Lemony Leek Meatballs

I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for this post. I’ve made you yearn for it for half the month already! But I didn’t want to announce my intent without something to show for it, and now I finally have a triumphant opening act. Can I get a drumroll? The project I’ve decided on for 2015 is…. meatballs.

Food Blog January 2015-0230Meatballs appear in almost every culture. Albondigas find their way into soup in Hispanic cooking. Chinese meatballs are often steamed or boiled. Keftedes are Greek, kofta or kufteh appear in Middle Eastern dishes. A Swedish version coats very small rounds with a sumptuous gravy and serves them with potatoes and lingonberry jam. The classic American meatball, which is in fact of Italian origin, nestles amidst a mound of well-sauced pasta.

But they aren’t just, as the name suggests, balls of meat. Many meatball recipes combine different types of ground meat to maximize flavor but also adjust fat content. Very lean ground meats, like veal, which some meatball preparations use for its flavor, are often combined with something like pork or fattier beef to ensure tenderness and structural integrity. Bread in some form, whether dry and powdered or fresh, springy crumbs, is a frequent ingredient in a meatball. Though this could be to stretch the meat content (think bread crumbs as “filler” in a crab cake), it also absorbs fat and creates a lighter final product – “light” meatballs are often texturally prized above the dense thickness of a meatloaf, for example.

Food Blog January 2015-0222Most meatball recipes also incorporate some sort of aromatics, and sometimes eggs, to the mixture. This isn’t a mere unflattened hamburger; it’s a creation unto itself, and it needs some backup singers to really make the performance impressive. Onions or garlic, sweated or sautéed before incorporating, are common additions. Herbs, parsley perhaps the most common, are also frequent meatball interlopers.

Food Blog January 2015-0220In deciding on meatballs as my project for the year, I am challenging myself with ratios and with flavor combinations. Ratio-wise, the quantities of meat to bread crumbs to eggs to seasoning must be considered; I want a meatball with good structural integrity – it can’t fall apart during cooking – but I also want something light and springy, not tough and dense. Thus quantities, but also mixing and cooking techniques, must be mastered. As for flavor combinations, this isn’t a dish where you can taste a little at a time. It’s not a slice of roast pork that you can eat with or without the vegetable side. Everything in that little sphere must mingle well. Every ingredient must belong, with nothing extra and nothing missing.

Food Blog January 2015-0221I must admit that I am not a huge fan of the most common meatball incarnation in this country. The planet-sized spheres that arrive, drowning in marinara, balanced uneasily atop a plate of spaghetti, have never thrilled me. But outside that standard, pasta-draped option, I love a good meatball. I hope you do too.

So here’s the challenge: once a month, I will present you a meatball recipe. I have some ideas already, but I’m starting myself out gently with a few recipe adaptations before I strike out into unpracticed territory. And if you have any meatball ideas you’d like to see actualized, let me know in the comments or send me an email! I’ll happily cook something up.

Food Blog January 2015-0225For the opening act, I looked no further than Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their stellar cookbook Jerusalem. I love this volume. When I bought it for myself last year, I gave up marking recipes I wanted to try with a post-it note because, let’s face it, that’s just not helpful when you are marking almost every page. But the Lemony Leek Meatballs, curiously filed in the vegetable section, stood out. First of all, as Ottolenghi and Tamimi note, they are packed with a staggering quantity of leeks which, despite the beef that makes up the “meat” component, really do emerge as stars in the dish. Secondly, the sauce, chicken broth spiked with a tremendous dose of lemon juice, sounded so bright and aggressive with flavor that I just wanted to drink a mugful.

Food Blog January 2015-0226I wasn’t disappointed. The meatballs sear up golden and aromatic, and as they simmer in the sauce they soak up its acidity and turn it into something outrageous – an intensely savory lemon caramel coating around fragrant pyramids (mine wouldn’t stay round). The leeks and beef are a stellar combination, and the addition of fresh bread crumbs as well as the gently pulverized leeks keep the meatballs light and fresh, probably why they are classified as an appetizer or starter in Jerusalem.

