Saturday, January 28, 2012

Secret Ingredient Meatballs Simmered in Sauce

Somehow, and I don't know how, but I have never made meatballs for Matt. I've seduced Matt with risottos, braciole, ragu, sausage and peppers, stuffed shells, lasagne, and presented him with a panoply of cured meats and cheeses. But somehow, in over four years of cooking for the man who hasn't met a meat dish he doesn't like, I had overlooked this basic Italian-American workhorse. I don't even have an excuse, for I have the perfect meatball recipe from my mother (which is of course her version of her mother's, with an addition from my dad's mother).  And, as is not only my right, but perhaps a family imperative, I put my spin on the recipe: a secret weapon of flavor and fat by adding in some italian sausage to the mixture.  This amps up the flavor complexity, and the pork fat adds great mouthfeel and unctuousness to the meatballs.

The key to making these meatballs moist and tender, but not falling apart, is to mix the meat mixture thoroughly, but gently.  Here's a general tip: don't knead the meat, but using your fingers, move the mixture around and then lift some up and fold over.  Try not to use the heal of your hand too much, it's all in the fingers.

There are a few ways to cook the meatballs, but by far the best is to pan cook, then simmer in sauce.  When deglazing the pan, use some good wine.  If you have found yourself without wine proper, as I did yesterday, call your mother for advice.  Okay, no really, I called my mom for advice, and her suggestion was to use a small splash of Marsala and couple splashes of dry Vermouth (two fortified wines I keep in the pantry).  Brilliant suggestion, and perhaps what I will do regularly, but if you don't have those, but have some red or maybe white wine, then use that!  We took the meatballs and made meatball subs atop rolls with melted mozzarella...which was heaven.  And now these meatballs will be entered into the regular rotation, a fact that has brought great joy to Matt.

For the meatballs:
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1/4 pound Italian sausage, casing removed (hot or sweet)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • generous 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 3/4 tsp dried basil
  • 2 pinches dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth (or water)
  • 2/3- 1 cup bread crumbs (fresh homemade are best!)
To make the meatballs:
  • In a large bowl, whisk together egg, garlic, parsley, dried herbs, salt and pepper, and broth.
  • Add beef and sausage, mixing together gently until sausage is distributed in the beef.
  • Start adding the bread crumbs, 1/4 cup first, mixing gently and thoroughly, then adding more until the mixture is malleable, and will hold into a ball when molded.
  • Turn mixture out onto a board, divide into four quarters, then divide each quarter into five pieces, rolling each piece into a ball, for a total of 20 meatballs.
For cooking meatballs and the sauce:
  • 2 TBS olive oil
  • a few splashes of wine
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • scant TBS dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flake (optional)
  • 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
To cook the meatballs and make sauce:
  • In a 5-7 quart dutch oven or other large heavy bottomed pot, heat 1 TBS of the oil over medium heat.
  • Add onion, and cook until softened.
  • Add garlic, stir for about 30 seconds until fragrant.
  • Clear a spot in the pot, and add the basil and red pepper flake, and cook for a minute to bring out flavor.
  • Add can of tomatoes, rinse out can, and add half the can's worth of water.
  • Bring to a simmer.
  • Meanwhile, in a wide skillet, heat the other TBS of oil over medium-high heat. 
  • Add the meatballs to the skillet, browning nicely all around.  As the meatballs are browned, sink into the simmering sauce.  Make sure to give the meatballs space in the pan to brown, so they don't steam, but get a good caramelization.  You will need to do this in batches, probably three.
  • When meatballs are all browned and placed in sauce, pour off fat from the meatball-cooking pan.
  • Keeping the heat where it is, add a few splashes of wine to deglaze the pan.  Pour the deglazing liquid into the sauce.
  • Simmer sauce for about an hour, or until sauce is the right consistency (at least 30 minutes to ensure full cooking of meatballs).
  • Serve in a sub, over pasta, over polenta, or in a bowl with some bread on the side. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fig Jam, Beer-melized Onion and Brie Pizza

