How do you feel about meatballs? Love them? Hate them? Feel utterly indifferent to them? Do you enjoy making them from scratch or are you satisfied with commercial frozen meatballs, available in most supermarkets? Are they filler or killer?
I'm writing a book about meatballs and their vegetarian cousins — arancine, vegetable fritters, dumplings and such. It's bit of a long story about how I've found myself in this position, but here I am, past deadline and eager to finish a book that I could work on for the foreseeable future, as trying to represent the variations of meatballs from around the world feels, at least right now, like counting stars or grains of sand. No matter how far I get, there are more to discover, to sample, to analyze.
Little bits of chopped or ground meat, held together with binders, moisteners and seasonings, are popular the world around. In Turkey alone, there are more than 150 recipes for kofte, as meatballs are known there.
Swedish meatballs and Italian meatballs are probably the most familiar to the majority of Americans, with Italian-American meatballs the ones we find most often in cafes, sandwich shops and restaurants. Restaurant meatballs are typically big, too, or at least bigger than I prefer, closer in size to a tennis ball than the ping-pong ball size I like.
My most intriguing discovery so far has been French caillettes, a semi-flat meatball traditionally made of pork, pork liver, Swiss chard and spinach and wrapped in pork caul fat, a thin membrane that resembles a lace veil.
Until quite recently, it has not been easy to come by caul fat, as few retailers carry it, and special orders often require the purchase of a large amount. But now small packages — about a pound — of caul fat are available from a new butcher shop in Petaluma, Thistle Meats.
What sets a good meatball apart from a mediocre or poor meatball?
The quality of ingredients matter, of course. You should either grind your own meat or buy from a butcher store or counter that grinds theirs daily. The meat should have plenty of fat, too, between 20 and 30 percent; much of it will drain away during cooking but it is important that there be enough fat to lubricate the meat during the cooking process.
The meat must be seasoned properly, too, which means not omitting salt.
Next, you need something that holds the meat together. You see everything from crushed soda crackers, dried bread crumbs, wheat flour, rice flour, coconut flour and fresh bread used for this. I think good fresh bread soaked in wine, cider, milk or stock is best for general use. Crackers and dried bread crumbs result in dry meatballs. Egg yolks or whole eggs help with the binding process and are essential in most meatballs.
When you soak fresh bread in a liquid you may not need additional moisteners, though I find some preparations welcome a little something extra to keep the meat juicy. Roasted garlic puree is my favorite; it pretty much guarantees a juicy meatball with a delicious depth of flavor. You can also use eggplant puree or cooked zucchini, especially if you want to make the meatballs gluten free and "paleo" friendly.
What about the outside of the meatball? Some recipes recommend dipping it first in flour, then in beaten raw egg and then in dried bread crumbs. This will work, certainly, but it won't necessarily enhance the meatball's flavor. I've coated meatballs in pretty much every possible combination and still haven't settled on my favorite combination, though with the easy availability of caul fat now, I'm tempted to simply wrap them and let it go at that. A meatball wrapped in caul fat can be baked instead of fried and always turns out succulent and delicious. Maybe it will become the new trend.