Food Blog January 2015-0228I’ve made a few changes from the original, a dicey business with beloved traditional recipes like many of these, but they are minor. Rather than steaming the leeks, I’ve sautéed them gently in a mixture of butter and olive oil for extra flavor. To keep with my project theme, I’ve maintained the ball shape, rather than flattening them into patties as Ottolenghi and Tamimi direct. Finally, as I’ve noted below, I increased the number of meatballs – rather than 8, as in the original recipe, I’ve done 12, and really you could easily make 16 from the same amount of mixture.

Food Blog January 2015-0236Forewarning: this is a lengthy process. Like, if you are really on top of your game and quick on the prep and ready to multitask, “lengthy” means about two hours. The leeks must be cooked down first, which takes a good 20 minutes, and then cooled. The meat mixture, once it’s formed into balls, must be chilled for a full half hour to ensure that they stay together in the pan. After searing, the meatballs simmer in the rich, tart broth for another half hour, and then must cool a bit, as they taste better just warm or at room temperature than scaldingly hot out of the pan. All this means you are looking at almost two hours of prep and cooking time – not onerous, particularly because half an hour of that is just cooling your heels while your meatballs do the same, but worth noting before you charge in hoping to have dinner on the table in the blink of an eye.

Serving suggestions: tuck them into warm pita or naan with the yogurt and perhaps a few slices of cucumber, or sit them on a bed of fragrant couscous shot through with toasted nuts and green onions, or maybe some finely chopped dried apricots. Add a sprinkle of good, tart feta to the top for some extra zing.

Lemony Leek Meatballs
adapted from Jerusalem
serves 2-3 as an entree, 4-6 as part of an appetizer plate
NOTE! Takes the better part of 2 hours
6 large trimmed leeks, root end and dark green portion removed
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
9 ounces ground beef (just over ½ a pound)
scant 1 cup bread crumbs (1-2 slices)
2 large eggs
1¼ cups chicken stock
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
⅓ cup greek yogurt
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
  • Slice the trimmed leeks in half lengthwise to form long half-cylinders. Rinse well, being sure the water gets in between the layers, where dirt can be hidden. Shake off and slice across into ¾ inch slices.
  • Heat 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and ½ teaspoon salt, and clamp on the lid. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes, until the leeks are completely tender but not browned.
  • Drain leeks in a colander, pushing them against the sides with the flat of a wooden spoon to press out some of the water. Leave to cool, then squeeze out any residual water with a clean kitchen towel.
  • Dump leeks into a food processor and pulse a few times until well chopped, but not mush. Place them in a large bowl with the ground beef, bread crumbs, eggs, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and use your fingertips to gently combine the ingredients into a homogenous mix. Try not to overwork. The final mixture will be quite soft.
  • Gently form the mix into 12-16 equal balls and refrigerate 30 minutes (this gives the bread crumbs some time to absorb some of the fat and liquid in the mixture, and helps these delicate, soft meatballs stay together).
  • Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in the same large skillet (wipe it out first if there is leek detritus lingering). Gingerly add the meatballs, being sure they don’t touch, and sear until golden-brown on all sides (2-3 minutes for each side); you can do this in batches if necessary.
  • Now, pour on the chicken stock – it should come about halfway up the sides of the meatballs; maybe a bit higher. Add the lemon juice and remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then pop on the lid, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low, and simmer gently for 30 minutes.
  • After 30 minutes, remove the lid and cook for a few more minutes, if necessary, until almost all the liquid in the pan has evaporated. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.
  • Serve the meatballs just warm or at room temperature, with a dollop of the yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley.

Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts

One of the great things about the last house we lived in during our tenure in Eugene – the best house – the party house – was its location. Just over a mile from campus, it was also within walking distance of downtown (for the incredible produce and local craft market each weekend) and the fairgrounds.

