Meatball Mania

Meatballs have gone from humble home-cooking staple to the star of the dinner table—and their versatility makes them the perfect partner for a variety of wines.

For an update on the world of meatballs circa 2011, you could do worse than drop by The Meatball Shop in Manhattan’s East Village for the “Daily Ball,” possibly the Reuben Balls with Thousand Island dressing.

Or, if you’re not in the neighborhood, click on the Web site and meet the Meatball Smash, two meatballs mashed on a brioche bun, and the daintier Meatball Slider, billed giddily as “three bites of sheer ecstasy, then they’re gone forever.” In another dish, called Everything But The Kitchen Sink Salad, meatballs are plopped on the chef’s selection of greenmarket veggies and lettuces—this is presumably for those on a diet.

Meatballs have rolled right into the spotlight. For reasons that won’t be explored here, they tend to be a guy chef kind of thing, but there’s often a grandmother in the picture.

“Everybody has some kind of good memory associated with meatballs,” says Chef Greg Hardesty of Recess in Indianapolis. “Every culture has a meatball and a sandwich made from a meatball, whether it’s wrapped in pita bread or a grape leaf.”

If you think about it, Hardesty makes a good point. There are Swedish meatballs in creamy gravy, spicy goat meat kofta from India, Lebanese ground beef and wheat bulgur kibbeh in yogurt-garlic sauce, oversized lion’s head pork meatballs (a Shanghai dish cooked with greens in a clay pot), tiny meatballs in a Neapolitan wedding soup, or fat ones floating in a brothy cilantro-scented Vietnamese pho. Meatballs happen to be hot right now, but they’re too good and too steeped in culinary tradition to ever go out of style.

The phenomenon is due in part to meatballs’ role as a practical (and delicious) way to use up humble meat scraps and fat. Perhaps meatballs deserve to share in the old wisecrack about sausage making and politics—the less you know about the process, the more you respect it. These days, however, discriminating chefs and cooks take pride in their meatball grind.

“The idea with the nose-to-tail movement is to select an animal that has been raised properly and then use it all,” says Hardesty. Chefs boast about the pedigree of the beef, lamb or pork used in their meatballs, while makers of frozen gourmet meatballs tout “all-natural” and additive-free ingredients.

Not surprisingly, red wines are recommended most often to stand up to the fat and full flavors of meatballs—Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Syrah are highly recommended to pair with the recipes that follow. At the Absinthe Brasserie and Bar in San Francisco, Executive Chef Adam Keough serves spicy rabbit meatballs that Wine Director Ian Becker recommends pairing with Montesecondo 2007 Chianti Classico: “The rustic tannins, savory red fruit tones and vibrant acidity of this very traditional Chianti Classico create a classic pairing,” he says.

At Prime Italian in Miami, softball-sized Kobe meatballs stuffed with sausage and ricotta find a perfect match in the EnRoute 2009 Les Pommiers Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. The wine’s elegant flavor and soft hints of cherry—not too big or bold—bring together the flavors of the dish.

White wines can come into play—but only when the “meat” is foregone. At Recess in Indianapolis, Hardesty serves ginger- and garlic-accented baby octopus meatballs with creamy hoisin vinaigrette, with which he suggests a white Burgundy, specifically Daniel Barraud 2008 La Verchère Vieilles Vignes Pouilly-Fuissé. “It has a nice minerality and citrus notes, just the right foil for the bold, fatty flavor of the octopus balls,” he says. Another favorite choice is Weingut Allram 2008 Strasser Gaisberg Riesling from Austria.

Start your own meatball medley, or expand your traditional repertoire with these great recipes for the meat lovers and vegetarians in your life.

Three Steps to Fabulous Meatballs

We’ve all had the dry, dense meatball that sits like a brick in your stomach. And, with luck, you’ve had meltingly voluptuous meatballs, too. Some tricks from the pros for turning out masterful meatballs:

Use high-quality meat. The Meatball Shop’s Web site lists sources of naturally raised beef, heritage pork and other meats used in the Manhattan restaurant’s balls. For your own, seek out top-drawer ground meat, ask the butcher to do a custom grind, or grind your own mix (see recipe).

