An afternoon’s easy work, from the tasting room at Carter Mountain Orchard outside of Charlottesville, VA.
We are now officially half a year through this meatball exploration. I like assigning myself these year-long projects because they give me plenty of opportunities to experiment, and when I emerge, breathless, come December, I feel I’ve attained (sometimes tenuous) mastery over the subject at hand.
A year-long food project can present challenges, though. The chief difficulty, it seems to me, is the bald truth that single food types don’t often translate well through the seasons. A sweet potato project, as delicious as that might sound, would not be as welcome in July as it would in November. Meatballs, similarly, seem most suited for cooler months: draped with sauce, topped or wedged beside or squashed between bread and cheese, they are a heavy prospect.
What is needed, then, as this month grows more and more sultry, is a summer-soaked meatball: light on the stomach, feathery in texture, heavy only in flavor. Conveniently, this meatball dish delivers not just on flavorful meatballs that didn’t leave us feeling meatball-shaped, but it takes into account and makes gratuitous use of that most prolific and dreaded of summer vegetables: zucchini. If you have a garden, chances are you’re growing zucchini. And as you know, it’s getting to be the season when you’ve given loaves of zucchini bread to everyone you can think of, jammed a few in your freezer for good measure, stuffed and baked a few of the baseball bat sized specimens that escaped your notice for a few weeks, and the thing just keeps spitting out squashes. This dinner takes at least two more off your hands by offering them sliced into thin strands, barely cooked, and woven into a tangle of soba noodles.
For the meatballs themselves I went in an Asian direction, inspired mostly by pot stickers, one of my favorite indulgent snack foods, but in part by the container of miso paste hanging out in the back of my refrigerator. The aggressive saltiness of the paste means you don’t have to add a tremendous amount of additional seasoning to the meatballs, but as long as you are judicious, it doesn’t overwhelm the classic, welcome pairing of ginger and garlic. There’s lemongrass here too, for some fragrance and brightness, its persistent woody fibers tamed and made entirely edible after a run-in with a microplane.
The meatballs cook in a simple broth flavored with more ginger and lemongrass – which conveniently helps you use up those stalks after you’ve grated down the bulb end – and means you can serve this like a pasta, with just a bit of flavorful sauce to moisten the noodles, or, my preference, enough broth to make it almost like a soup, with the meatballs all but bobbing. Beautifully, the meatballs, the noodles, and the broth taste just as good at room temperature as they do just off the stove, in case you, in the midst of summer, are boiling quite enough on your own.
Chicken Miso Meatballs with Soba and Zucchini Noodles
2 tablespoons red miso paste
1 lb. ground chicken (dark meat preferred)
1 tablespoon grated lemongrass bulb (remove the outermost layer first, then use a microplane or a zester)
1 tablespoon grated fresh garlic (about 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger (easiest if frozen first)
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion, dark and light green parts only
¼ teaspoon black pepper
½ tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
3 lemongrass bulbs, smashed with the back of a knife (you can certainly use the one you grated from earlier)
knuckle of fresh ginger (about 2 tablespoons)
1-2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce (if you are gluten-free, be sure to check the label – most soy sauce contains wheat)
2 bundles soba noodles (200 grams or about 7 ounces)
2 medium zucchini
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Toasted sesame seeds and sprigs of cilantro, optional
- In a large bowl, whisk together the egg and miso paste. The goal here is to break up the miso a bit for easier integration with the chicken.
- Add the ground chicken, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, cilantro, green onion, black pepper, and fish sauce to the egg and miso. Using your fingertips, lightly mix and work the seasonings into the ground chicken until evenly distributed.
- Heat a teaspoon of the olive or vegetable oil in a large, deep skillet over medium high heat. Scoop up about a teaspoon of the meatball mixture, press it into a small patty, and fry it about a minute on each side until cooked through, then taste for seasoning and adjust for the rest of the mixture if needed.
- Heat the remaining olive or vegetable oil in the skillet over medium high heat. While it warms, use a tablespoon and moist hands to make small meatballs. They will be very soft – don’t worry about making them perfectly round. As you make each tablespoon-sized meatball, set it aside on a clean plate. You should have enough mixture for 18-20 meatballs.
