For 15 years, I’ve been looking for a meatball as good as the ones my ex-mother-in-law made. As far as I’m concerned they don’t exist. There were no secret ingredients, no magic potions, no unusual cooking tricks. Simple, straightforward meatballs. I can tell you what’s in them, ground beef (she preferred triple ground) italian seasoned breadcrumbs, water, salt, pepper, and a grate of romano cheese. She browned them in oil on all sides and plopped them in the pot of sauce to finish cooking. That’s it. I’ve done it a hundred times. I’ve made them start to finish with her standing next to me. They NEVER tasted as good. I was convinced that there was some chemical reaction that took place when she rolled them in her hands that was the difference. I have no explanation for it, it doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it’s true. When you put one of her meatballs in your mouth, the lights when off in your brain, all your senses stood up and paid attention, and you thought, “Ooohhhhh, this is what a meatball is supposed to taste like!” and then ate every one on your plate (and anyone else’s plate you could get them off). From that moment on, it’s over for you as far as meatballs are concerned. I’ve had them everywhere and nothing compares.
So, what do you do when faced with the knowledge that the best beef meatball is unobtainable? You look for different meatballs, made from other meats, in varying sizes, in endless combinations of ingredients. Let me tell you, there are some GREAT meatballs out there. This is a search that’s fun to be on. Ok, a bit more than a search. An obsession. A small, quiet, no one ever knew it existed obsession. Anyway. I have found some great ones. I found a lamb and risotto meatball that’s so good I’ll knock you off your chair to eat yours. A pork meatball so soft and yielding stuffed into a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich that will just floor you. Then there are these. Now I’m not sure they are in the category of the best thing ever, but they’re pretty damn good. I found them bookmarked in a last years copy of Gourmet (don’t you still miss that magazine?) and finally made them. They’re flavorful, with a lovely texture. Like me, I think you’ll going to think of so many things to put them in, and like me, look down and realize you ate four of them (I know, but I was hungry!) while you were daydreaming.
Chicken and Pancetta Meatballs
adapted from Gourmet Magazine
Of course I’ve made a couple of changes to the recipe, but not major ones.
3 slices Italian bread, torn into pieces (1 cup)
1/3 cup milk
4 oz sliced pancetta, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large egg
1 lb ground chicken
1 tsp. of salt
1/2 tsp. of ground pepper
1/4 tsp. of poultry seasoning (easily omitted)
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Soak bread in milk in a small bowl until softened, about 4 minutes. Cook pancetta, in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until pancetta is almost crispy and most of the fat has rendered out. Add the onion, garlic, salt, pepper and poultry seasoning and cook until the onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Cool slightly. Squeeze bread to remove excess milk, then discard milk. Lightly beat egg in a large bowl, then combine with chicken, pancetta mixture, bread, and parsley. Mix thoroughly, but try to leave the mixture light and fluffy. Form 12 meatballs, don’t pack them to densely (careful, they’re very soft) and arrange in a 4-sided sheet pan. Stir together tomato paste and remaining Tbsp oil (this will not want to mix together nicely, but don’t worry about it) and brush over meatballs, then bake in upper third of oven until meatballs are just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve these with pasta and a light tomato cream sauce, possibly an alfredo sauce, even a reduced chicken stock and some veggies. Made into miniatures and brushed with twice as much tomato paste would make a great snack at a party. I also think these would be super with sautéed onions and peppers on Italian bread.