What to make with cheese leftover from New Year's Eve, some pantry staples, and some homemade pizza dough in the freezer for a dinner beside the fire pit in the backyard?  A super fun, sweet and salty very awesome pizza.  Every component of this pizza is unique and tasty and necessary.  Feel free to not beermelize, but only caramelize your onions if you don't do beer. But otherwise, substitutions will just get you a totally different sort of pizza.  And don't even think of using dried rosemary for the fresh, it just won't do.  Because we've had such a mild winter, I still have living, green rosemary in my garden, which is a blessing.  But if you don't have a garden with said hardy rosemary...just buy some.  Absolutely worth it.  The pizza dough I make creates a 12" thin crust pizza.  Which is the perfect amount for Matt and I to split for a meal.  If you use a smaller or greater quantity of pizza, adjust the other ingredients accordingly.  I made some fig jam back in December, but a quality store-bought jam made with only figs, sugar and pectin will absolutely suffice.  I removed the rind on the brie because although completely edible and just fine at room temperature, I find that when heated, the rind on brie stays at a not-so-appetizing chewy/hard level.

If you do not have a pizza stone and peel, make this however you would normally make a pizza in your house.  But I highly recommend you look into the awesomeness that is a pizza stone.


  • Pizza dough
  • 1/4 cup Fig Jam
  • 1 very large onion, sliced thin
  • 4 ounces malty beer
  • 6 ounces brie, rind removed, sliced and/or cut into pieces
  • 1 tsp fresh Rosemary, finely chopped
  • Heat pizza stone in oven at 500 degrees for 30 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, heat a splash of olive oil over medium-high heat in a sauté pan and add onions and a pinch of salt.  
  • Cook onions, stirring occasionally until beginning to turn golden.
  • Drop heat to medium-low and continue to cook until onions begin to brown.
  • Add beer and cook, simmering over low heat until beer is evaporated.
  • Remove onions from pan to help cool to the touch.
  • Stretch out pizza dough over cornmeal on a pizza peal.
  • Spread out fig jam with your fingers over pizza dough.
  • Spread out onions over pizza dough
  • Put pizza into oven, and cook until lightly brown.
  • Remove pizza, place brie slices around, and return to oven until brie is bubbly and melty.


This is my version of my mother's recipe, which is her version of her mother's recipe.  Which means all is right in the world when I make this.  Matt loves this dish, almost more for the sauce than for the little bundles of beef (which are ridiculously tasty on their own by the way).  But you can't make this sauce stand alone- it requires the braciole component and the hour of simmering to achieve its complex, addictive, roll-your-eyes-way-back-in-your-head deliciousness.  If you are new to braciole, it is pronounced [bruh-ZHOLE] (rhymes with pole).  Just like the endless arguments as to what goes in to tortellini, or how to make a Bolognese sauce, there are myriad ways to make braciole, not only from region to region or town to town, but one house, to the one across the street.

Since braciole has so many variants, there is definitely flexibility in this dish.  Don't like the piquantness of Pecorino Romano?  Use some Parmigiano or Grana.  Have a pal, spouse or kiddo who can detect the faintest wisp of the evil "spicy"?  Leave out the red pepper flake.  If you don't do pork or wine in your house, you can omit the pancetta from the braciole filling (which is my addition anyways, not in my grandmother's original), and you can omit the wine in the sauce, but do deglaze the pan with a little water or tomato juice before adding the diced up tomatoes.  Now, you'll wind up with a different tasting dish from mine, but it will be yours and tasty just the same...because making the changes your house likes is exactly what family recipes are good for.

