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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.

Thistle Meats is located at 160 Petaluma Blvd. N. in Petaluma. The shop is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays. For more information, call 772-5442 or visit <a href="http://thistlemeats.com" target="_blank">thistlemeats.com</a>.


I have not yet made these meatballs using caul fat instead of bread crumbs but if you want to give it a try, please do and let me know the results. Just cut a square of the membrane big enough to encase the meatball and then bake the meatballs in the oven for about 15 minutes, without frying them first.

<b>Sicilian-Inspired Meatballs</b>

Makes about 30 small meatballs

<em>1/3 cup golden raisins</em>

<em> 3 tablespoons Marsala wine</em>

<em> 2 cups, lightly packed, hearth bread, without crusts, torn into small pieces</em>

<em> 1/2 cup whole milk or cream</em>

<em> 3 to 4 garlic cloves, crushed and minced</em>

<em> 2 teaspoons grated orange zest</em>

<em> 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest</em>

<em> 3/4 pounds freshly ground beef</em>

<em> 3/4 pound freshly ground pork</em>

<em> 1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted (do not use pine nuts from China)</em>

<em> 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley</em>

<em> — Pinch of cinnamon</em>

<em> 2 eggs, beaten</em>

<em> 2 ounces Caciocavallo or similar cheese, grated</em>

<em> — Kosher salt</em>

<em> — Black pepper in a mill</em>

<em> 2 cups breadcrumbs, preferably homemade, seasoned with salt and pepper</em>

<em> — Olive oil</em>

Put the raisins into a small bowl, add the Marsala and set aside.

Put the bread into a small saucepan, add the milk and the garlic and warm over low heat. When all the milk has been absorbed by the bread, smash the bread with a fork to create a sort of slurry or mush. Stir in the orange zest and lemon zest and set aside to cool.

When the raisins have plumped up, drain off the Marsala and set aside.

Put the pork and beef into a mixing bowl, add the cooled bread mixture, the pine nuts, the raisins, the parsley and the cinnamon and mix well. Add the bread mixture, the eggs and the cheese, season generously with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.

Use a small ice cream scoop to gather up enough of the mixture to form a ball about 1 to 11/4 inches in diameter. Roll it in the bread crumbs, set it on a baking sheet lined with parchment and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

To cook the meatballs, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Pour a little olive oil into a heavy saute pan and brown the meatballs evenly all over, working in batches so as not to crowd them. Return the browned meatballs to the sheet pan and bake for about 12 minutes, or until cooked through.

Serve as an appetizer, on sandwiches or as a main course with caponata and a big green salad.

<em> Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.</em>

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