It’s a little scary what can happen when a journalistic killer instinct is directed at something seemingly innocuous.
Like, meatballs. And the battle to be voted top meatball chef in a six-way competition.
There is the non-stop smack talk. There is the repeated invocation of maternal units. There is, even, the reflexive forming of menacing kung-fu gestures anytime the word “meatball” is mentioned.
And we haven’t even gotten to things that my fellow competitors did.
This lunacy started two years ago, when the idea for a Meatball-Off was hatched at an Adobo-Off we hosted in which three contestants brought their best vinegary Filipino stew of pork or chicken for a blind taste test. (I came in third — but, hey, I was up against two Filipino-Americans.)
Hungry for the next competition, my lot of dog-eat-dog friends began discussing the possibilities: Scallops, fried chicken, scallops, French toast, chili, scallops. (Yes, my bud Sachin really wanted scallops. Do not ask me why.)
Meatballs made sense — almost everyone has eaten meatballs and knows them well. And this is not a narrowly defined food. You’ll see it on menus in Chinese, Indian, Italian restaurants. (Just yesterday, I had a lovely starter of pork, shrimp and ginger meatballs at Portuguese restaurant Alfama in the West Village.)
Two years of smack-talk later, six ambitious chefs converged in Brooklyn Heights bearing pots of meatballs and simmering sauces.
Who would win? The decision was difficult. Each contestant brought something unique to his/her heritage and distinct likes.
There were Tunku’s pork and beef Indian meatballs, served in a curried tomato sauce, made from a recipe by his Aunty Sudha, author of the cookbook “Curries Without Worries.”
Jesse, of Hungarian and Italian descent, brought Italian meatballs made with his grandmother’s recipe. They’d been simmered in a sauce by “Mooch,” a chappie who apparently spent his entire life besotted with said grandmother.
Sadly, Jesse’s grandmother passed on recently. At her memorial service, when Jesse met Mooch for the first time, a misty-eyed Mooch handed him a jar of his home-made tomato sauce.
Jesse, of course, shared this stirring story at the Meatball-Off. (A shameless attempt at swinging some votes if I ever saw one.)
Chris tapped into a love for barbecue and unveiled super-tender chicken meatballs flavored with chili powder and paprika and slathered in a Jack Daniels sauce with just a touch of spice. Caroline, who can hardly be considered an amateur cook since she once took a course at Le Cordon Bleu, rolled out beautifully plattered and very delicious Italian meatballs that were filled with bits of salami, chopped broccoli rabe and cilantro.
Katie, who spent a significant amount of time in Phoenix, Ariz., and misses the food there terribly, experimented for a week with several recipes before settling on inventive bacon-wrapped chorizo and cotija cheese meatballs stuffed in dates and skewered with toothpicks for easy snacking.
As for me, I went with a meatball dish inspired by a pork belly stew my grandmother used to make — dauyew bak, which means “soy sauce meat” in Teochew (my Chinese dialect), is basically composed of pork braised with star anise, cinnamon, garlic and two types of soy sauce, the regular kind and a version that is incredibly sweet and has the consistency of molasses.
I’d tried the recipe with both pork and veal to see which might work better. After a few days of refrigerating the meatballs in the gravy, however, the pork (at left below) absorbed more of the sauce than the veal (on the right) did, making it the more flavorful of the two.
Each meatball had its merits, making the decision incredibly difficult. And in the end … we had a tie.
My soy sauce meatballs tied with Chris’s barbecue meatballs for first place. But Chef Simpson Wong of Cafe Asean in the West Village had agreed to be the tie-breaker — and it turned out, he’d voted for Caroline’s Italian meatballs first, mine second and Chris’s third. “I just really loved the flavor” of Caroline’s meatballs, Chef Simpson said.
After tallying up votes, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I won, Chris’s barbecue meatballs came in second and Caroline’s Italian meatballs took third place. However, since we had decided against a blind taste test this time around — and some people may have felt obliged to vote for the hostess — I bowed out of the prizes, meaning that Chris came in first, Caroline second and Katie’s Arizona meatballs landed her third prize.