Food Blog September 2014-0616The Lane County Fairgrounds played host to … well, let’s call it an interesting line-up of events. Among others, a gem and mineral show, a bridal show and wedding expo, a model train exhibit, and (I am not kidding) a wool festival. In the summers during the County Fair, we could smell the fried food and hear the cover bands from our backyard as the sun fell. Sometimes they were fun. But sometimes it was someone covering Huey Lewis and the News again. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer in the power of love. After all, it don’t take credit cards to ride that train, and far be it from me to critique the theme song from Back to the Future! But several nights in a row, even if it’s only once a year, is pushing it.

Food Blog September 2014-0607Despite its foibles, the fairgrounds also hosted an annual event that N. and I went to every single year. The Friends of the Library Book Sale happened in the spring, and with most books priced at 50 cents or $1, the season was important, because we ended up having to establish rules. A household with two English literature PhD students may lack many things, but what it does not lack are books. By our third year in the program, we already had at least four bookshelves jammed so full we were piling books atop each other and committing the shelving equivalent of double parking with some of the smaller paperbacks. Every shelf sagged in the middle from the weight. Cheap books were a danger zone.

Food Blog September 2014-0611We ended up instituting a rule that we had to walk to the book sale. This required us to get some exercise and celebrate the season, but more importantly, it meant we were limited in what we could add to the collection by our own biceps. If you can’t carry it home, you can’t have it. It helped. A little.

Facing a room full of tables full of books, with more books in boxes underneath, is a daunting task. After I’d perused the “literature and fiction” area and the “classics” table, I would routinely wander to the cookbooks section. Selections here were usually hardback, which meant I’d be able to carry fewer of them, and (surprise, surprise) usually a bit pricier than the twelve ratty copies of Heart of Darkness with torn covers gracing the literature area. But for people with limited willpower, these kinds of hard and fast prohibitions are a good thing. They mean you have to really want what you’re getting, and that leads to better purchases.

Food Blog September 2014-0610Food Blog September 2014-0612I acquired several good cookbooks via this method, including one containing the first yeast bread I ever made (and it was a success!). But by far, the star has been an old annual collection of Food and Wine Magazine recipes, and within that collection itself, the single page that receives the most attention contains a pasta dish by Mario Batali. It features goat cheese, hazelnuts, and red pepper flakes coaxed into a sauce to coat a pile of orchiette, those little domes of pasta named for their apparent resemblance to little ears (though to be honest they have always reminded me more of a lady’s cloche hat).

Food Blog September 2014-0614Batali’s recipe is delicious but basic. He blends the aforementioned ingredients with a smattering of chopped parsley, a glug or two of olive oil, and a healthy pour of starchy, steamy pasta water into a creamy sauce. After tossing the pasta in all this tangy, spicy, nutty glory, Batali adds a dusting of toasted bread crumbs for some needed crunch.

My version, though it maintains the procedure, plays to my own tendency for gluttony. Unsatisfied with just goat cheese, I add some shredded white cheddar for extra savory tang. N. is a fiend for bread crumbs, so I nearly triple the quantity called for in the original recipe. In an attempt to atone for these culinary sins, I also add a tremendous half pound of fresh baby spinach leaves, lightly wilted in the pasta water during the last minute of cooking. Further, it’s gluttonous in its allowances for laziness: the sauce, such as it is, is constructed in the serving bowl, the spinach cooks with the pasta, and though you do have to dirty up your food processor, you can process the bread crumbs and the hazelnuts in it one after the other with no need to do more than tamp it out a bit in between.

