You may have noticed there was no recipe post on Monday. I could, were I a bit less honest, have sold you on the idea that this was related to the holiday weekend, or me traveling, or some such minor fabrication. But I don’t have a great poker face, so I’ll admit it was in fact because I’ve been feeling a bit of whatever the cook’s version of writer’s block might be called. I had cloudy ideas of things I could cook, I just didn’t really feel like figuring them out.
Then I went to a wedding in Sacramento on Sunday, and saw a friend I realized I’ve known for over a decade, despite last seeing him something like seven or eight years ago. As we caught up, he told me he’d had to stop reading this blog because it always made him hungry, and licking his computer screen seemed like a bad idea. Despite the concerning image this conjured, it tripped something in my brain. Making you hungry is just what I’m after! That means – at least in his case – this blog is doing its job.
Thereafter, the block was broken. On the drive back to Los Angeles (only while I was a passenger, of course), I kept having to text myself food ideas. One was these meatballs, which I’m posting off-schedule because I have to get them in while it’s still May! I know you aren’t reading this, J., but I hope you would want to eat them anyway, since it’s your fault thanks to you that they came to be.
Previous to my little block, my sister and I had a rapid-fire email exchange of meatball ideas. One of her suggestions – a bruschetta meatball – eventually morphed into what I came up with here: a nod to a caprese salad in a moment when the juicy, swollen garden-ripe tomatoes of your dreams are far from ready. A beef meatball shot through with sundried tomato chunks, ribbons of basil, and roasted garlic. Seared and then simmered in a balsamic vinegar and red wine sauce. And then, the pay-off: the glorious goo of melted mozzarella cheese oozing out from the inside. We snuggled them down in a pillow of soft polenta and gobbled them up before the cheese inside had time to cool.
Though I prefer these meatballs piping hot with a molten center of oozing cheese, they are also tasty as part of a sandwich or an antipasti platter. In fact, they basically are the platter – tomato, herbs, cheese, and meat already included. They just need a drizzle of olive oil, maybe a few torn leaves of fresh basil or parsley, and a glass of wine to complete the picture.
A word: as you’ll see from the procedure, these are delicate little beasts. I made mine without the egg I’ve added to the ingredient list here, and half of my meatballs were oozing cheese before they completed their simmer. They were still good, but didn’t have the melty surprise factor I was hoping for. The addition of egg should make the meat and crumbs bind more securely. Still, though, be gentle as you work with these, and be doubly triply sure the cheese is completely enclosed inside the meat mixture before you introduce them to the heat.
Makes 10-12 large meatballs
4 cloves garlic + a splash of olive oil
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
½ cup milk or cream
½ cup oil-packed sundried tomatoes, well drained
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives – I like to use my kitchen scissors
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
12 ounces (3/4 lb.) ground beef, at least 15% fat
1 egg, beaten
10-12 room temperature miniature mozzarella balls, or 10-12 small cubes of fresh mozzarella cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon flour
1 ½ cups beef broth or chicken broth
1 cup dry red wine
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1-2 teaspoons brown sugar or honey, optional
Soft polenta, cooked according to package directions with water, milk, or broth
A few sprigs of basil for presentation, if desired
- Place garlic and splash of olive oil in a small oven-safe dish. Cover with aluminum foil and roast at 300F for 20-25 minutes, until garlic cloves are soft and fragrant inside their skins. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skins.
- Once you’ve ground your fresh bread crumbs in the food processor, combine them with the milk or cream in a small bowl and let sit for 10 minutes or so to soak.
- In the belly of the food processor, combine the sundried tomatoes, basil, cooled and peeled garlic cloves, and chives. Pulse at 3 seconds intervals until all ingredients are very finely chopped. They won’t quite form a paste because there’s no liquid in the mix, but they should all be in very small pieces for easy meatball integration.
- Dump the tomato and herb mixture into a mixing bowl. Drain the bread crumbs by squeezing them out with your hands, then add the crumbs to the tomato and herb mixture. Add the salt, pepper, ground beef, and egg, and use your fingertips to lightly combine into a fairly homogenous mixture.
- (If you want to check for seasoning at this point, heat a very small puddle of olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and drop in a teaspoon or two of the meat mixture. Let it cook, then taste. Adjust salt and pepper as needed.)
- When you are ready to form the meatballs, flatten about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture in your hand, then enclose it around one of the room temperature mozzarella balls. It’s important for the cheese to be room temperature because otherwise it might not melt completely inside the meatball during the simmer. Be sure the cheese is completely sealed inside the meat layer; structural integrity is important! Repeat until meat mixture is used up, setting each meatball on a plate once formed.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Gently add the meatballs in a single layer and allow them to sear undisturbed for about 2 minutes per side. When nicely browned on all (or at least most) sides, remove to a clean plate while you make the sauce.
- Reduce the heat on the skillet to medium and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour over the remaining oil and meatball drippings already in the pan. Whisk the flour into the drippings and let cook for a minute or two into a soft golden smear.
- Slowly add the broth, whisking continuously to ensure no lumps form, then add the red wine and the balsamic. Cook, whisking occasionally, until the liquid reaches a simmer. Simmer for 5-10 minutes, turning the heat down if needed. The sauce will take on a velvety appearance and thicken slightly. Now give it a taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed. If it is too acidic for you, add 1-2 teaspoons brown sugar or honey, but remember it will be less intense once ladled over meatballs and polenta.
- When the sauce is velvety and slightly thickened, add the meatballs back in. Be gentle! We don’t want them to crack open.
- Simmer the meatballs in the sauce, basting often (but not flipping – again, structural integrity!), for 15 minutes. Serve immediately over soft polenta with a spoonful or two of sauce.