- Carefully place meatballs in the skillet, taking care they do not touch. You will likely need to fry them in batches. Brown them on all sides (about 2 minutes per side), then remove to a clean plate. Repeat with a new batch of meatballs until all are browned.
- Your skillet should now have a layer of deeply browned bits and drippings stuck to the bottom. This is called fond and it is lush with flavor. Add the 3 cups of chicken broth directly to this residue in the pan and use a whisk to scrape up and incorporate the fond into the liquid. Toss in the smashed lemongrass bulbs and the knob of fresh ginger, then bring to a simmer.
- When the liquid reaches a simmer, taste for seasoning. If it needs salt, add the 1-2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Keep in mind the flavors will concentrate a bit as cooking continues. Add all of the meatballs back into the broth mixture. Try to keep them in a single layer, but it’s okay if they bump up against each other now. Clap on the lid, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for 15-20 minutes, basting and turning the meatballs occasionally.
- While the meatballs simmer, make the noodles. Draw a y-shaped peeler along the zucchini lengthwise repeatedly to cut it into long, thin strips. Stack up 5 or 6 of these strips at a time and, very carefully, cut them into thin “noodles” with a sharp knife (see photos above for reference). Set aside.
- Cook the soba noodles in boiling salted water according to package directions. About 30 seconds before you are ready to drain them, toss in the zucchini noodles and stir gently. Drain and rinse as instructed.
- In the same pot you used for the noodles, heat the 2 teaspoons of sesame oil over medium-low heat. Add the drained noodles back in and toss gently to evenly coat them with the oil and to be sure the zucchini is well distributed, not just clumped up by itself. Keep warm until the meatballs are ready.
- To plate, coil up a tangle of soba and zucchini noodles in a shallow bowl. Top with meatballs – 5 per person is about right – and ladle on about ½ cup of broth for a soupy presentation (my preference), or 3-4 tablespoons of broth for a more pasta-like assembly. Add a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds or sprig of cilantro if desired, and serve hot or warm.
Hi friends. I’ve got something glorious for you. There are meatballs. There is zucchini. There is miso and garlic and lemongrass and ginger. It looks a little like this:
But you’re not getting it today. Because I’m in the air, winging my way home to California from Charlottesville, Virginia, where I’ve been visiting my family and doing too much eating, and drinking, and sightseeing, to even think about composing a short tract about meatballs. That’s the way of vacation, I suppose.
So I’ll see you soon, I expect, once I’ve had time to readjust to west coast time, and sort through my thoughts. Be well!
According to adage, breakfast is “the most important meal of the day,” and while the heavy, sweet or savory, sometimes grease-laden offerings that make up a truly excellent breakfast are some of my favorite meal options out there, if I eat them first thing in the morning I’m going to feel ill. Give me a bowl of bran flakes or a slice or two of toast in the morning, then move to the eggs, the bacon, the biscuits, the sausage, the waffles, as the day eases on. That’s why I get so excited, and wax eloquent so often here, about breakfast-for-dinner.
But for a 30-something living in an urban area like Los Angeles, breakfast food of this ilk means something else: brunch. Food that is fatty and greasy in the best possible way washed down with a mimosa or three to compensate for the previous night’s revelry – this is the true calling of a large plate of breakfast meats, scrambles, and toasted, syrup-bearing stacks. And here, at least, walking into a restaurant for brunch entails working your way through a crowd of plaid and maxi skirts, tilted fedoras, gladiator sandals, and the occasional waxed mustache. So, you know, hipsters.
A few months ago, N. and I wandered through a little enclave called Los Feliz just south of Griffith Park after a failed attempt to visit Griffith Observatory (on a temperate weekend, with clear skies, there’s zero chance of finding parking there more than half an hour after it opens. What fools, we). On our way to a local bookshop, we ran into one of his coworkers and her wife having brunch, and it suddenly seemed like exactly the right thing to do. We unofficially added “eat brunch at every restaurant in Los Feliz” to our LA-to-do list.
Brunch in Los Feliz – like many places east of Hollywood as highway 101 cuts south toward downtown – means hipster paradise with a heavy dose of East LA flavor: huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, chorizo folded into a thick, fluffy omelet. The Mexican and Latin influence on that side of the city makes for a glorious contribution to any brunch (or, as my sister put it, a meal that is perfect for “a Sunday at 11AM or any night at 8PM or later”).