I use San Marzano tomatoes here, worth the extra $ in my opinion for this dish.  In many sauces, I use fire-roasted tomatoes, but that layer of flavor would be lost in this dish (although if you are omitting both the wine and the red pepper flake, then you might want to use them). You can serve the braciole as is for a second course after a soup, light pasta or risotto with minimal sauce, reserving the extra sauce for another purpose; serve the braciole over fettucine or other pasta, but my favorite way to serve this is in a bowl with the sauce, topped with a little cheese and with lots of crusty homemade bread for mopping up the sauce.  If there are only a couple of you in your house, go ahead and make the whole dish.  Makes great leftovers out of the fridge and the freezer.

Serves ~ 6-8

For braciole and paste:

  • 2 pounds beef bottom round or top round (ask your butcher to slice it into thin ~ 1/2" slices)
  • 2 oz pancetta, cut into chunks
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 cup plain bread crumbs (homemade if you have 'em!)
  • 4 TBS pecorino romano cheese
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • ~2 TBS olive oil
To assemble:
  • Cut slices of beef into pieces the size of a playing card.  Using a meat mallet, pound slices to a thickness, of just under a 1/4"
  • Place pancetta and garlic into a mini food processor and buzz until a paste forms. (If you don't have a mini food processor, very finely chop both pancetta and garlic)
  • Mix together pancetta, garlic, bread crumbs, cheese and basil.
  • Drizzle olive oil into mixture until you get a pasty consistency.
  • Put a spoonful of the braciole paste onto a slice of beef.  Roll the beef slice up around the paste, tucking the sides along the way.  If one side of the beef slice is wider than the other end, start at the wider end to facilitate tucking the sides to enclose the paste.  Close each roll with a toothpick if needed.
For sauce:
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • scant TBS of dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flake
  • 1/2 cup red wine (something you would drink)
  • 1 28-oz can diced San Marzano tomatoes
To cook braciole and sauce:
  • In a wide, deep sauté pan or large dutch oven heat olive oil over medium-high heat.
  • Season the beef rolls with a light sprinkling of salt and some grinds of black pepper
  • Place rolls into pan and brown deeply on all sides.  Do not crowd the pan, do this in two or three batches if needed, to give the rolls space to brown.  If you didn't use toothpicks, brown the rolls seam side down first, before turning.
  • Set beef rolls aside.
  • Drain off excess fat from pan, leaving about 1 TBS in pan.
  • Drop heat to medium and add onion and garlic.
  • Cook onion and garlic until softened.
  • Push onion and garlic aside and add basil and red pepper flake, stirring for about a minute.
  • Deglaze pan with red wine, and simmer for a few minutes.
  • Add tomatoes, and add half a can's worth of water.
  • Stir together, return braciole to pan and sink into sauce
  • Simmer for about an hour, until braciole are tender and sauce has thickened.
Braciole is even better the next day.   If you can stand the wait, make them one day, and have the next. Reheat over slowly over low heat in a heavy pot.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Asian Pear, Almond and Farro Salad with Sesame Sichuan Pepper Dressing

At Christmas, we received a lovely gift of gorgeous Asian Pears.  Other than peeling and eating as is, I was looking for a fun way to incorporate them into a dish.  It's been such a mild winter, we figured we might as well keep grilling. After perusing Matt's new grill cookbook, we settled on grilling Sichuan-spiced loin lamb chops (we have amazing local lamb in our freezer, having shared a whole lamb with my mom this fall).  Needing a side dish for the chops, I put together this salad, which is tangy, sweet, savory, and refreshing all at once.  Definitely be sure to use canola or another neutral oil in addition to the sesame oil in the dressing.  Sesame oil is so potent if you use all sesame, you won't taste anything else.  Sichuan pepper isn't a pepper at all, but the husk of a teensy tiny fruit.  Buy it whole and grind it yourself, its aroma dissipates quickly.  If you don't have any, you can use fresh ground black pepper or Aleppo pepper, which will alter the flavor a bit, but still be tasty.  I buy slivered almonds already toasted from Trader Joe's, and keep them in the freezer to prevent them going rancid.  They warm up within about 5 minutes, and make a great crunchy addition to the salad.  Don't combine the sriracha with the dressing ingredients, or it will over power it.  Stir in the sriracha at the end.  The amount does not make the salad too spicy, but if spicy isn't an option for your family, you may want to grate some garlic into the dressing and add a squeeze of lime juice to perk up the dish.

