Remember when I went to San Francisco back in September? I had this great lunch at A16 whilst there and I realized I never told you about it. Seriously wonderful. My lunch companion and I shared a plate of burrata dabbed with this amazing chili oil - the recipe is in the cookbook - and then a plate of meatballs that quite literally were the greatest meatballs I've ever eaten. Swear to God. Pillowy and incredibly tender, perfectly seasoned, napped in tomato sauce so good that should be bottled and sold, and all I wanted to eat for the rest of that trip.
Besides the flavor, the consistency is what really drove me nuts. How were they able to hold their shape and still be so soft at the same time?
Divine providence, then, when I realized that a recipe for these very same meatballs was published in the LA Times not a few days before I went to the West Coast. I'm surprised that it took me two whole months to get around to making these - every time I thought about those darn meatballs, my stomach started rumbling. I'm such a dainty girl, aren't I?
Right off the bat, I made a few small changes: first of all, my store had no pork shoulder, so I was forced to buy ground pork loin. Second of all, I left out the pork fat because, well, just because. I didn't know where to buy it and since I had more than 2 ounces of prosciutto at home, I thought I'd sub the prosciutto for the pork fat. Okay? Oh, and instead of whole milk, I used 1%. Alright, that's out of the way. The raw mixture was gorgeous - sort of wobbly and very moist. The fact that the recipe doesn't tell you what to do with the bread is a little maddening, but I improvised: cut off the crusts and cubed the bread rather roughly.
The technique is simply genius. Instead of frying meatballs in a pan and getting spattered oil simply everywhere, you just lay the meatballs on oiled baking sheets and stick them in the oven for half an hour. (Of course, if your oven is in dire need of a cleaning, be prepared for some smoking, but that's neither here nor there, Miss Filth.) Then you take the meatballs, paleish but firmed up, and pack them into a baking dish, drowning them in pureed tomatoes. That dish gets covered tightly with aluminum foil and back into the oven it goes. Meatballs braised in tomato sauce! Are you hungry yet? I just had breakfast and I think I am.
After an hour and a quarter, the sauce looked darkly rusty and set and the meatballs were cooked through. We set the table, put out the grana and a grater and some sliced bread, and got to work.
Well. Hrm. Okay.
The meatballs were fine, a little over-salted (actually, more than a little, even though I used less salt than called for because Ben thinks he's pre-hypertensive and I'd rather not argue about it), but fine. Average. They were not the gloriously puffy, tender specimens I ate in San Francisco, nor was there really enough sauce - the liquid had mostly evaporated (even though I added 1/4 cup of water to the pan, right before putting the pan in the oven, because the tomatoes looked a little dry) and the tomatoes were sort of thick and sticky on top of the meatballs. I wouldn't write home about these meatballs and sort of couldn't wait to move on to salad (more on that tomorrow). I thought about freezing the rest for those emergency nights when you have to eat something but find the idea of cooking painful on the level of sticking a fork in your eye. That kind of fine, if you know what I mean.
Was it my fault? Because I bought ground loin instead of shoulder? Because of the pork fat? Because of the 1% milk? It didn't seem entirely likely, but who knows. I was going to just write here that the chefs probably had some secret restaurant trick that they didn't want to divulge in the cookbook and that the meatballs are one of those things that you simply have to go to San Francisco to try yourself and leave it at that.
Except as I was preparing to write this entry, I noodled around online a bit to see what anyone else had to say and I came across a Food & Wine article about the restaurant from a year and a half ago. Lo and behold, the article also included a recipe for the famous meatballs and it was totally, substantially different from the one I tried. First of all, no beef at all! Just pork, and lean ground at that. Second of all, no pork fat or prosciutto! Just pancetta. Third of all, more bread and with actual directions - namely that it's not meant to be cubed at all! But blitzed into crumbs. Fourth, yes, fourth of all, two whole cans of tomatoes, double the amount of tomatoes I used. And fifth (I kid you not), the meatballs are supposed to braise for Two. Whole. Hours. Not an hour to an hour and a half.
What gives, people? Why is that recipe so different from the one in the cookbook? If I had followed the Food & Wine one, would I be blessed with the gorgeous texture and sauce I so craved? I don't know, nor can I really face the idea of making another 30 meatballs before Thanksgiving. If any of you try the Food & Wine recipe, do let me know, would you?
In the meantime, file this one in the Frustrating Kitchen Experience folder.
Next day update: I went to the bookstore and checked out this recipe in the actual cookbook: the LA Times didn't transcribe the instructions of grinding up the bread, but the instructions are there in the book, so there's that. Also, the meatballs, after a night in the fridge and then heated up in their sauce, (with an extra splash of water or two) are pretty good: the texture is fluffier and I found them quite tasty. The porkiness was much more pronounced, if you're into that sort of thing. We ate them with spaghetti on this second go-around and it was a pretty nice lunch. So maybe not such an entirely frustrating experience after all, but still, I'm going back to the drawing board at some point.
Makes 28 to 30
10 ounces boneless pork shoulder, about 1 1/3 cups ground
10 ounces beef chuck, about 1 1/3 cups ground
6 ounces day-old country bread
2 ounces pork fat, finely chopped
2 ounces prosciutto (4 to 5 slices), chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes and then finely chopped
1 cup loosely packed, fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried chile flakes
2/3 cup fresh ricotta, drained if necessary (if sitting in whey, drain overnight in cheesecloth)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes with juice
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Block of grana for grating
Best-quality olive oil for finishing
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat 2 rimmed baking sheets with olive oil. In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, oregano, fennel seeds and chile flakes and mix with your hands just until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small piece, flatten it into a disk, and cook it in a small sauté pan. Taste and adjust the mixture’s seasoning with salt, if needed.
3. Form the mixture into 1 1/2 -inch balls, each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.
4. Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the meatballs are lightly browned. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300 degrees.
5. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plate. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes and salt in a large bowl, don an apron and squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.
6. Pack the meatballs into 1 large roasting pan or 2 smaller roasting pans. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and braise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.
7. Remove the pans from the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.
8. For each serving, ladle the meatballs with some of the sauce into a warmed bowl. Grate the grana over the top, drizzle with olive oil to finish and serve immediately.