Sunday, December 4, 2011

Meatballs: A Personal History

I grew up in a (mostly) Irish family and we never, ever had meatballs, so my introduction to meatballs was via the school cafeteria hot lunches I ate when I was a kid. On Mondays we had meatloaf and then on Wednesdays we had spaghetti and meatballs and I suspect they just crumbled up the leftover Monday meatloaf and threw it into the spaghetti sauce.

I absolutely adored spaghetti (which we rarely had at home) but I never quite warmed to the meatballs. I would eat the starch and ignore the protein (even though I had been trained by my mom to do the exact opposite. I could hear her voice in my head: "Eat the protein first! Only when you're done with the protein may you have some starch!") I really didn't care for the meatballs, though, and never got into enjoying them until years later when I tasted my first Swedish meatball.

Encountering Swedish meatballs for the first time was one of those "Where have you been all my life?" moments. The combination of creamy sauce and savory meat flavor was an instant winner in my book. I still, however, eschewed the classic Italian meatball.

The only Chinese food I ever had growing up was the awful boil-in-bag frozen stuff my mom loved to serve because it was so easy to prepare. LaChoy may have intended to make "Chinese Food... Swing American!", but the dinners we had were sad, gray affairs, featuring lifeless boiled bean sprouts as the main attraction. Nothing had any texture, color, or flavor. (And coming from someone who grew up on Irish cuisine, trust me, that is quite a damning statement!) Blech! I thought I hated Chinese food.

When I was a senior in high school one of my friends invited me to go out to dinner with her family at a local Chinese restaurant. I had never been to a Chinese restaurant before. I couldn't believe the tastes and smells. I found out that I really liked Chinese food that had actually been made from fresh ingredients and cooked in woks rather than boiled in bags. I had what is now my #1 comfort food - Hot and Sour Soup - for the first time that night, thus beginning a very satisfying lifelong affair.

Still, I didn't encounter Peking Ravioli until I moved to Boston right after graduating from college. I love Peking Ravioli but the quality of the dough that surrounds the delicious nugget of meat varies vastly. Sometimes you can get Peking Ravioli with a thin, delicate layer of dough encasing the savory morsel of meat. Other times, the ravioli are covered with twice as much dough as there is filling.

When I am faced with a dumpling that is too doughy for my taste, I use my chopsticks to perform a meatballectomy and I carefully extract the savory meat from the doughy shell. After having done this a few times in restaurants I decided to try to make Peking Ravioli meatballs at home. I experimented with different combinations of ground beef, scallions, garlic, and ginger, and sometimes I would add five spice powder. Usually I'd cook the meatballs in a little bit of beef broth and then serve them over rice using the broth as the sauce. It's delicious!

As soon as I saw the recipe in Patricia's book for Steamed Tangerine Meatballs I was instantly intrigued. I had to try it! The recipe is quick and simple, and the addition of tangerine peel to the meatballs gives them a wonderful flavor. To read my account of making - and tasting! - the meatballs, see this previous post.

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