Food Blog September 2014-0617The finished dish is a mountain of pasta, caressed with sauce and threaded through with enough wilted spinach to eliminate the need for a side salad (though if you still want one, be my guest!). It’s a study in textures, with the orchiette themselves retaining a lovely chew, the spinach soft, the sauce silky but rumbling with pebbles of hazelnut resistance, and topped off with the perfect golden crunch of the toasty bread crumbs. Behind all this is the steady heat of the red pepper flakes, which I alternate quantities of – sometimes just enough to add a suggestion of spice, sometimes enough to clear the sinuses of the persistent fall allergies the LA basin is kind enough to grant me. Either way, it’s a dish that I forget about in between instances, but once I’ve tasted a fresh, steaming forkful, it becomes the only thing I want to eat ever again. Again.

Food Blog September 2014-0619

Spinach and Goat Cheese Orchiette with Hazelnuts
adapted from Mario Batali
Serves 8

1-1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs (whir 4-5 slices of sourdough in a food processor)
1/2 cup hazelnuts
6 ounces goat cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces extra sharp white cheddar, grated, at room temperature
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (or to your taste; this quantity produces a moderately spicy flavor)
1 pound orchiette, preferable, or another vaguely shell-shaped pasta
8 ounces fresh baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste

  • Preheat the oven to 350F. Once you’ve processed your bread into 1-1/2 cups of fine crumbs, spread them out on a cookie sheet and toast them in the oven until golden, tossing and fluffing occasionally. Depending on the density and size of your crumbs, this will take 10-15 minutes. Once golden and crisp, remove from the oven and set aside.
  • Use the same food processor, shaken free of bread crumbs, to grind the hazelnuts into a gravel with individual pieces about the size of coriander or mustard seeds (i.e. we want them small, but not quite ground into a paste).
  • Heat well-salted water to boiling in a large pot and cook orchiette according to package directions.
  • Meanwhile, put the goat cheese, shredded cheddar cheese, crushed red pepper flakes, olive oil, parsley, and ground hazelnuts into a large serving bowl. Mash it about with a rubber spatula to combine into a thick, lovely, cheesy paste.
  • In the last minute of the pasta’s cooking time, add the 8 ounces of baby spinach leaves and push them down into the boiling water with a wooden spoon.
  • When the spinach is wilted but still bright green and the pasta is tender but still pleasantly chewy, drain both, reserving about 1 cup of the pasta water.
  • Add pasta and spinach to the serving bowl with the cheese and nut mixture. Begin to add the pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring, until a thick, sauce forms that coats the pasta evenly. This may not take the entire cup of water; thin the sauce just to your desired consistency.
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper, then scatter on the breadcrumbs immediately before serving.

Three for One

Sometimes you are faced with not enough: not enough time, not enough money, not enough to do…

And sometimes you are faced with too much: too much bounty, too much responsibility, too much joy.  These are both their own kind of problem.  And if I have to choose, faced with these Januses, I will always go for too much.  Even if I fall short.

Last week I only managed one Bittman.  This week, in a startling display of ambition and motivation, I did three.

One of the biggest challenges of this project (aside from cooking, photographing, and writing about the food… you know… actually doing it…) has been deciding what to serve these dishes with.  I’m not up for roasting a chicken or a turkey every week to emulate the Thanksgiving spirit of the project, so I try to piece them together with other entrees.  As you’ve seen, if you’ve been following the project for any length of time, sometimes I choose well, and sometimes I decidedly don’t.

This week, riffling through the slowly diminishing options, it occurred to me for the first time that I could serve them as complements to each other.  They were all, after all, conceived for the same imagined table.  They should work together quite nicely.

“7. Cranberry-Orange Sauce: Cook a bag of fresh cranberries with orange and lemon zest, cut up (peeled) orange segments, ¼ cup sugar (or to taste) and a bit of minced jalapeño or chipotle.”

This sounded good and, with the slightly cooler temperatures we’ve been privileged to receive lately, a nice symbol of our entry into Fall.  Cranberries and oranges are a frequent couple – almost too expected – but there’s a reason they appear together so frequently.  And with the addition of lemon juice and some spice, this seemed far enough from traditional to avoid being boring.

1 bag cranberries (probably 1 pound?)

