Forget all the references to Bill Murray and summer camp because thanks to Jody Williams’ Buvette in NYC, meatballs are going upscale as part of the thoughtful food movement
By Louise Crosby
I was thinking the other day how much I love meatballs. Swedish meatballs in gravy served over egg noodles with lingonberry preserves. Middle Eastern meatballs of lamb, cumin and coriander, stuffed into a pita pocket with yogurt and cucumbers. Greek meatballs with feta, mint and lemon. Or regular Italian meatballs in tomato sauce, served over pasta with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. You can take meatballs in so many directions.
Then along came Buvette, a beautiful first cookbook by Jody Williams, who owns and operates a gastrotheque by the same name in New York City’s West Village, a place she describes as a neighbourhood bar “with thoughtful food.” Her recipe for Italian meatballs in tomato sauce came from the grandmother of an unnamed “talented actor from the Sopranos” who was proud and happy to share. Indeed, these meatballs are outstanding, a little time consuming to make but worth every minute you spend at the stove. And, as Williams points out, they freeze well in their sauce. If you take this route, you will thank yourself one day when a decent supper needs to be served and you just don’t have time.
What makes these meatballs stand out in the taste and texture department is the addition of dried currants soaked in sherry vinegar, fresh basil and parsley, lots of fresh bread crumbs soaked in milk, ground mortadella (use the food processor), toasted pine nuts, and plenty of Parmigiano. Instead of being shaped into perfectly round, uniform balls, these are kind of squished gently out of your hand in irregular shapes, then dusted with flour and fried in oil. This way they don’t get overhandled and tough, and their craggy, slightly crunchy surfaces hold more sauce, more deliciousness. Serve them over pasta with more cheese sprinkled on top, or just as they are, in a bowl.
Buvette Tomato Sauce
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 sprig fresh basil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1 teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
Pinch red chili flakes
Place the olive oil in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the basil and garlic and cook until just golden, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices along with the salt and chili flakes. Let the sauce simmer over low heat until thick, about 45 minutes. Remove and discard the basil sprig before serving.
Serves: 2 cups
¼ cup dried currants
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 cups homemade fresh bread crumbs
½ cup whole milk
½ pound ground pork
½ pound ground veal
¼ pound ground beef
¼ pound ground mortadella
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
Pinch red chili flakes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1½ teaspoons coarse salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large eggs, beaten
Flour, for dredging
Oil, for frying (corn, peanut, vegetable, canola, or grapeseed oil all work well)
In a large pot, bring the tomato sauce to a simmer and keep it warm over low heat. Meanwhile, put the currants and sherry vinegar in a small bowl and cover them with warm water. Let the currants soak for 10 minutes, drain, and set aside.
Warm the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, basil and parsley and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Remove the aromatics from the heat and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, put the bread crumbs in a large bowl with the milk and stir to combine so that the mixture is nice and soft. Add all of the ground meats and the cooled aromatic mixture, along with the drained currants, pine nuts, chili flakes, oregano, nutmeg, salt, pepper, cheese and eggs.
Generously coat the surface of a baking sheet with flour. To form the meatballs, grab a handful of the meat and squeeze it to allow for some of the meat to escape from the top of your hand just beside your thumb. This squeezing will create wonderfully rustic, not-too-perfectly-round meatballs that you can allow to simply fall to the baking sheet as you make them. This method will naturally portion the meatballs and keep you from overhandling them, which is what causes most tough meatballs.
Give the baking sheet a shake, allowing the meatballs to roll around and coat themselves in the flour. A meatball that is not necessarily smooth, round, and uniform will have a delicious crunchy surface with dimples, which will hold more sauce.
Set a large saute pan over medium heat and coat it with a shallow layer of vegetable oil. Add enough meatballs to fit in a single, uncrowded layer and fry until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer the meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate to drain and continue frying off the meatballs, in batches, until you’ve browned them all.
Carefully transfer the meatballs to the simmering tomato sauce and finish cooking them in the sauce for 20 minutes.
Note: These meatballs freeze beautifully in their sauce.
For more delicious recipes from Louise Crosby, please visit KitchenonFourth.com