Monday, February 7, 2011

Meatballs/Roasted Tomato Sauce

Now that we've officially reached the dead of winter here in the Midwest, the Commissary has kicked into high gear, cranking out dishes (some good, some bad) at a breakneck pace. The following is the first of a series of postings on recent in-house cooking endeavors, soon to be followed by a couple of upcoming restaurant reviews.

After watching the East Coast get repeatedly bombarded by snowstorms over the past month or two, it was finally our turn last Tuesday to get slammed by high winds and heavy snow. I can't say for sure what the final snowfall totals were around our neighborhood (18 inches seemed to get tossed around by the local media), but suffice it to say that the drifts in and around our driveway came up to my eyeballs in places. With the wind howling along at 40 mph, I decided it was the perfect night to make our house meatballs along with a new red sauce (more on the sauce in a minute). The meatball recipe we use here is one adapted from my grandmother's side (the Nutonis, originally from Tuscany), made marginally healthier by the use of ground turkey instead of ground beef (Ugh, you say? Try me - I'll bet you wouldn't be able to tell the difference). I've made them enough now that I feel pretty good about both the ingredients and the technique, which is heavily reliant on a cast-iron skillet to get a nice char on the outside of the meatballs (this happens to be the key). When you've got your wife swooning and even your kids are eating a couple of bites, you know that you've got a great thing going.

1-1.5 lb. ground beef or ground turkey
3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. chopped parsley
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (plus 3 more Tbsp. for the skillet)
1 egg, slightly beaten
3/4 c. seasoned bread crumbs
1 tsp. garlic salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/4 c. water

Mix all ingredients thoroughly in a large bowl. Shape into 2"-3" diameter balls. Heat oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides, turning about every 5-7 minutes (I usually go 7 minutes initially, then start turning them at 5-minute intervals). Place on dish with paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve alone or with your favorite tomato sauce.

Speaking of sauce, I stumbled across a roasted tomato sauce recipe in an old copy of Cook's Illustrated (lent to me by our new foodie friends, the Gs - thanks, guys) that is specifically geared for the winter months when fresh tomatoes are scarce. The recipe entails roasting vine-ripened tomatoes from the supermarket (along with some onions and garlic) in the oven to bring out the caramelized flavor of the vegetables. This is quite a bit different from our usual house sauce, which has a ground meat base and uses canned tomato sauce/paste to build flavor (plus, it's simmered, not roasted). Most of the effort is spent in vegetable prep, namely halving/coring the tomatoes. Once everything gets arranged on the roasting pan and cooked up, it was a pretty small matter to just puree it all in the food processor and have it ready to go. As far as the taste, Mrs. Hackknife stated that she "really liked it", although stopped short of pronouncing it better than our usual sauce, so now I guess we have 2 go-to sauce recipes.

2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. minced fresh thyme leaves
1/8 tsp. red pepper flakes
3 lb. vine-ripened tomatoes (about 9-12)
6 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 small onion, cut into 1/2" rounds
1 tsp. red wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves
granulated sugar, salt, and pepper (to taste)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 475F. Halve each tomato and remove the cores. Combine tomato paste, 1 Tbsp. oil, thyme, pepper flakes, 3/4 tsp. salt, and 1/4 tsp. pepper in a large bowl. Toss tomatoes, garlic, and onion with mixture until well-coated. Place a 4" square of aluminum foil in the center of a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil. Place onion/garlic on foil square and arrange tomato halves (cut side down) around foil square. Roast until vegetables are soft and tomato skins are well charred (45-55 minutes). Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Transfer garlic and onion to food processor; pulse until finely chopped (about 5 1-second pulses). Add tomatoes, vinegar, and remaining oil to food processor; pulse until broken down, but still chunky (about 5 1-second pulses). Using a rubber spatula, scrape down bowl; season with salt, pepper, and sugar to taste. Continue to process sauce until slightly chunky (about 5 1-second pulses). Stir in basil.

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