The right ratio. The meat to lipid ratio must be balanced. The lipids need to moisturize and flavor the meatballs without overpowering and making the mix taste greasy,” says José Navarro, executive chef of d.vino Italian Food & Wine Bar at Monte Resort & Casino, Las Vegas. In other words, use enough fat, but not too much. For Chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche in Louisville, Kentucky, two parts lean to one part fat is the right formula: “Sometimes I add a little water, citrus juice or vinegar for moisture.”

Easy on other ingredients. “The binder for the meatballs should be just that— not a filler. We use baguettes soaked in milk and whole eggs,” says Navarro. Similarly, take care not to overdo seasonings such as herbs, spices, garlic and onion. It’s a good idea to fry a small patty from the seasoned mixture, taste and adjust seasoning before cooking the whole batch. 

Freshly Ground Beef for Meatballs

Adapted from Toni Lydecker’s Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal (Lake Isle Press, 2011).

12 ounces good-quality beef chuck in one piece
2 to 3 ounces solid beef or pork-rib fat*

Cut the beef into 1-inch pieces and the fat into ½-inch pieces. Place one-third of the beef and fat in a food processor container. Pulse about 20 times until chopped medium fine, about 20 times. With a plastic spatula, transfer the ground mixture to a bowl. Process the remaining two batches in the same way. Use in the meatball recipe of your choice.* Ask the butcher to supply you with the fat—most likely, it will be free.

Beefy Meat Pillows Baked in Tomato Sauce

Adapted from a recipe by David DiBari, chef-owner of The Cookery, Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Along with great beef, the starting point for these Beefy Meat Pillows was Chef DiBari’s memory of his grandmother’s meatballs: “The lightest and most flavorful I’ve ever had,” he says. Two meatballs snuggle side by side under a blanket of spicy tomato sauce in a small casserole.

6 ounces brioche or challah bread, or country-style white bread
¾ cup milk
1 bunch flat-leaf parsley (de-stem)
2 or 3 cloves garlic
4 eggs
2 pounds best-quality ground beef (such as top-grade chuck, brisket or a custom blend of brisket and short ribs)
1 ½ cups grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano
1 ½ cups chicken broth
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt or kosher salt
3 cups homemade or prepared tomato sauce

Cut off bread crusts and slice bread in large cubes. Combine in a bowl with milk, turning cubes to moisten. While bread is soaking, place parsley leaves (2-3 cups) in a food processor. Roughly chop garlic and add to mix. Pulse until parsley and garlic are uniformly chopped. Add eggs and pulse briefly to blend.

Squeeze excess moisture from bread cubes, discarding liquid. Place bread in a large bowl and crumble beef into it. Add cheese, broth and pepper. Mix with hands until well blended. Because cheese and broth contain sodium, you may not need to add more salt.

To test, pull off a small piece of the mixture and fry in a sauté pan; taste and add salt to entire mixture if needed.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread tomato sauce over the bottom of a rectangular baking pan. The meatball mixture will be too wet to form into spherical balls. Instead, shape them like footballs by scooping up about ¾ cup of the mixture and, holding your hands like cradles, turn meat from one to the other until it holds its shape. Gently drop meatball into the sauce. Continue with the remaining mixture, separating the meatballs in the pan.

Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Cook until meatballs are cooked through and sauce is bubbly, about 40 minutes. (Meatballs will not be deeply browned—that’s O.K.)

To Serve: Using a large spoon, place 2 meatballs side by side on each of 6 plates. Spoon some of reduced tomato sauce over meatballs. Serves 6 (makes 12 meatballs).