Our first entrée (haha) into the Los Feliz brunch scene was late on a Sunday morning, seated outside, as you always should be, so you can watch the show walk past: rompers and sundresses, stilettos surely too high and too spiky for church, bowties and converse all-stars worn un-ironically on the same person. Some passersby are accompanied by their pit bulls and chihuahuas, who often sport their own wardrobes, and pause to jangle their collars against the metal water bowls left outside for them by many of the businesses along the main drag. But once our food came, I don’t think we noticed another single pedestrian. N. had huevos rancheros, and we agreed they were a good representation – the black beans were meaty and savory and well-seasoned, and the fresh salsa was good – but my dish was the real star: poblano and white cheddar biscuits with scrambled eggs and a chorizo gravy. Flaky, cheesy mounds draped in a bright orange, lightly spicy sauce that, even though we’d promised to share, made me reluctant to relinquish my plate. Think classic biscuits and sausage gravy, but with neighborhood flavor.
A dish like that only means one thing: restaurant recreation. Even as we asked for the check, I was already considering how I would make this at home. I wanted cheesier biscuits, more roasted poblano, and a stronger chorizo presence in the gravy. This resulted, in my version, in a gravy stronger in flavor but a bit less rich, and biscuits to rejoice over – flaky, crisp and golden on top, aggressively cheese-laden with obvious hits of smoky poblano inside. Plus, once punched out the biscuits freeze perfectly, so it makes sense to bake just what you need and save the rest for another lazy morning. It’s a brunch (or lunch, or dinner) option that will remain permanently on our rotation.
Brunch in Los Feliz was, then, a successful voyage in many ways, and clearly our real challenge will not be exploring the area for its brunch options, but convincing ourselves to order something different every time, because once you’ve found an option as fulfilling as this, trying something new is a gamble I’m sometimes unwilling to take.
Serving suggestions: because the restaurant’s offering was pretty perfect as it was, I copied their addition of scrambled eggs between the biscuit and the gravy, but the eggs are really just an extra luxury. You could also easily pair this with a pile of crispy hash browns or homefried potatoes, which would be an excellent match for the gravy. Though I don’t have much experience with soy-based sausages, a good soyrizo or chipotle field roast sausage would likely make an excellent vegetarian sub for the chorizo, if you want to go meatless. You might have to add a little extra fat to the pan, though, when you cook them.
This dish is best, of course, the first day. The biscuits are never as crunchy and warm after that, and the gravy does tend to do that thing gravy does where it gets thicker but also separates overnight in the fridge. But I think, with four diners round the table and ten biscuits to share between you, the last drippings of gravy won’t be long for this world.
Los Feliz biscuits and gravy
1 poblano pepper (¼ – ⅓ cup, when chopped)
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk (about ¾ cup)
1 cup extra sharp white cheddar cheese, grated or in small cubes
For chorizo gravy:
9 ounces chorizo
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk, warm or at room temperature
salt and pepper to taste (depends on your chorizo – mine didn’t need any)
softly scrambled eggs: 2 per person
2 tablespoons sour cream
1-2 teaspoons milk or cream
1-2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or green onions, dark green part only
- Roast poblano pepper over a grill or gas flame – about 10 minutes, turning when needed – until the skin is almost entirely blistered and black. Place in a glass bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let it steam for 20 minutes to loosen the skin and soften the flesh. After 20 minutes, remove the pepper from the bowl and use a paper towel, knife blade, or your hands to scrape off the skin (some illustrative photos here, if you need them). Remove stem and seeds as well, then dice finely for ¼ – ⅓ cup of roasted pepper bits. The pepper pieces should be room temperature when added to biscuit dough – plan accordingly.
- Preheat the oven to 400F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. To make the biscuits, whisk together the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder in a medium bowl. Blend in the cubes of cold butter using a pastry cutter or your fingertips. Butter bits should be the size of small peas. Add the cooled diced poblano and the cheese and use a fork to integrate, then pour in the buttermilk and, using a fork or your fingers, bring together into a ball of soft dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a well-floured board and use a floured rolling pin or the palms of your hands to roll or press the dough into a rectangle about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free.
