the mixture, flatten it into a disk, and cook it in a small sauté pan. Taste it and adjust the seasoning of the mixture into 1½ inch balls each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.

Notes: This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen explicit instructions not to overwork ingredients while mixing, and so mixing by hand becomes extremely important in getting a feel for how far along you’re getting.

When you pour the bread in, it might seem…well, like it’s A LOT of bread. Appleman explains it in the book:
We use significantly more bread in the mix than is typically called for in classic Italian American recipes. Lured by the cheap price of meat, Italian immigrants in America began to make denser meatballs with more meat and less bread than used in the old country. But you get a much lighter texture with a higher percentage of bread in the mixture.

As we mentioned above, we used store-bought bread crumbs instead of making our own. We’ll discuss that more later, but lightness is the goal we’re striving for here, and so keep that in mind when you’re shaping the meatballs. When rolling them out, it seemed like 2 ounces were a lot of meat to pack into a 1½ inch sphere, and so we kept it down to approximately 1.5oz for each.

While it might seem a bit obvious, we’re giving props to A16 for reminding us to try a chunk of the mixture to gauge the seasoning at this stage instead of cursing ourselves for forgetting later. And depending on your tastes, you might have to add a bit more salt at this point. We did: a bit more than a teaspoon full.

4. Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are browned. Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 300F.
Notes: If you or your significant other were remotely worried about the full fat milk, the prosciutto, the ricotta or, ahem, the pork fat, here’s where you can win them back a bit, since the recipe calls for roasting instead of the usual frying. (If that doesn’t work, argue that the proportion of pork fat and prosciutto is relatively low…and ignore the full fat ricotta and milk for the timebeing.)

5. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plate. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes in a large bowl, don an apron, and then squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.

6. Pack the meatballs into 1 large roasting pan or 2 smaller ones. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil and braise for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.

Notes: As we said before, use your hands. It’ll give you a better sense of how much juice is inside each tomato, and also let you feel how small the pieces are. We’ve seen other blogs mention that one can of tomatoes wasn’t nearly enough, and note that the Food and Wine version of the recipe uses two whole cans. We stuck with just the one and had just enough liquid to cover the bottom third of the meat balls, but you’ll have to play it by ear.

Another thing you might notice is how sparse the braising liquid is in terms of ingredients. Tomatoes, salt: c’est ca. Other variations of the recipe, including the one printed in the San Francisco Chronicle (which is from Appleman’s predecessor, Christophe Hille), calls for onions, carrots, and white wine, among other things. Here’s your chance to mix things up and be inventive.

7. Pull the pans out of the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce. For each serving, ladle meatballs with some of the sauce into a warmed bowl. Grate grana over the top, drizzle with olive oil to finish, and serve immediately.
Notes: After a bit more than 1½ hours of braising, we didn’t notice the liquid being absorbed at all, and if anything the tomatoes had released extra liquid during the cooking time. So, gauge the length of braising more by how tender the meatballs are, instead of the amount of liquid absorbed (unless you’re looking at a drying pan).

Again, we were pretty surprised at how sparse the braising liquid is, but when you think of all that goes into the meatball mix, it’s not that surprising. If you’re eating the meatballs without pasta or bread, a more ingredient heavy sauce might not be absolute necessary, but here’s an opportunity to be inventive on your own, so long as the flavours of the braising liquid don’t flavour the meatballs in a detrimental way.

Experimentation sets the tone here. With all the variations of A16’s recipe, you get the sense that even they never settled on a definitive version without going through numerous iterations first. In the book, they admit as much, and they tell of previous versions with lamb, without beef, different braising liquids, broths, etc. The only thing they’ve noted is to stick with pork, and in particular pork shoulder, which is generally fattier and begets a more tender meatball.

The meatballs are pretty tasty, and the extra fat, milk and cheese really seemed to give them a more luscious feel than the leaner Jamie Oliver ones. However, they weren’t nearly as light as expected: despite packing less meat into each ball, they ended up being more dense than hoped. This might have something to deal with the breadcrumbs we used, as day old bread would likely have been more moist (keeping in mind that many people swear by soaking breadcrumbs in milk in advance to lighten meatballs or meatloaf).

In general, though, we were pretty delighted to how these turned out, and how easy they were to make. Truth be told, we were a bit intimidated by the hype surrounding A16’s meatballs, and were a bit concerned with how to live up to them. We’re not sure that we did, but we did give it a solid, fighting effort that we’re pleased with.

Joe.
the clutterer Web Developer

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