Friday, September 25, 2009

Really good meatballs and a meatball mistake

There are hundreds of methods for making great meatballs. While I hope that you find one you love and stick with it, you may want to experiment. A warning, though: "Healthy," Crunchy, Dampened Flavor Meatballs are a particularly bad idea.

Without an Italian Grandmother, my Spicy Meatball Odyssey took decades. Finally, I gratefully borrowed a method from generations of Nonnas, who take sturdy white bread and make a panade (paste) with milk or buttermilk. I made it my own by adding teeny tiny dice of sautéed pepperoni, onions, mushrooms, garlic and hot peppers, and learned that hot Italian sausage is the secret to a spicy meatball. Finally, because fresh meatballs give up their flavor when cooked in sauce, I now bake them and then add them to cooked sauces. They also make great meatball sandwiches.

Why mess with a good thing? Sometimes the urge to experiment is overwhelming. Learn from this: just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

I wanted a “healthy” meatball, and armed myself with a Healthy Hearty Whole Grain Bread That Was Fully Packed with Nuts, Seeds and Berries. Perhaps because it was a very tiny and very heavy and because I toasted it to enhance the "health," the texture and flavor of the meats and the spices were whomped by dead bread. Worse yet, crunchy nuts, seeds and berries are not friends to meatballs.

My meatballs are always different from one another, based on what was in my fridge or pantry or what meat combination was appealing. But one thing is certain, I'll always stick with plain bread...

Really good meatballs (freely adapted from Cook’s Illustrated The Complete Book of Pasta and Noodles, Clarkson Potter, 2000)

4 slices of sturdy white bread, cut into small pieces
1 cup of buttermilk (fresh or made with butttermilk powder)
1 cup total after cooking (your pantry’s choice: tiny dice of pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, garlic & hot peppers)
½ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
2 T minced fresh or 1T dried parsley
1 whole egg and 1 egg yolk
½ tsp salt
1 T fresh ground pepper
2 pounds of mixed ground meats (your choice: ground beef, ground beef/pork/veal meatloaf mixture, with at least one-third Spicy Italian Sausage)

1. Preheat the oven to 375. Cover a large sheet pan with foil, and Pam™ a rack that fits into or over the pan.
2. Soak the bread in the buttermilk for at least 10 minutes. Stir it vigorously to make a paste. Add the pepperoni-vegetable mixture, the cheese, parsley, egg, salt and pepper.
Add the meat and mix thoroughly.
3. Make meatballs as large or as small as you like.
4. Bake for 10 minutes. Check for doneness (are they cooked through?) and turn them and bake for 5-10 additional minutes. Add to sauce right away or cool on the rack.
5. To freeze, lay them out on a clean baking sheet. When frozen solid, pack into freezer bags or containers.
Recommended reading: Carol Field's In Nonna's Kitchen: Recipes and Traditions From Italy's Grandmothers. I read this straight through like a novel. Even if you never cook from it, you'll be inspired by the stories and you'll treasure the history.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 5th Question: Why don't we eat Charoset all the time?

For more than 5000 years, Jews have gathered around the table at Passover for a meal and a service (Seder) to celebrate deliverance from slavery in the time of the Pharaohs. Charoset – a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine -- is an integral part of the Seder and it stands in for the mortar for the bricks that were used to build the pyramids.

Four questions are critical to the Seder service, yet there is a traditional 5th question: “Why don’t we eat Charoset all the time?” No reason. Really, there is absolutely no reason not to have a jar of chopped fruits, nuts and wine in your refrigerator all the time. You probably already have an $8.00 jar of someone else’s chutney.

Charoset is Jewish Chutney, and it’s not just for Passover (and not just for Jews). Charoset is better for you than queso and the charoset that you make at home is cheaper than commercial chutney and it can taste exactly the way you want it. Need comfort from home? If you grew up with Apple and Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine Charoset, you can have it all the time. On the other hand, you may use any fresh or dried fruit, roasted or unroasted nuts, and the sweeteners and spices of the condiments of your choice. And you can use any fruit juice, wine, liquor or liqueur – whatever tastes good to you.

How can I eat Charoset without matzoh? It is a friend to cream-cheese-and-a-bagel; a great addition to virtually any meat sandwich; thin it a bit and glaze your chicken or meatloaf; throw it into pancake batter; stuff it into phyllo triangles or dumplings. Heat it in the microwave or thin it with water, wine or liqueur and pour it over ice cream or pound cake. Eat it with a spoon.

Cooks’ Notes: (1) Charoset makers either chop a lot (you’ll need very good and very sharp knives) or they use food processors (highly recommended.) My first Cuisinart lasted more than 20 years. My second one is going strong. (2) No food processor? Get good knives and keep them sharp. If you are in the Twin Cities, a great source for knives is Eversharp, 344 Taft Street NE, Minneapolis. It is an outlet for the justifiably famous German Wustof knives and it is a great place to have your knives sharpened.

I found the two recipes below (and others) uncredited on the web, and then found them in actual books on my shelf.

The ebullient Grandma Doralee Patinkin’s Jewish Family Cookbook (St. Martin’s Press, 1997) is a treasure trove of Jewish-Grandma recipes (Blintz Souffle, Carrot Pudding), intriguing modern food (Linguine Limon with Salmon) and useful tricks (specific herbs to replace salt and the correct amount of vinegar to create “sour milk.”) Gloria Kaufer Greene’s The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook tracks Jews and their recipes from all over the world, and shehas several charoset recipes, including Ashkenazic, Date, Isreali, Moroccan, Turkish and Yeminite. I can't wait to try Meat, Fruit & Peanut Curry and Dried Fruit Lokshen Kugel (noodle pudding).

