Rolling just under the food trend radar, meatballs are gaining serious momentum this season. We found examples that roll along the road less traveled so deliciously, it’s obvious chefs are having a ball with creative meatballs in many forms.
“Meatballs are truly universal and transcend so many global cultures,” says Jeffrey Quasha, senior director of culinary innovation for Morrison Healthcare. “Our team is currently developing a banh mi po boy featuring the emerging Viet-Cajun trend in a savory Vietnamese-style meatball topped with pickled vegetables and jalapenos, but topped with a Cajun remoulade.”
Morrison Healthcare has taken the meatball trend to cult-like status with its Meatball and Co pop-up brand, which flips an everyday quick-serve pizza model into a whole new world of rotating meatballs with a signature jumbo meatball entrée and elevated meatball hoagies. “The Sunday Sauce, The Triple Threat and The Baller are huge hits in our cafes across the country and make for an easy catering or patient meal experience,” Quasha says.
Paying tribute to the classic
When considering the anatomy of a great meatball-as-entree, going back to the Italian “cucina povera” or “poor kitchen” binds together history and technique, according to Michael Cleary, executive chef with Bon Appetit at St. John’s College.
“Meatballs made from the finest and most expensive cuts like short ribs, sirloin or prime rib, like you might see in some fine dining restaurants, get it all wrong,” Cleary says. “A meatball is supposed to elevate and extend inexpensive and scarce protein. Grinding tough cuts of meat allows it to tenderize more quickly during cooking. Meatballs are elevated simply by shaping, but also by adding umami-driven sub-ingredients. The use of fillers such as bread or rice multiplies the number of portions and serving them in a sauce or broth alongside some form of starch makes them the centerpiece of an entrée.”
Classic Italian meatballs often fit a familiar ratio: two parts beef, one part pork and about one third panade. “Panade is a mash of bread and milk that adds volume to the mixture but also works to prevent protein fibers from tightening during cooking,” Cleary says. “Added to this are parmigiano, herbs onions and garlic.”
Cleary also adds his favorite secret ingredient to the meatball mixture: green bell peppers. He recommends keeping your hands wet while forming meatballs, which will prevent sticking and ensure smooth, round meatballs.
Using the Italian blueprint of protein, binder and aromatics, the meatball can get its passport ready and take off for many other cultures.
Recently, Cleary found a New York Times recipe for Bulgogi Pork Meatballs, a variation of which he serves regularly at St. John’s with steamed rice and house-fermented kimchi. Another meatball on Cleary’s radar? The Vietnamese dish bun cha, which blends ground pork with lemongrass, shallots and fish sauce. The mixture is formed into meatballs, grilled and served in a light broth with rice noodles and chili flakes.
Will it meatball?
The easygoing nature of meatballs means they don’t even have to include…well, meat. Animal meat, anyway. Like the lentil meatballs mentioned earlier, a cool new plant-based ball has entered the game at Baylor Scott & White Institute for Rehabilitation-Lakeway (Texas), where HHS Chef Tommy Turbyfill’s broccoli and cheese balls are “a perfect combo of fresh, savory flavors,” and served with a bright citrus vinaigrette.
“Here, we have broccoli cheese balls over rosemary capellini in a lemon-sundried tomato vinaigrette,” Turbyfill says. “It’s vegetarian friendly. The broccoli can be fresh or frozen, but needs to be steamed until it’s really soft.” From there, he seasons with salt and pepper, then combines the broccoli in a mixing bowl with flour, eggs and parmesan-jack cheese. “Mix it and mash together with your hands,” he advises. “Have fun with it!” After just a few minutes in the oven, the broccoli cheese balls are ready to party. “These can be served as appetizers or a main course option.”
Metz Culinary Management’s Corporate Chef John Selick likes to serve meatballs over polenta, Italian sausage-inspired meatballs, turkey meatballs with Moroccan spices, and, in a twist we’ve never seen, chicken meatballs for chicken paprikash. Our Hungarian granny wouldn’t know what to make of that!
And Metz Regional Chef Xaixier Smith has a vegan meatball blend that includes walnuts, cremini mushrooms, panko breadcrumbs, garlic, onions, white beans, fresh basil, parsley, vegan parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and paprika.