Yes, scallops came up again. As did French toast (also courtesy of Sachin). Dumplings were debated. But in the end, a Curry-Off got the most votes.
Now, we’ll just have to see whether Mooch also makes curry.
Cheryl’s Teochew-style “Dauyew Bak” Meatballs
(Gingery pork meatballs braised with soy sauce, star anise and cinnamon.)
Recipe is a variation of a New York Times sausage recipe combined with Teochew dauyew bak recipes.
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 star anise, broken into pieces
1 pound ground pork
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce (a thick sauce similar to kecap manis found in Asian markets)
1 1/2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
Pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons sugar
6 cloves garlic, bashed
2 star anise
1/2 or 1 cinnamon stick, depending on how cinnamony you’d like it
2 tablespoons light soya sauce
4 tablespoons dark soya sauce
8 fl oz. piping hot water
½ teaspoon salt
In a skillet over medium-low heat, toast fennel seeds until
fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer fennel and star anise to a spice
grinder and grind well.
In a large
bowl, combine ground fennel and star anise with the rest of the meatball ingredients and mix it up thoroughly. Chill overnight for flavors to mingle.
The next day, form pork mixture into one inch-sized meatballs. To prepare the sauce, heat wok with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and fry two tablespoons sugar until light golden. Add star anise and garlic, fry for 1 minute or until garlic is golden. Add light soya sauce, dark soya sauce, hot water and salt and bring to a boil. Add pork meatballs to the gravy and simmer for 20 minutes to half an hour, until pork is tender.
Note: It’s best to make the meatballs and sauce a day or more ahead as the flavors will intensify over time.
Chris’s Barbecue Chicken Meatballs with Jack Daniels Sauce
(Recipe adapted from Cookie magazine and About.com)
1 pound ground chicken
2/3 cup corn-bread crumbs or bread crumbs
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 small onion, grated and drained
1/2 teaspoon paprika (optional)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons applesauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup barbecue sauce (we like Trader Joe’s)
1. Combine the first 8 ingredients. Form the mixture into 1-inch balls.
2. Place the oil in a wide frying pan. Add the meatballs and brown them
on all sides until cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Add the barbecue sauce. Cook until it reduces and sticks to the meatballs, about 1 minute. Serve.
Jack Daniels, about 1/2 to 3/4 cup, or to taste
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups ketchup
1/3 cup vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
3/4 cup molasses
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce, or to taste
Combine onion, garlic and Jack Daniels in a 3 quart saucepan. Sauté until translucent, about 10 minutes.
Add all remaining ingredients, bring to boil. Simmer uncovered until reduced and thickened,
about 15 to 25 minutes. Add more Jack Daniels if a stronger flavor is desired.
Caroline’s Italian Meat Balls
1 lb ground chuck
1 1/2 lbs sweet Italian sausage with fennel (or add fennel seeds or powder)
6-8 slices of good white bread, crusts removed, soaked in about ¼ cup of milk
¼ cup dry breadcrumbs (I used crostini, rolled in a plastic bag)
2 to 3 slices of salami torn into pieces (optional)
½ cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese + 2 or 3 tablespoons more for the sauce and to serve
2 large eggs (beaten)
1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
Big handful of chopped broccoli rabe
I bunch chopped parsley (reserve about a tablespoon for garnish and one more for the sauce)
½ bunch cilantro
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (I use lots of pepper)
Zest of ½ a lemon
¾ cup warm water
A few shakes of Worcester Sauce (optional)
Olive or vegetable oil if you choose to fry.
