By Gretchen McKay

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Not only timely but also one of the trendiest foods of the year: Meatballs!

Categories : Food
The Meatball Shop's Vegetarian Meatballs

Meatballs most often are associated with a bowl of pasta, and that’s a good thing if you’re in the mood for something warm and saucy. But what if you’re thinking “gourmet” instead of “Italian grandma”?

You’re in luck, because the humble meatball is suddenly on a sophisticated roll.

Following in the trendy footsteps of the cupcake and miniature doughnut, these bite-sized balls of comfort food are popping up on menus in a variety of forms and sizes. And while ground beef very often is the foundation, other meats and also fish and seafood are making their way into the grinder.

One of the most requested menu items at the popular Meatball Shop in Manhattan’s Lower East Side are the Spicy Pork Balls, a tongue-tickling marriage of ground pork shoulder and red hot cherry peppers. The restaurant also makes balls from salmon, duck, corned beef, shrimp, venison and — brace yourself — rabbit. They’re called “bunny balls,” and served with mushroom gravy on mashed potatoes.

Big Burrito’s executive chef Bill Fuller says he first noticed the meatball trend last year, while on a dining trip in New York City. “Every time I turned around there was a meatball on the menu.”

Naturally he took the idea and ran with it — what chef worth his weight in ground beef or pork wouldn’t? — putting Mediterrean-style balls on the appetizer menu at Casbah. They’re served on Anson Mills polenta with another current culinary darling, crispy brussels sprouts.

Some other tasty local examples include the grilled pork meatballs at Pusadee’s Garden in Lawrenceville, which come on sugar cane skewers with a lemongrass-tamarind dipping sauce, and the Polpette di Rapini at Girasole in Shadyside: meatballs made with prosciutto and chilis and served over broccoli rabe.

Happily for cook-it-yourselfers, it’s not just a restaurant thing.

Meatball madness has spread to home kitchens via a handful of new cookbooks, including one from the owners of the Meatball Shop, that take the rustic dish to mouth-watering new heights. Simmered in sauce, grilled in a basket over a charcoal fire, breaded and deep-fried to a crisp, or steamed to meaty deliciousness in a bamboo steamer — chances are there’s a meatball with your name on it just waiting to be tasted.

Meatballs are particularly good this time of year because they’re relatively inexpensive and can be made either golf-ball sized (for dinner) or bite-sized (as an appetizer) for your holiday get-together. They’re also super easy: Make them in advance and cook them up to 24 hours later, or bake them up to three days ahead of time and simply reheat in the oven or microwave just before serving, with or without sauce.

The possibilities are endless. Time to get rolling.

Teriyaki Meatballs

Chicken Teriyaki Meatballs

PG tested

My kids liked these Japanese-inspired meatballs so much I had to make them twice, with extra sauce for dipping. Terrific as a finger food but equally delicious tossed with soba noodles.

For meatballs
  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 scallion, minced, plus more for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • 1 tablespoon peeled and shredded fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon Japanese-style soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 quarter-sized slices fresh ginger, crushed under the flat side of a knife
For teriyaki sauce
  • 2/3 cup Japanese style soy sauce
  • 2/3 cup mirin
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon rice vinegar

To make meatballs, combine chicken, panko, egg, scallion, cornstarch, ginger, soy sauce, salt and pepper in a large bowl and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to 4 hours.

Bring 2 quarts of water and sliced ginger to a boil in a pot over high heat. Reduce heat to medium low to keep it as a simmer.

Using wet hands rinsed under cold water, shape chicken mixture into 20 meatballs. Transfer to a baking sheet, then carefully add the balls to the pot. Simmer until cooked through, about 6 minutes.

While balls are cooking, make teriyaki sauce by bringing soy sauce, mirin, sugar and rice vinegar to a boil in medium saucepan over high heat. Boil until thickened and reduced to about 2/3 cup, about 5 minutes. Pour into a bowl.

Using a wire spider or sieve, remove meatballs from cooking liquid. Drain briefly on paper towels. Serve with toothpicks and sauce.

Makes 20 meatballs.

— “I Love Meatballs” by Rick Rodgers (Andrews McMeel, Oct. 2011, $19.99)

Chipotle-Pork Cocktail Meatballs

PG tested

Chipotle chiles in adobo sauce give these meatballs plenty of heat.

