Great Balls of Meat

Behold the humble meatball. This staple of Italian cuisine has now been elevated to gourmet status by leading chefs. They are showing up as featured items on food blogs, fine dining menus, and food magazines. Why? Well, I guess it’s because every comfort food will have its day in the sun, so to speak.

Actually, meatballs are not unique to Italy. We can find similar treats in Greece, Afghanistan, Denmark, and, of course, Sweden. And you may think you know what Swedish meatballs are all about, but let me assure the real thing is nothing like the cocktail party buffet item to which we have become accustomed.

The history of meatballs goes back more than 2,000 years to the time of the Roman empire. In what may be one of the first cookbooks, Caelius Apicius wrote Things Concerning Cooking and contained recipes for meatballs using ground meat with bread, pepper, garum (a fish sauce similar to today’s Worcestershire Sauce), and pine nuts. And what was the favored meat to be ground and formed into little balls? Well, it wasn’t beef. Peacock was Apicius’ favorite. He also listed pheasant, pig, chicken, and rabbit.

Today there are countless meatball recipes using meat mixtures, tofu, and fish. They can be found from the Balkans to India. One of the biggest varieties of meatballs is the kofta. You can find these from North Africa, around the Mediterranean, through Persia (now Iran), Bengal, Bangladesh, and all across China. Sometimes these are called meat dumplings, such as the steamed variety found in dim sum restaurants. In addition to being paired with pasta, meatballs can be found in soups, curries, braises, and doused in gravy or sauce.

If you ask what makes a good meatball, you’ll get a different answer every time you ask the question. But leading chefs have a few tips for making good meatballs.

  • For the best flavor, use a mixture of meats like beef, pork and lamb.
  • Some fat is necessary or the meatballs will come out dry.
  • Use soft bread crumbs or hard crumbs soaked in milk.
  • Use only the egg yolk as a binder because the whites will dry out during cooking.
  • To keep the fat content down, bake until brown instead of pan frying. Then add them to a sauce to finish cooking and take on more flavor.
  • Refrigerating them for 30 minutes before baking will help keep them from falling apart.
  • Use a light hand with the spices, especially the garlic.

Enjoy these great balls of meat with almost any cuisine in The Bachelor’s Kitchen.