- After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded, and rolled once more (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), use a round cutter (or the lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through the dough, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat, placing the biscuit rounds on your parchment lined baking sheet, until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps and repeat – with ½ inch thick dough, using a 3-inch cutter, you should be able to make about 10 biscuits.
- Bake biscuits at 400F for 20 minutes, until their tops are golden and some cheese has oozed out to make lacey crisps around their edges.
- While the biscuits bake, make the chorizo gravy: in a medium skillet, cook the chorizo over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through and nicely browned. This is difficult to see on some chorizos, because they are quite wet and reddish orange in color; look for a textural difference to determine that it is cooked.
- When the chorizo is cooked through with brown bits and lightly crusty, chewy bits, sprinkle the flour over it and stir through to combine. Cook the flour with the chorizo for 1-2 minutes, then slowly begin adding the milk, whisking constantly as you do so. I like to pour in about ¼ cup at a time, whisk until the mixture is homogenous again, then add the next installment of milk.
- With all the milk added, continue to whisk slowly until the mixture comes to a simmer. You will notice it thicken as it warms, but it won’t reach its final viscosity until it comes to a boil. At that point, lower the heat to a simmer, taste for seasoning, and add additional salt and pepper if your taste buds require it.
- To serve, combine 2 tablespoons sour cream and 1-2 teaspoons milk or cream in a small dish or in a squeeze bottle. Place two biscuits on each plate, top with scrambled eggs, ladle on some gravy, and squirt or drizzle the sour cream sauce on top. Sprinkle with chopped chives or green onion, and serve immediately.
The cake world is populated by two camps, it seems to me: those which are definitively dessert, and those which are trying to be breakfast (I’m looking at you, coffeecake). Some of the “trying to be breakfast” denizens bridge the gap by taking the appellation “bread” rather than cake – banana and zucchini bread are the chief players in this particular masquerade. But they are, at heart, essentially still cake: sweet, plenty of fat from oil or butter, and sometimes interspersed with shards of chocolate for good measure. Carrot cake, the other popular vegetal option, doesn’t even pretend. It just comes right out there and, whether it’s for alliterative reasons or not, boldly declares itself a cake and leaves it at that.
The idea of putting these long orange taproots into a sweet application came originally from the Middle Ages, when sugar was barely on the horizon and other sweeteners were hard to come by. Carrots as a cake ingredient have since had two spikes in popularity: once during the second world war, when sugar and honey were, again, in short supply, and once starting in the 1970s or so when it was touted not as a sugar-rationing option, but as a “healthy cake.” Really though, if we’re honest today’s carrot cake is far from healthy. It may have a discernible threading of carrots, and it’s frequently studded with nuts, raisins, sometimes even coconut or pineapple, but it is also loaded with oil for moisture and draped with that miracle that is cream cheese frosting.
During a text conversation with my sister about golden raisins (probably 70% of our texts are about food), I developed a craving for carrot cake. This is an irritating paradox that happens quite often to me during the summer: now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I frequently get the urge to embark on elaborate baking projects. However, because it’s summer and school is not in session, I don’t have a whole department of people to foist my creations off on. I only have N. and me, and we would both like to retain our svelte (haha) figures. My sister suggested turning carrot cake into a muffin so it could be consumed for breakfast, and I thought even easier might be a tray of breakfast bars – moist and flat and portable and loaded with carrots and golden raisins. Thus I’ve taken carrot cake – the cake that isn’t even pretending to be anything but a dessert – into the breakfast cakes camp.
What resulted is not your traditional super moist, super tender carrot cake drowning in sweetened cream cheese (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you). After deciding on a breakfast version, I wanted something that was not, in fact, cake. Even if we didn’t want it for breakfast, we should be able to turn to it as a mid morning snack without suffering an instant sugar high. It might be a good option for N. to slice into after running. It should be more filling – more substantial – than your typical carrot cake, and very lightly sweet. It should definitely include both nuts and raisins, the nuts should always be toasted, and the spices should be more assertive than in your typical cake. I added oats in place of some of the flour, taking a hint from one of my favorite granola/energy bar recipes and toasting them first. I cut down on the quantities of oil and sugar that most recipes call for, and ended up with something very lightly sweet – the carrots and raisins contribute most of the bursts of sweetness, not the mere ½ cup of brown sugar. If you’re looking for something sweeter, bump up the sugar by ¼ cup, as I note in the recipe below.