  • 1 medium yellow onion, coarsely chopped
  • 2 canned chipotle chiles in adobo, minced, plus 2 tablespoons of adobo sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons very finely chopped cilantro
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground pork
  • 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons finely shredded cotija or parmesan cheese
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons kosher or fine sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 28-ounce cans crushed tomato
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Put onion in food processor and process to a puree. Scrap onion into a large mixing bowl and stir in chipotles and their adobo, garlic, mint and cilantro. Crumble ground pork into bowl and mix well with onion mixture using your hands. Add bread crumbs, egg, cheese, salt, pepper and 3 tablespoons water and mix well. Shape mix into 11/2-inch meatballs, lining them up on a rimmed baking sheet as you go. Bake until meatballs are cooked through and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.

Make sauce by sauteing garlic in olive oil until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, bay leaf and pepper flakes. Drain fat from meatballs, then add to sauce. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Adjust heat so sauce is simmering and cook until sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. (This can be done 3 days in advance.)

Serve meatballs hot, with some of the sauce for dipping and decorative wooden picks or skewers for spearing the meatballs.

Makes about 40 meatballs.

— “Daisy’s Holiday Cooking: Delicious Latin Recipes for Effortless Entertaining” by Daisy Martinez (Atria, 2010, $16.99)

Greek Minted Meatballs

Ground cinnamon and fresh mint give these Greek meatballs, called keftedes, their unique flavor.

  • 1 cup fine fresh bread crumbs
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half, divided
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, divided
  • 2 medium onions, minced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef round
  • 1 pound ground lamb shoulder
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves, divided
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil

In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs and 1 cup of half-and-half and let soak for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a skillet, melt 4 tablespoons over heat, add onions and garlic, and stir until softened, about 8 minutes. Transfer onions and garlic to a large bowl, add soaked bread crumbs plus the 2 meats, and mix with hands until well blended. Add the remaining 1/2 cup half-and-half, the eggs, cinnamon, half the mint, and salt and pepper, and continue mixing until well blended. Form mixture into balls 1 inch in diameter and dust lightly in the flour.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

In a large skillet, melt remaining 4 tablespoons butter over moderate heat and add the oil. Add meatball in batches and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels, transfer to platter and keep hot in oven until ready to serve in a heated bowl topped with remaining chopped mint.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

— “From the Ground Up” by James Villas (Wiley, Oct. 2011, $22.99)

Vegetarian Meatballs with Spinach-Basil Pesto

Who says meatballs have to be include meat? This vegetarian version is made with lentils and mushrooms.

For meatballs
  • 2 cups lentils
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 8 ounces button mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
For pesto
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped roasted walnuts
  • 4 cups baby spinach leaves
  • 2 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese >To make meatballs, combine the lentils and 2 quarts water in a medium stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the lentils are soft but not falling apart, about 25 minutes. Drain the lentils and allow to cool.

    Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil to a large frying pan and saute the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and just beginning to brown. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 more minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. When cool, add the lentils to the vegetable mixture.

    Add the eggs, parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley and walnuts to the cooled vegetables and lentils and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated. Place in the refrigerator for 25 minutes.

    Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.

    Roll the mixture into round golf ball-sized meatballs (about 11/2 inches), making sure to pack the vegetable mixture firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish, allowing 1/4 inch of space between the balls and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid.

    Roast for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish.

    To make pesto, fill a large stockpot 3/4 full with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice and water, and set aside. When water is boiling, add spinach and basil and stir. After 1 minute, strain the greens, and plunge into ice water. Drain again and squeeze them tightly to get as much water out as possible. Chop greens roughly. Combine greens and nuts with salt, olive oil and parmesan in a food processor, and process until a smooth consistency is reached. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired.

    Makes about 2 dozen 11/2-inch meatballs and 4 cups pesto.

    — “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow (Ballantine, Nov. 2011, $28)

    Spanish Meatball Tapas with Sherry-Garlic Sauce

    Serve these communally, right from the skillet, as the residual heat helps keep them warm. Offer with lots of crusty bread to wipe up every last drop of sauce.

    For meatballs
    • 12 ounces ground round (85-percent lean)
    • 12 ounces ground pork
    • 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
    • 1 large egg, beaten
    • 2 cloves garlic, minced
    • 1 teaspoon sweet Spanish or Hungarian paprika
    • 1 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 2 tablespoons olive oil, or more as needed
    • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
    For sauce
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 4 cloves garlic, minced
    • 1/2 cup dry sherry
    • 1/2 cup canned reduced-sodium chicken broth
    • Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish
    • Wooden toothpicks, for serving

    To make meatballs, combine ground meats, bread crumbs, egg, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper in a large bowl and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to 4 hours.

