Saturday, December 13, 2014

Food and Wine's Herbed Meatballs with Rich Tomato Sauce and Ricotta, plus a barbera

From the January 2014 "Readers' Choice" issue. I think you may give yourself some leeway with the gigantic list of ingredients. If you happen not to have fresh mint or enough ground cumin on hand, do not fret. The main point is not to skimp on (1) the milk-soaked ground almonds and (2) the fresh basil leaves and garlic; these latter two ingredients have made all the difference in the last three meatball recipes I have prepared. I must write a book about meatballs, after I write one on lemons.

For the rich tomato sauce:
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup tightly packed basil leaves, torn
  • 2 Tbsp. oregano leaves
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
  • 2 (28 ounce) cans whole Italian tomatoes with their juices, crushed
  • 6 large anchovy fillets, chopped. (You may please yourself about this. I understand that anchovies are a basic, ancient, and respected flavoring, approved of by no less a source than Sylvia Windle Humphrey, whose A Matter of Taste must forever stand as one of our Culinary-Hall-of-Fame, retro favorites. Still, the only can of anchovies I ever opened reminded me, in all their red segmented glory, so vividly of earthworms that I have no desire ever to open another. You might replace them with a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce, the composition of which I believe owes much to anchovies.)  

For the meatballs:
  • 1/2 cup raw almonds, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 and 1/2 pounds ground lamb
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil leaves, plus more for garnish
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley -- also called Italian parsley or cilantro, this is the opposite of the curly, decorative, slightly peppery but mostly inconsequential kind we see on restaurant or Passover seder plates. I was just beginning to appreciate the odd tinny flavor of flat-leaf parsley when I read somewhere that, traditionally, Western cuisines have rejected it because its smell is that of bedbugs. 
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped mint
  • 1 Tbsp. chopped oregano
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp. chopped thyme
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp. dry red wine
  • 1 and 1/2 tsps. ground cumin
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. ground fennel
  • 1 and 1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
Ricotta cheese, for serving

I reiterate that we must feel free to play with this immense and specific list of ingredients. Where, let us say, not only mint or cumin but perhaps fennel and oregano are missing, I see no reason why the cook may not substitute rosemary, curry powder, celery salt, or that wondrous Chilean merquen, smoked chili pepper flakes. The mishmash of spices will taste nice, provided you have provided yourself with the keys, which -- I reiterate --  are fresh garlic, fresh torn basil, almonds and milk. 

Task one: make the sauce. Not difficult. In a large sauce pan, warm the olive oil  Add the garlic, basil, oregano, bay, and red pepper. Warm over moderate heat for 30 seconds. We do not want burned garlic, that horror of horrors, the smell of which you can identify upon walking into any not-so-well-run pizza joint. 

Add the tomatoes and simmer over "moderately low" heat until the tomatoes are "saucy" -- excellent word -- about an hour. [Stir in the anchovies, and] season with salt and pepper. [Maybe.]

Task two. Make the meatballs: Soak the finely chopped almonds in milk for about 10 minutes, until they are thoroughly moistened.  Add the ground meat, the eggs, herbs, and all the spices. Form into small balls and saute briefly in the heated 1/4 cup olive oil, in batches a few at a time, until all are nicely browned.  

Then, either return all the meatballs to the skillet and ladle on the tomato sauce which has already cooked for an hour, bring to a boil, and simmer until the meatballs are cooked through, about another half hour or so; or else simply add the half-cooked meatballs to the simmering sauce, bring to a fresh boil, and simmer another half hour.

While they finish cooking, you may assign yourself task three, which is to cook a potful of pasta. 

To serve all forth, spoon little dollops of ricotta cheese over a helping of pasta and these herbed meatballs in rich tomato sauce. Your accompanying wine should be any red of your choice, but nothing too full of California-style spice or blueberry jam. Why not something more bracing, more cleansing and Italian? A Valpolicella? A barbera, my new go-to wine of choice? I used to have an Italian co-worker named Lorenzo who said, "you really can't find a much better wine than a barbera," -- I think he meant, "in the ordinary course of life, assuming you are not buying Chateau Lynch-Bages as a regular thing" -- and I think he was just about right.

Stefano Farina Barbera d'Alba, retail, about $10.

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