The worst thing about making a carrot cake is grating the carrots. Working from the always brilliant suggestions in The New Best Recipe, I eliminated the frustration of grated knuckles and bright orange fingernails and used the food processor. This ends up being a considerable time-and-dishes-saver, because you can also use it to chop the nuts, pulse the oats, and, as the recipe testers in TNBR devise, emulsify the oil with the eggs and sugar to make a frothy, perfectly combined syrup of wet ingredients that integrate smoothly and quickly. Toasting the nuts and the oats in the same 9×13 inch pan you’ll later bake the bars in means you’re only using, aside from various measuring and mixing utensils, a food processor, a single mixing bowl, and one baking dish.
At first I considered making a simple cream cheese icing – just a breath of powdered sugar, and maybe some lemon juice to brighten it up – but found I didn’t want it after all. They were perfect, just as they were, and even better with a glass of iced chai. If you find you miss the frosting component, I’d suggest whisking a little honey or maple syrup into some room temperature cream cheese, maybe with a little lemon or lime zest if you’re feeling fancy, and adding a dab to the top of your bar.
As well-spiced, fruit-laden desserts often do, these improve after a night of resting in the refrigerator, and are still just as good on the third or fourth day. This is perfect, really, because it means you can bake them the night before and have something all ready for an early breakfast before heading off on some summer adventure.
Makes one 9x13x2 inch pan; 15-18 squares or bars, depending on how enthusiastically you slice them
1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
1 ½ cups pecans, walnuts, or a mixture
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cardamom
½ teaspoon ginger
¾ cup golden raisins
½ pound carrots, stem ends removed (approximately – for 2 cups finely shredded)
½ cup brown sugar for barely sweet, ¾ cup brown sugar for slightly sweeter
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 350F. In a 9x13x2 inch pan, scatter the oats in as close to a single layer as possible. Toast in the oven at 350F for 15 minutes, until lightly golden and smelling strongly of oatmeal. Remove and pour into the belly of a food processor fitted with the metal blade.
- In the same pan, scatter the pecans and/or walnuts and toast in the oven at 350F. Depending on the size of the nuts, pecans will take 5-7 minutes and walnuts will take 5-10 minutes. They are ready just as you begin to smell them, even if they don’t look it – they will darken as they cool, and burned nuts are unsalvageable. When ready, remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly.
- While oats and nuts cool, whisk together remaining dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl: the flour, the salt, the baking soda, and the four spices.
- Using the metal blade attachment, pulse the oats in the food processor 3 or 4 times, until some are fine and powdery but some are almost fully intact. Add to dry ingredient mixture and whisk to combine.
- Add the toasted, cooled nuts to the food processor. Pulse 4 or 5 times until roughly chopped, then add to the dry ingredient mixture and again, whisk to combine.
- Now replace the metal blade attachment in the food processor with the shredding disc. Feed the carrots through as close to vertical as possible for fine, thin shreds. You can peel the carrots before doing this if you want; I just scrubbed them off a bit. Transfer the finely shredded carrots to the bowl of dry ingredients. Add the golden raisins and fold them in with a rubber spatula.
- Switch the food processor back to the metal blade attachment. Process the brown sugar with the eggs and vanilla until the mixture is frothy – about 20 seconds. With the machine still running, add the vegetable oil in a steady stream and continue processing until it is emulsified – another 20 seconds or so. The mixture will be surprisingly thick, almost like a butterscotch sauce in texture and in color.
- Pour and scrape the emulsified oil mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients and carrots, and use a rubber spatula to fold them together until no hidden dry pockets remain. The resulting mixture will be thick, more like cookie dough than a standard cake batter.
- Lower the oven temperature to 325F and spray the same 9x13x2 inch pan you used for toasting with a non-stick spray. Scrape the batter into the pan and use your rubber spatula to flatten it into an even layer. Bake at 325F until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few moist crumbs; 25-30 minutes.
- Let cool in the pan for at least 15 minutes before slicing into bars or squares.