Monday, September 28, 2015

Comfort Food for new parents

Golden yet not browned is the ideal way your meatballs should look.
When my friend, Erin, mentioned she was going over to her close friends' house to see their new baby, I instantly had a reason to cook!  What better gift for parents of a newborn than a home cooked meal?  Besides sleep deprivation and body readjustments, what mother (or father) would want to spend precious moments away from gazing at their new little addition to whip up  dinner?  Not to mention, it's J & K's 2nd child, and their other baby bird needs to eat!  Take-out can be good and quick and delivered.  But nothing replaces something homey from a friend's kitchen.

Because it was still 90 degrees and I felt the need to have the oven on (!), I chose to make Spaghetti and Meatballs.  There is something about meatballs that simply makes me happy.  Maybe it's just that: they're simple.  Not much needs to be done to take average ground beef (and pork or lamb) and elevate it to delicious, savory, tender juicy morsels.  In fact, I order them every time I see them when I'm out.  Sometimes though,  they are tough and dry - and that makes me wonder about the person behind that proverbial kitchen door.  There's a trick to a nice, tender, meatball:  breadcrumbs.   More than just breadcrumbs, you have to soak them in milk (or any unsweetened milk substitute). Combined with just the right proportion herbs, spices, meat of course, and some heartfelt kneading, and you will have yourself the perfect scrumptious few seconds of happiness (because that's all it takes to wolf one or two down).  A thing about breadcrumbs:  use anything for breadcrumbs.  I recently used old stale brioche buns, left out in paper bag until hockey puck hard, then threw them into the food processor until pulverized.  I keep these in an airtight container or ziplock in the freezer.

The other thing about meatballs that I like:  They are surprisingly versatile and can be adapted to a variety of cooking cultures.  Think Japanese:   Ground chicken with panko breadcrumbs, hijiki seaweed, green onions and a little shoyu floating in a nice dashi broth with a dot of sesame oil; or Middle Eastern with sumac, cardomom, cumin, and smoky paprika - serve that with some yogurt marinated cucumbers and...  Since the texture is pretty much worked out, you can try a variety of spice mixes and not go wrong.  Use your instincts.

So here's a "recipe" for Italian style meatballs.  I like to use good Italian sausage from my local grocer and mix it half and half with ground beef.  Even better if it is spicy sausage to give that extra kick (depending on who's eating of course).  The proportion of breadcrumbs is usually about 1/3 breadcrumbs, 2/3 meat.  I have used up to half breadcrumbs at times to stretch the meat.   Place breadcrumbs in a bowl and stir in enough milk to make them pretty wet.  In a few minutes, they will soak up the milk and the mixture should be like a thick paste. (see photo)

Preheat the oven to 350 F (can be a little cooler at 325 but not hotter than 350)
Combine the meat and breadcrumbs in the following proportions:   2/3 meat to 1/3 (wet) breadcrumbs.  For this recipe, I used 1/2 pound each of ground beef and italian sausage.Add the well-minced fresh and dried herbs, spices and salt.
I usually have oregano, thyme and rosemary growing in my yard most of the year.  Because dried herbs are stronger than fresh, I add them as well to beef up the flavor profile.  I also add nutmeg to mine, as I got this idea from a chef friend, and like the way it gives the meat a solid undercurrent of flavor.
Once the ingredients are well mixed (did I mention the best way to do this is with your hands?),  you will want to sample the spice mixture to adjust salt, heat and herbal levels to your liking.  I do this by heating a small skillet on medium and flattening a small piece of the mixture (to expedite the cooking process) - quarter size or so - cook well on both sides - taste that bad boy and make adjustments.  You want the flavor to be bold so that they hold their own in tomato sauce, alongside pesto, or just by themselves (my favorite way) I make extra because at least 4 or 5 make it into my mouth without making their way into the dish I'm actually cooking!

Once they are seasoned and ready to be cooked, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Pinch off a golf ball portion of meat mixture.  Roll between your hands into a ball (not rocket science here as I'm sure you played with clay at some point in your life).  Don't worry about your hands getting sticky and greasy.  Warm water and soap will take care of that after you are done.

Place into preheated oven for 18-20 minutes until cooked through but not necessarily browned or crispy (this is yet another chance to sample to make sure they are done).  The center should be void of pink (especially if you are using pork sausage). (see photo at top of page)

Add your favorite pasta sauce (I actually just spruced up a jar of Whole Foods Marinara sauce with a few extra herbs and a pinch of sugar), some shredded parmesan cheese and you are set!
For an easy to go container, I lined a small box with plastic and then foil so I wouldn't have any serving dishes to retrieve.

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