    Using wet hands rinsed under cold water, shape the mixture into 32 equal small (one bite) meatballs. Transfer to baking sheet.

    Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. In batches, roll meatballs in flour to coat, shaking off excess flour. Add meatballs to skillet and cook, turning occasionally and adding more oil as needed, until lightly browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate.

    To make sauce, let skillet cool for a few minutes. Add oil and garlic to the skillet. Stir over low heat until garlic softens, about 1 minute. Add sherry and increase the heat to high. Bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits in the skillet with a wooden spoon. Stir in broth. Return meatballs to skillet and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer until meatballs are cooked through and sauce is lightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Season sauce with salt and pepper.

    Sprinkle meatballs with parsley and serve, directly from the skillet, with toothpicks for spearing.

    Makes 32 meatballs.

    — “I Love Meatballs” by Rick Rodgers (Andrews McMeel, 2011, $19.99)

    Reuben Balls

    PG tested

    These taste exactly like the classic sandwich, only with none of the mess. I used marbled rye and added a bit more caraway seed.

    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 pound corned beef, finely chopped
    • 1 pound ground pork
    • 1 1/4 cups sauerkraut, roughly chopped and squeezed to remove as much liquid as possible
    • 5 large eggs
    • 3/4 pound swiss cheese, grated
    • 2 slices fresh rye bread, finely diced
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
    • Thousand Island dressing for serving

    Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle olive oil into a 9 by 13 inch baking dish and use your hand to coat the entire surface. Set aside.

    Combine remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

    Roll mixture into round, golf ball-sized balls (about 11/2 inches), making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place balls in prepared dish, being careful to line them up snugly in even rows to form a grid. Meatballs should be touching one another.

    Roast for 20 minutes, or until meatballs are firm and cooked through (a meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 165 degrees).

    Allow meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in baking dish before serving with Thousand Island dressing for dipping.

    Makes about 30 meatballs.

    — “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” by Daniel Holzman & Michael Chernow (Ballantine, Nov. 2011, $28)

    Cocktail Spaghetti and Meatballs

    These appetizer-sized meatballs are served with a nest of spaghetti on top.

    For pasta sauce
    • 2-inch piece carrot, finely chopped
    • 2-inch piece celery, finely chopped
    • 2 teaspoons chopped shallot (about 1/2 medium)
    • 1 bay leaf
    • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
    • 1 1/2-inch piece cinnamon stick
    • 1 cup heavy cream
    • 2 teaspoons unsalted butter
    • 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
    • Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
    For meatballs
    • 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
    • 1 small shallot, minced
    • 4 garlic cloves, minced
    • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
    • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
    • 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
    • 4 teaspoons tomato paste
    • 2 teaspoons port wine
    • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
    • Freshly ground black pepper
    • 1 pound 90-percent-lean ground beef
    • 1/2 cup canned or homemade beef broth
    For serving
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  • 1 1/2 cups store-bought marinara, pureed
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Cooked spaghetti
  • Make pasta sauce by placing carrot, celery, shallot, bay leaf, garlic and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Cover with cream. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until reduced by one third, about 20 minutes. Strain sauce through a fine-mesh sieve (discard solids) into medium bowl, then pour back into saucepan. Set over low heat.

    Melt butter in another small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until paste is straw colored, about 30 seconds. Whisk in reduced pasta sauce in a slow, steady stream. Once a few bubbles burst at the surface, season with salt and pepper and remove from heat.

    Make meatballs by heating olive oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add shallot and cook, stirring often, until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Turn off heat and scrape mixture into a large bowl to cool.

    Once shallot mixture is cool, whisk in egg, heavy cream, parmesan cheese, tomato paste, port, salt and pepper to taste. Add ground beef and mix gently with hands until well combined. Shape mixture into tablespoon-sized balls and place in a baking dish.

    Pour beef broth into baking dish, cover with foil and bake until meatballs are cooked through, 7 to 10 minutes. Remove dish from oven, discard foil and let meatballs cool to room temperature. Slice a small bit off the top and bottom of each meatball to create a flat surface, then place meatballs on a serving platter.

    Reheat pasta sauce over medium-low heat until warm. Stick a fork into a pile of pasta and twirl to make a 3- or 4-strand nest. Dip the nest into warm pasta sauce and then carefully slide it off fork and onto meatball. Repeat with remaining meatballs. Finish each meatball with a dollop of pureed marinara sauce, some parmesan and chopped parsley. Transfer to a platter and serve.

    Makes 2 dozen.

    — “Bite by Bite” by Peter Callahan (Clarkson Potter, 2011, $35)