Meatballs are the cupcakes of the world of meaty main dishes
Meatballs can vary in type of meat used, flavor profile and cooking style. Here are samples of cashew chicken balls - made with cheddar cheese and already-cooked chicken - and a Mexican-style meatball, made with raw vegetables and meat that is first fried and then cooked in a chipotle sauce. (By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer / September 25, 2012)
And everybody who makes meatballs has a favorite flavor profile — Italian meatballs, barbecued meatballs, Thai meatballs.
Luke Fogle, kitchen manager of Mountain Gate Family Restaurant and Catering in Waynesboro, Pa., said his catering customers like his Swedish meatballs.
"We blend hamburger and sausage together, and we use our own special sauce," he said. "It's almost like a mushroom-flavored white sauce."
Roger Martin, owner of Penn Avenue Meats in Hagerstown, has two meatball recipes on his website, www.pennavenuemeats.com, a cheese-stuffed pizza meatball and a hamball.
"We have a recipe for hamballs that uses graham crackers. That adds a layer to the color and adds a neat second taste," he said. "Meatballs are seasonal. Ham is good with cool weather."
The rules for meatball recipes are strict. Some cooks use breadcrumbs or an egg to bind meatballs together. Some use bread soaked in milk. Some cooks say a better binder is a little salt — it breaks down proteins and allows them to bind. And some cooks don't use any binder at all.
Chefs also differ on cooking method. Some prefer to fry their meatballs on the stovetop. Some bake or broil their meatballs in the oven. And others cook their meatballs in a sauce.
Martin offered his tips for meatballs that won't fall apart. For beef meatballs, use lean beef — at least 85-percent lean, Martin said. Roll meatballs one at a time to help keep their shape. Make them no larger than an inch in diameter so they cook thoroughly. And before cooking them, chill them in the fridge.
Martin said he's done a lot of variations on the meatball theme. His Swedish meatballs contain cream cheese, milk, parsley, thyme and sometimes nutmeg. He makes barbecued meatballs with quick oats, chili powder, onion and evaporated milk.
In fact, he added, any meatloaf recipe also will make good meatballs.
"Making meatballs is a better, simpler dish than making meatloaf and slicing it thin," he said.
Fogle said there's room to experiment when it comes to meatballs.
"Meatballs are a versatile thing," he said. "You can really make up what you want to do."
I decided to make a balls-in-barbecue type of dish. So I pulled frozen, homemade salsa, chipotle sauce and bean broth from the freezer. The chipotle sauce was exceedingly hot, so I made the meatballs mild. But I also wanted the meatballs to have some other flavor than extreme spicy heat. So to the hamburger, I added minced mirepoix, the traditional French flavor mixture of onion, carrot and celery.
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 cup apple sauce
1 cup cooked rice