Not many of you will remember the old Lucky Strike cigarette slogan from the 40s: “So round, so firm, so fully packed.” I thought of that slogan, when I was shaping meatballs recently. I’ve made this recipe so many times, that I know exactly how many perfect little golf balls I can get from a pounds of meat: 28, round, firm, fully packed little bits of heaven.
First enjoyed by the Xin Dynasty in 200 BC, these meaty orbs have since gone worldwide in some form or another. Meatballs may well be the perfect food for several reasons. They’re easy to make, everyone likes them, and they make a little ground meat go a long way. They can be eaten alone like M&Ms or sauced up and placed atop a bed of noodles. Smash them between two slices of bread for a hefty sandwich. And they freeze well.
Making My First Meatballs
I still remember my first hand-to-hand combat with theses little morsels. As I’ve mentioned before, my culinary skills as a young bride were limited to tuna fish salad. Mel got tired of that in a hurry. He knew how to cook bean soup; but we soon had enough of that, too.
I ventured onto meatballs, because they looked simple. I bought a couple of pounds of hamburger and mixed in all the recipe ingredients. I rolled meatball until I had bowls full of them! About 60, as I recall, that took forever to cook in my small skillet. We ate meatballs for a good while. After that I played with the Better Homes and Gardens recipe, that produced a more modest number and became the base for what I make today.
This week my inspiration for meatballing (is that even a word?) came after reading a piece from the Miami Herald. The writer Victoria Pesce Elliott tells of her mother’s advancing dementia. Realizing there would be no more of her wonderful meatballs, she began rummaging through recipes in hopes of preserving the treasure.
When I saw the heirloom recipe, I realized it was much like my own with the same panade (milk soaked bread), same meats (though she added veal), parsley, grated Parmesan, and eggs. But the recipe called for 5 cloves of garlic! I winced at the thought of overdosing my meatballs on garlic. So I stuck with the one clove I normally use and added a dash of nutmeg, a secret learned from an Italian cook years ago.
Now I don’t mean to lay hurt on Mama Pesce’s much-revered meatballs, but I have returned to my true love—the recipe that got me through those days as a young housewife. One thing I learned over the years—besides adding nutmeg—was that these meatballs are addictive little morsels. When making them it’s best to plan on a few extras for sampling. My old stand-by is shown below. Print version here.
- 4 slices white bread, softened in ½ cup milk
- 1 lb. ground beef (or ¾ lb. beef; ¼ lb. ground pork)
- 2 eggs
- ½ cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- ¼ tsp. nutmeg (the secret ingredient)
- 1 tsp. salt
- ¼ tsp. black pepper
- 2 Tbs. oil for frying
- Soften bread in milk for several minutes, mashing with fork to form a paste, a “panade”–this is what gives the meatballs such a smooth texture.
- Combine bread with remaining ingredients. Form into 20 to 30 meatballs and brown in skillet with olive oil. Or bake in 350 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, turning once.
- If using with spaghetti sauce, add during last 30 minutes of cooking. Makes 30 meatballs. Freezes well.
Important Meatball Moment: Before forming all the mixture into balls, sauté a small test ball in a skillet and taste for seasonings. Adjust your meat mixture accordingly. A small detail; a big difference.