Weeknight Dinner: Saucy Sweet and Sour Meatballs
One of the major food trends in Canada and the United States right now is high brow versions of classic comfort food. Dishes like Beef Stroganoff, Macaroni and Cheese with truffle oil and Meatloaf are popping up on restaurant menus all over North America. We all have our idea of comfort food but for me, comfort food is anything that is reminiscent of warm, peaceful, family meals that soothe the heart and soul as well as the belly! Earlier this week, my husband mentioned, when I was listing his options for lunch the next day, that I hadn't made my Sweet and Sour Meatballs in a while. Why would he mention that when the discussion was about the next day's lunch? Well, one of Stephen's absolute favorite lunches is a leftover sweet and sour meatball sandwich so I decided to surprise him by making Sweet and Sour Meatballs for dinner last night.
The history of meatballs is obscure and recipes rare. However, Apicius, the earliest known writer of anciient Rome, mentioned round meat patties and lists their recipes in order of his personal preference. The best, says Apicius, were made of peacock, then pheasant, rabbit, chicken and lastly, the suckling pig. Given the global history of food and cooking, meat was rare and was reserved primarily for the rich. As a precious commodity, we can assume no part of meat was ever wasted and the meatball was a great way to get the nutrition from meat for another day`s food. In 1838, the Oxford English Dictionary described meatballs as "any combination of raw or cooked meat shaped into balls". A recipe written in 1877 used mutton and veal neck....the meatball was a lowly creation indeed!
Just about every country in the world from Albania to Vietnam has some sort of meatball variation, whether it's the Greek kefteddes, famous German Konigsberger klopse, the equally famous Swedish Meatball, Italian polpettes, African foufou or French boulettes. Basically, meatballs are made from ground or minced meat, rolled into a small ball by hand, containing other ingredients like onion, garlic, breadcrumbs, egg, herbs and/or spices. The meat itself can be pork, beef, chicken, game, reindeer or moose and there are even vegetarian and fish options. Beyond that, just about everyone has a meatball recipe passed down from generation to generation.
Through the centuries, meaballs became so commonplace in Italy, that Pellegrino Artusi was inspired to write about them:
"Do not think for a moment that I would be so pretentious as to tell you how to make meatballs. This is a dish that everyone knows how to make, including absolute donkeys. Indeed, it was probably the donkey who first suggested the basic shape of the meatball to humans. My sole intention is to tell you how to preapre them when you have leftoever boiled meat".
My Sweet and Sour Meatballs don't contain any boiled meat....just lean ground beef. But you could use leftover boiled meat if that's what turns your crank...or reindeer if you happen to have some in your freezer, all ground up and ready to go. (Don't tell the kiddies though...I know one 4 year old in particular who would be VERY upset to hear that the meatballs on the dinner table were made from Rudolph!). Actually, the basic recipe for the meatballs themselves is pretty universal, other than the inclusion of anchovies and herring in klopse. I simply combine ground beef, a little ground sea salt and black pepper, dry oregano, a little garlic powder, ground ginger if I'm making Hawaiian Meatballs or dry oregano if I'm going to make Italian Meatballs, beaten egg and dry breadcrumbs. I knead it all together, get my hands right in their and sqwoosh it with my hands, just like it was playdoh when I was a kid. Then it's simply a matter of rolling the mixture into little balls, pan frying them in a little oil until they're nicely browned all the way around, and placing them in whatever sauce I'm using to simmer, the flavour of the meatballs seasoning the sauce while the sauce, seasons the meatballs. It really is a beautful thing!
Seeings how we were having these Sweet and Sour Meatballs for dinner, I needed a side....man cannot live on meat alone! For Hawaiian Meatballs, I'd probably just have plain white rice with the meatballs and pineapple sauce drizzled over the top. With Italian Meatballs in Marinara Sauce, spaghetti pasta of course. But with Sweet and Sour Meatballs, I needed something on the side....something that could stand up for itself next to these absolutely scrumptious little balls of yumminess! My youngest daughter, Mackenzie, really likes Stir-Fried Rice with Green Peas ans Carrots so that's what I decided to go with. It actually sounds more complicated than it is. Very simply, you saute green onions, garlic, ginger, green peas and carrot in sesame oil, stir in cooked white rice, season with soy and hoisin sauces and you're done and ready to serve.
This meal of Sweet and Sour Meatballs with Stir-Fried Rice with Green Peas and Carrots was very simplistic, yet soothing to the belly, heart and soul - my idea of comfort food! What's even better, there were plenty of meatballs and rice leftover for me to have a lunch-size plate today, my husband has his meatball sandwich and there's a few meatballs leftover for Mackenzie to have for a snack when she gets home from school. I just love the versatility of meatballs - make 'em large, make 'em small, with one of hundreds of different sauces. They're always a hit on a buffett table, as an appertizer when entertaining, in soups, on subrolls or bread, or, my favorite, as the main course. Every time I make them I wonder why we don't have meatballs more often, but then, the words of Lemony Snickett, (The Carnivorous Carnival), come to mind:
"Miracles are like meatballs because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from or how often they should appear".
I guess if we were to have meatballs every week, it would kind of take away the 'miracle' aspect! By using lean ground beef, low sodium soy sauce, reducing added salt, and pan frying in a nonstick skillet with only a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, my recipe for Sweet and Sour Meatballs is easy, healthied-up, inexpensive AND delicious!