Mandy Patinkin’s Grandmother’s Charoset -- This may conjure up your family Seder.

12 large McIntosh Apples
3 c pecans
1/3 c Concord grape or Malaga wine
1-½ T ground cinnamon
1/3 tsp ground cloves½ tsp ground ginger
1-½ T honey (optional)

1. Core the apples and cut into chunks.
2. Place all the ingredients in a food processor. Using steel blade, pulse on and off. At Passover, this is supposed to remind you of mortar between the bricks of the Pyramids, which means grainy, not mushy. If the mixture is too watery, add more nuts. Granny Patinkin never uses the honey.

Turkish Charoset This is a goof-proof cooked charoset, and it is delicious. I can't wait to put it into dumplings, puff pastry or phyllo for appetizers.

½ c pitted dates
2 c peeled and chopped apple (use Granny Smith or some other firm apple. Do not use Macintosh, or you will have apple sauce)
½ c dried apricots
½ c lightly toasted chopped walnuts

1. Cook fruits together with water (or a combination of water, apple juice and/or apricot liqueur) just to cover, until apricots and dates are tender enough to mash with a fork. Watch this mixture carefully. You want fruit that has texture -- not fruit sauce.
2. Add the nuts. Mix well. Cool and serve.
Makes about 3 cups.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Appreciating Sheila Lukins and Pasta Sauce Raphael

I can’t remember when or how I heard about The Silver Palate Cookbook (Workman Publishing Company, Inc. 1982), but I know that I had it while I was in law school (1981-1984). After reading of Sheila Lukins’ death, I looked at the book and realized that I wanted to cook almost everything. I also wanted to thank her and her partner Julie Russo, for opening the door onto really interesting food that has become deli fare (ratatouille, spinach pesto, salmon mousse, phyllo triangles, etc). We have made progress.

Much of the memorial chat about Lukins has centered on Chicken Marbella and how it changed the world for a generation of cooks. With respect, the life-changing recipe for me was Pasta Sauce Raphael, a spicy tomato-and-artichoke sauce which you can serve hot, cold or at room temperature. It freezes like a dream. If you omit the Romano cheese, it is vegan.

Armed with a tasting spoon the first time I made it, I was about 80% finished when I called my best friends all over the country with a news flash. In my best Bossy Imperative Voice, I said “Drop everything. There is nothing more important for you to do today than to make this sauce. It is fabulous.” I stand by that directive.

The Silver Palate was written before the discovery of cholesterol and the demonization of butter. The original recipe is true to Lukins’ and Russo’s ethic of using the largest possible quantity of oil or butter that could be absorbed by any food group. For this sauce, I recommend cutting the oil from ½ cup to 2 T. While Lukins calls for 1 small dried red pepper finely crushed, the sauce benefits from additional hot pepper. I use ½ tsp of cayenne and at least 1 T of crushed red peppers. Finally, please, please if you don’t have a functioning pepper mill, get one now. I once crushed the 3 T of black peppercorns with an improvised crushing device (perhaps a wine bottle). It was a mistake: the sauce was crunchy.

Pasta Sauce Raphael (adapted from The Silver Palate)

1 # boxed, strained tomatoes or canned petite diced tomatoes
2 6-oz jars marinated artichoke hearts
2 T best quality olive oil (or neutral canola oil, if you prefer)
2 c finely chopped onions
4-6 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
¼ c dried basil (yes, really)
½ c finely chopped Italian parsley (or 1/4 c dried parsley -- there is no Parsley Police)
1 T crushed dried red pepper
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 T fresh black pepper, finely ground (not ground to dust)
1 T salt
¼ c grated Romano cheese (omit for vegans)

1. Drain the artichokes and reserve the marinade. Trim any tough artichoke leaves. Roughly chop into small bites, keeping in mind that the onions have been finely diced.

2. Over medium heat in a large saucepan sauté the onions, garlic, basil, parsley, dried red pepper and cayenne for five minutes.

3. Add the ground pepper. Stir for a minute.

4. Add the tomatoes and 1 tsp of the salt. Simmer uncovered for 1 hour. Stir occasionally.

5. Add the artichoke marinade and simmer, stirring often, for 30 minutes.

6. Stir in the artichokes and continue to simmer until the sauce is very thick.

7. Add the Romano cheese. You may need to add some additional salt at this point – taste first.


  • Marinated artichoke hearts: The best jarred artichoke hearts used to come from California. They now come from everywhere, and when they are good, they are very good, and when they are nasty, they re-define the term. Don't even think of using artichokes in a fat-free marinade. Taste the artichokes and the marinade before you add it to your sauce.
  • If you love mushrooms... Chop fine one pound of mushrooms and make duxelles, which is the immensely pleasurable task of cooking the mushrooms (and shallots if you insist) slowly in butter until they resemble well-cooked and dry finely ground beef. Duxelles taste like the concentrated essence of mushrooms. If you can resist eating this treasure from the pan with a spoon, add them with the artichokes in step 6. NOTE: Ignore any duxelles recipe that says that this can be made in under 30 minutes. The authors are fooling themselves -- don't let them fool you.