Zest of 1 lemon

Zest of 1 large or two small oranges (mine were little Valencias from our Farmers’ Market)

Segments of 1 large or two small oranges

¼ – ½ cup sugar, depending on your taste and the tartness of your berries

Dash of spice, depending on your taste

I bounced the cranberries into a pot, zested the lemon and oranges over them, and then cut the peel from the orange and sliced out supremes.  For good measure, I squeezed as much juice from the wasted scraps of orange as I could, then topped the mix with sugar and a dusting of cayenne (I had neither jalapeno or chipotle available) and pushed it onto the back burner.

I let the pot come to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally to melt the sugar evenly and prevent it from burning until the cranberries released some juice to protect the mixture.  Once it boiled, I lowered the heat and let the whole thing simmer for about 20 minutes.  At one point I tasted, decided there wasn’t enough sugar or cayenne, and added more of both.  The addition of sugar was a good thing.  The addition of more cayenne was less so.  I’d caution you to start with less than you think you will want.  The mixture does not taste at all spicy while it’s hot.  When it cools, though, it becomes fiery.  It was still tasty, though.  We ate it sticky and thick and room temperature, dabbing up popped clusters of ruby and letting it linger on our tongues – but not too long – enough to wake our taste buds from the spice.  As an autumnal side, this works very well and is a pleasant update to the traditional cranberry sauce.  It would also make a glorious topping for a baked brie, perhaps with some rosemary or red wine glugged in for good measure.

While the cranberry sauce was heating, I turned my attention to its companion.

“59. Blanch thinly sliced potato and leeks until tender but not mushy; drain well. Layer the vegetables in an oiled or buttered baking dish, then top with a mixture of bread crumbs and lightly sautéed chopped bacon (some cheese mixed in is pretty good, too). Broil until golden brown.”

Potatoes and leeks are a combination that, a mere year or so ago, I didn’t realize existed.  Now it’s such a natural pairing I can’t believe I never knew about it before.  Sliced blanched potatoes and sautéed leeks now fill every frittata I make.  I collected:

2 russet potatoes, peeled

1 massive leek, tough tops and root ends removed, halved vertically (rinse it out well at this point) and sliced into slim, slim, oh-so-slim half moons

1 lb. bacon

½ – 1 cup bread crumbs (I used Italian seasoned)

Knowing how good leeks can be when they are sweated and barely brown, and conscious that the beauty of bacon grease shouldn’t go to waste, I made a few changes to Bittman’s directions.

First I cooked the bacon.  You likely don’t need a whole pound of it, but this guaranteed an appetizer: one still sizzling slice each for N. and for me.  If you aren’t cooking for or with someone else, go wild and have two all by your lonesome.

While the bacon cooked and the cranberries simmered and popped, I put a pot of water on to boil.  When its aggressive bubbling demanded attention, I carefully lowered in the potato slices and gave them free reign for five or ten minutes.

When it was edging toward crisp, I set the bacon aside to cool and drain a bit on a paper towel lined plate.  I dumped the potatoes into a colander when they were barely cooked through.

Time for the leeks.  I scraped my board free of the slender, just green shards, capturing a satisfying fizz as the vegetation hit the pan.  You want to stir with some frequency here, and not raise the heat above medium; we’re looking for a light sauté, not a heavy brown.

The shards collapsed into resistant-less ribbons, and I pushed them to one side to add the drained, cooling potatoes.  With adept wooden spoon manipulation, I managed to achieve something like layering: half the potatoes flat on the bottom of the pan, the leeks draped across them, and the rest of the potato slices on top.

I turned on my broiler, and while it heated I crumbled the bacon, tossed it with bread crumbs, and dusted the potatoes with the mixture.  But dust wasn’t enough.  They required a landslide.  I drizzled the top with olive oil, knowing the bread crumbs would need it to brown, and slid the whole pan into the broiler (note: if you use a skillet or pan for this, rather than a casserole dish, be sure you wrap any plastic or rubber with aluminum foil before you put it into the broiler.  We don’t want your nice pan handles to melt…).