3 large cans good quality crushed tomatoes (not diced or pureed)
6-8 cloves chopped garlic
2 to 3 chopped onions
½ cup good olive oil
To make the meatballs, rough chop the greens and put everything together in a food processor and blend (pulse) on low speed until thoroughly blended. You may need to do this in two batches, then lightly hand mix together. If no processor, chop everything as well as possible and mix lightly with fork or clean hands. Lightly form the meat into balls about ¾” in diameter. Either lightly brown in oil on all sides on top of the stove in a solid bottomed pan for about 5 minutes per batch, or place on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned (turn during cooking to brown evenly). The baked ones are softer, the pan cooked ones are crisper. Put aside.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan, then add onion and garlic and cook for 5-6 minutes until softened and lightly colored. Using the pan you cooked the meatballs in, with the oil drained but not washed out, gives a good base (or add a little water to residue on the cookie tray if you baked the matballs, and add this to the sauce.) Add the tomatoes, and salt and pepper to taste (canned tomatoes are often very salty). Simmer for about 20 minutes, then add the meatballs and cook together on low heat for about 45 minutes. Add a tablespoon of the reserved parsley and a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese and cook an additional 4 minutes.
Serve with pasta, with the remaining cheese and parsley sprinkled on top.
Katie’s Arizona-inspired bacon-wrapped chorizo and cotija cheese meatballs stuffed in dates
Ground chorizo, either loose or from links.
Cotija (Mexican hard cheese)
Fresh Jalapeno, de-seeded
Fresh red pepper
Ground black pepper
Dried dates (Slightly soaked, to encourage tenderness)
Bacon (I preferred the apple wood-smoked variety of the types I tried.)
Finely chop garlic, jalapenos, onion and red pepper. Vary amounts to
taste/spice-level preference. Fry. Add chorizo. Drain and set aside to
2. Chop fresh cilantro. Grate/crumble cheese. Add both to meat mixture. Pepper to taste.
3. Stuff meat mixture into dates. (Apricots were also another delicious choice that balanced the sweet and savory. Experiment!)
4. Slice bacon into thirds or halves, depending on size of your stuffed
dried fruit. Wrap bacon around the fruit and secure each with a
5. Fry. May take several goes to cook around the toothpicks.
Serve alone, or perhaps with a chipotle adobo and sour-cream dipping sauce.
Jesse’s Grandmother’s Old School Meatballs and Sauce
First get the sauce simmering. The balls cook in the sauce so you don’t want to be tossing them into a pot of cold sauce, Chef Salmonella! Sauce recipe below.
Note: These meatballs will be even more toothsome, if you can stand it, if you make them a day in advance and reheat the day of. Or if you simmer all day.
Old School Meatballs
3 slices dry (stale) bread
1 lb ground beef
1/2-cup grated Romano
2 tablespoons parsley
1 very big, minced garlic clove
1 1/2 teaspoon crushed oregano (less if not fresh)
1 teaspoon salt
dash or two of pepper
1 cup or so flour
some olive oil
1 small, spicy Italian sausage (use an amount smaller than a normal
hotdog) (this is optional)
Crumble up and fry the sausage, cooking it fully. Pick out and discard all the gelatinous globs of fat, because fat is disgusting. Also too much fat in your meatballs will negatively impact your meatball experience in other ways. Drain and set aside.
Briefly soak stale bread in water (minute or so), then squeeze it “dry.” In a bowl, mix together egg, cheese and spices. Knead in the bread and meat. Form into smallish balls. Don’t get lazy and start making them too big because they swell up in the sauce and soon you’re eating meat footballs. Roll your embryonic meatballs in flour, then brown them briefly in olive oil (or if you’re hard core, in the liquid sausage fat from earlier) to seal in their essential meatballness.
Drain the meatballs on paper towels because, again, you are heart healthy. Toss them into the sauce you already have simmering. Let them cook in there for at least an hour, ideally longer. Don’t let them burn at the bottom of the pot or you’ll be sorry!
Old School Sauce
3/4-cup chopped onion
1 or 2 minced garlic cloves (go for two, you wimp)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
four cups of peeled tomatoes (two, 1-lb store-bought cans basically)
2 6-oz. cans tomato paste
1 cup water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
3/4 teaspoon pepper (or to taste)
2 teaspoons crushed oregano (less if not fresh)
1 big, fat bay leaf
some sliced olives (optional, but make them delicious olives or don’t waste my time)
Fry up onion, garlic, oil until the onions are pearly, not browned. Throw everything into a pot and simmer.