This will serve 2-4 people as a side dish.


  • 1 cup dry farro
  • 1 asian pear, peeled and cored, 1/4" dice
  • 1 small stalk celery, thinly sliced, and a few celery heart leaves, chopped
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds
  • 2 TBS champagne vinegar (or rice wine vinegar)
  • 1 TBS sesame oil
  • 3 TBS canola oil
  • 1/2 TBS grated shallot
  • 1/2 tsp honey
  • 1/4 tsp ground Sichuan pepper
  • pinch of kosher salt
  • 1/2-1 1/2 tsp sriracha or other chili-garlic sauce
  • Cook farro as per package instructions (pearled and semi-pearled varieties cook faster), drain and let cool for a few minutes.
  • In a small bowl, combine vinegar, oils, shallot, honey, Sichuan pepper and salt and whisk until emulsified.
  • Combine farro, asian pear, celery, scallions and almonds in a large bowl and toss together with dressing.
  • Stir in sriracha and serve.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Lentil and Sausage Salad

What does a good Italian girl do when there's a Patriots game on at 1:00 on New Year's Day, thus throwing a wrench into the traditional lentil and sausage meal to start the New Year?  Improvise and create a game-friendly-on-the-couch munchie with the necessary components.  You can make this salad without making the game-friendly version, or, with very little extra effort create a single-bite game-friendly munchie that will achieve the goal of lentils and sausage on New Year's Day.  The salad is dressed exquisitely with a gentle, but tasty dressing, and the sausage, whether you use hot or sweet is cooked to minimize greasiness and maximize flavor.  The prep on the lentils may seem onerous, but I have never cooked lentils in a manner other than this that will create tender, buttery and wholly intact lentils (thanks to Cook's Illustrated for the method).  You can do the brining step up two days in advance, refrigerating lentils after draining the brine.

For the Lentils:
Preliminary Brine:
  • 1 cup lentils, picked over
  • 4 cups warm water (110 degrees)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 5 garlic cloves, whacked with knife to loosen skin, and peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups chicken stock (homemade or low sodium)
  • 2 cups water
To brine:
  • Combine lentils, salt and water in a bowl and let sit for an hour.
  • Drain
To cook:
  • Preheat oven to 325
  • Combine lentils, garlic, bay leaf, water and chicken stock in a small dutch oven or medium sauce pan.  Cover and place in the oven for 40-60 minutes, until lentils are tender.  Drain and toss with dressing and vegetables immediately.
  • While lentils are cooking, sauté carrots and onions in a little olive oil until softened.  Toss with dressing and drained lentils.
For dressing:
  • 1 TBS balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tsp whole grain mustard
  • 1 TBS grated shallot
  • pinch kosher salt
  • few grinds black pepper
  • 1/4 extra virgin olive oil
For sausages:
  • 1/2 pound sausage links, hot or sweet
  • 1/2 cup beer
To cook sausages:
  • Prick sausages all over with a fork and place in a pan with beer and cover.  Heat over medium heat until simmering, and simmer for about 10 minutes.
  • Drain sausage of all liquid and fat, place back in pan over medium heat and brown slightly on both sides until cooked through, about 5 minutes total.
To finish as one-bite munchies:
  • Fill pre-baked phyllo cups (available in freezer section of grocery store) with a TBS of lentil salad.
  • Top each cup with a 1/4" disk of sausage
  • Heat in a 350 oven for about 5 minutes and then serve.
To finish as a salad and/or with leftovers from one-bite munchies:
  • Chop sausage into bite-sized pieces and toss with lentil salad.
Serve warm or room temperature.  If you have fresh thyme or tarragon, chop up a TBS or so and add, but the salad will be just as tasty without.  Will make great leftovers, stored in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days.