Five minutes later, the parts of the crumble I had oiled were beautiful brown (the other parts remained sandy and unaltered, much to my chagrin) and the dog was close by, nose moist with curiosity and the urge to assist.

We loaded our plates, completing the meal with a completely unnecessary slice of toasted jalapeno cheese bread, and ate.

As has proved often the case with Bittman’s layered vegetable dishes, I expected this one to be a gratin, and it just wasn’t.  Some cream, some cheddar cheese, some binding between the vegetables, would have been ideal.  But not crucial.  They weren’t supposed to be scalloped potatoes, after all.  The bacon and bread crumbs made them exciting, and the leeks were almost creamy nestled between the thick slices.  Honestly, forgetting to salt the water I boiled the potatoes in was the only real unfortunate mistake.  Two down, with only one mistake (two, I suppose, if you count the overly spicy cranberries, which I suppose I do), is pretty promising.

 

To make this a trifecta, on another night I chose another autumnal option.

“64. Mushroom Bread Pudding: Put 6 cups of good bread (day-old is best) cut into 1-inch chunks into a buttered baking dish. Beat 4 eggs with 2 cups of milk and ½ cup grated Parmesan and pour over the bread. Sauté 4 cups of sliced mushrooms until tender with a teaspoon or two fresh thyme leaves and mix into the bread. Bake until just set, about 40 minutes.”

Mushrooms and thyme are so nice together.  They are earthy and deep and musty, like the back of a dark pantry into which no anxious hands have reached for some time.  Since they were more precise than usual, I followed Bittman’s ingredient quantities almost to the letter.

I sautéed the mushrooms and thyme in butter, taking time to let the slices soak up the butter, then expel their own liquid.  Only after that, as the moisture from the mushrooms evaporates from the pan, can the mushrooms take on the same kind of crisp brown sear as a steak pressed into a screamingly hot pan.

While the mushrooms cooled, I tore up the crusts of a month’s worth of sourdough bread (I keep them in the freezer for just these sorts of occasions) and pressed them gently into a buttered square glass baking dish.  I grated cheese – swiss and parmesan – and cracked eggs from the Farmers’ Market into a bowl, marveling at the rich orange yolks you just can’t get in the grocery store.  I stabbed them, flooded them with milk, and whisked in the cheese.

I turned to assembly.  First, mushrooms must be tossed with bread.  Attempt even distribution.  Then, a careful, rich pour of the dairy component, taking care to attend to the corners, until the bread almost floated in a puddle of would-be custard.

 

One of the things I’ve learned in my years of bread pudding production is that pressure and soaking time yield the best results.  I carefully pressed a layer of plastic wrap over the top of my pudding and set it in the fridge for an hour, while N. and I answered the velvet brown eyes begging for “walkies.”

Upon our return, it was as simple as preheating the oven to 375F (pull the pudding out of the fridge and let it approach room temperature as your oven heats), sliding the baking dish onto a rack, and reluctantly grading a paper or two as 45 minutes ticked by (I like my bread pudding a little more than “just” set).

A puff in the center signifies doneness.  Mine levitated just barely in the middle, but the custard was set and the edges of bread not submerged were crisp and darkly golden.

The serving spoon broke sharply through the crisp top but then exhaled through the custard underneath.  Piled on our plates next to an amazing skillet casserole of deeply browned sautéed Brussels sprouts and chopped walnuts drizzled with a balsamic glaze, we accepted its golden softness.  With a higher ratio of eggs to milk than most bread puddings I’ve made, this had almost a soufflé quality, though vastly more substantial.  It was rich and earthy and savory, and I suspect it will be just as good for breakfast as it was for dinner. 

Three more down.  This can be done.  2012 has already been a year of many accomplishments.  Why not go for too many, rather than hesitating at not enough?