Wine Recommendation: Chef DiBari recommends a Tuscan Sangiovese-based blend such as Rodano 2009 Fattoria Poggialupi IGT. “A Chianti-style wine is always a good match for meat in tomato sauce—dry, with the big, bold fruit that’s needed,” he says.

Lamb Chorizo Albóndigas with Fresh Herb Chimichurri

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Anthony Lamas of Seviche, Louisville, Kentucky

1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons chili powder*
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons pressed or finely chopped garlic
½ teaspoon hot ground red pepper
2 pounds ground lamb shoulder or leg (2 parts lean to 1 part fat)
2 large eggs
¼ cup dried or fresh bread crumbs
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
cup fresh herb chimichurri (recipe follows)
* Recipe was tested with a blend containing “pure chili powder,” paprika, oregano, cumin, black pepper, oregano and no added salt.

To Prepare the Albóndigas: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Combine salt, chili powder, smoked paprika, garlic and red pepper in a small bowl and mix well. Place ground lamb in a medium bowl and add eggs, bread crumbs, lemon zest, juice and spice blend. Mix well with your hands. Gently roll meatballs (about 2 ounces each) between hands and arrange 2 inches apart on 2 baking sheets. Bake on a middle rack until browned and cooked through, about 12 minutes. Serve with chimichurri sauce. Serves 5-6 (makes about 16 meatballs).

For the Fresh Herb Chimichurri:
2 cups (total) mint, parsley and cilantro leaves (or equal parts mint and parsley)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon pressed or finely
chopped garlic
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

In a food processor bowl, combine all ingredients and process until smooth. Makes cup.

Wine Recommendation: Chef Lamas recommends the earthy tones of a Shiraz or Pinot Noir with the lamb balls. Two worthy ones from South America are Chile’s Luca Laborde Double Select Syrah and any of Bodega Chacra’s Pinot Noirs from Argentina’s Río Negro Valley.

Mushroom-Spinach Tofu Balls

Adapted from a recipe by Chef Brandon Boudet of Dominick’s in West Hollywood, California.

At Dominick’s, Chef Boudet offers a “meatball flight” that brings together three tastes on one plate. A recent trio consisted of grilled chicken balls with a mint-lemon-garlic sauce, alligator balls with a sweet-spicy sauce and mushroom-spinach tofu balls.

1 package (9-ounces) baby spinach
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
10 ounces mushrooms, such as chanterelle, crimini, shiitake, white, or a mixture, trimmed and chopped by hand or in a food processor
⅔ cup shallots or scallions finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme (optional)
½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
8 ounces tofu
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup dried unseasoned bread crumbs
⅓ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or
Grana Padano cheese
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Place spinach with 2 tablespoons water in a large saucepan; cover and cook over medium- high heat until wilted, about 8 minutes. Drain and cool under running water, then squeeze out excess moisture and chop.

Melt butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Sauté mushrooms, shallots and garlic until soft and lightly browned; stir in spinach. Season with salt, thyme (if using) and red pepper flakes. Let cool.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix tofu and egg until fairly smooth, then stir in bread crumbs, cheese and mushroom-spinach mixture. Form into 1-inch balls.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Arrange half of the balls in the skillet. Cook, turning with tongs, until golden brown on all sides and heated through, about 10 minutes. Heat remaining oil and cook remaining balls. Serve warm as cocktail snacks. Serves 4.

Variation: Form mushroom-spinach mixture into 1½ ounce balls (about 2 inches in diameter). Cook as described above. Meanwhile, heat 2 cups marinara sauce. Serve balls as an entrée, topped with the sauce. Serves 4 (makes 16 medium-sized balls).

Wine Recommendation: Dominick’s Sommelier Susan Brink recommends Sella & Mosca 2006 Cannonau di Sardegna. The wine is smoky, earthy and redolent of dried cherries and spice, making it a perfect companion for the natural woodsy mushroom and spinach flavors found in the balls.

For a meatball recipe with an Asian twist, click here.

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