As I have been laid up with a torn Achilles tendon now, my duck hunting season has been over for a month. Not so for Holly, who is as I write this is lurking in a marsh 75 miles north of here hoping a mallard or pintail or teal flies too close, so she can bring home dinner for us.
Holly has become quite the skilled duck hunter since she started the pursuit a few years ago. Now she nearly always comes home with at least a duck or two. But she doesn’t always come home with those prime mallards, gadwall, pintail or teal. Sometimes she returns with what our fellow hunters call “trash” or “garbage” ducks.
This happened last week. The primary results of her two hunts were a motley string of four spoonies (officially known as Northern Shovellers), a bufflehead and three Ross’ geese, which are the smaller cousins of snow geese, which you can sometimes see flying in vast flocks across the sky. Here Holly is hamming it up with her strap o’spoonies.
Ugh. These birds are a challenge even for me. Spoonies and buffleheads are overly fond of crustaceans and algae, and Ross’ geese have almost black skin (and yes, I of course decided to call them Diana Ross’ geese… ) and no fat. I’ve written about how important diet — and fat — are to waterfowl flavor, both here and in the latest issue of the magazine Art of Eating. Suffice to say they are what they ate…
What to do? Same thing you must do with coots or sea ducks like eiders, which are so fishy they’ll stink up your house if you cook them like a mallard. You skin them, and remove all the fat. I did this with the bufflehead, all the spoonies and two of the Ross’ geese; one was good enough to eat normally.
Sausage was my initial plan, but making sausage on one leg ain’t easy. So I switched and decided on wild duck meatballs. I had meatballs on my mind because a few days earlier, my friends Tom and Ani came over to feed us, and as Tom is a classic New York Italian, he made a pot of red sauce with homemade meatballs. Spaghetti and meat sauce is one of my most favorite things in the world.
For whatever reason, despite this I rarely make meatballs nowadays. I did make a lot of Greek-style meatballs a year ago, and I am still very fond of this Greek venison meatball recipe. But Greek meatballs are not the same as a classic, Italian American meatball. You do do know that spaghetti and meatballs is most definitely an American creation, right? More on that later.
I began thinking about all the meatballs I have known and loved. What makes the Perfect Meatball? Is it the meat? If so, I might be out of luck with my melange of garbage ducks. But to all those who use the traditional combination of veal, beef and pork, I hate to break this to you but the secret to a perfect meatball is not the meat. If lean, one meat is very difficult to distinguish from another, test after test shows. Again, fat is flavor. The reason for the traditional trio is for the differing flavors of texture and fat, not meat.
I decided to cut my duck meat with pork fat. What grind? That’s a no brainer. A fine grind, of course. All the best meatballs are finely ground, both for mouthfeel and for cohesiveness; it is not easy to get a coarsely ground meat to bind into a pretty ball.
I went with a nearly two-to-one ratio of meat to fat, 2 1/2 pounds of duck and goose meat to 1 pound pork fat. Lean meatballs suck. Period. Once I had my ground meat, the next step is also vital: Perfect meatballs are not all meat.
Yes, it’s true — and counter-intuitive. Your mind says that an all-meat meatball will be better than one with “fillers” like bread or flour or bread crumbs. Your mind is wrong. To me, a perfect meatball is pillowy yet substantial at the same time. One way you get that is by adding bread to the mixture.
I owe this particular bread technique to Marcella Hazan in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is to Italian cooking what Julia Child and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for French cuisine. Basically Marcella heats up a little milk and drops stale, crustless bread into it until the bread absorbs the milk, then she mashes everything into a slurry and lets it cool. Brilliant.
The other primary step in making perfect meatballs is to not take your aggressions out on the meat mixture. You mix gently, gently, gently, and not completely. It is OK to have some uneven spots. It makes things more interesting. Think cake, not bread. Note my open hands. Do not squeeze.
You follow that up by forming the meatballs with equal finesse. Use your palms, not your fingers. North African meatballs are made with your fingers (as is their couscous, but that is another post.), Italian ones with the palms. You want a nice round ball that just barely holds together.
After that you want to roll them in flour or bread crumbs. I like bread crumbs because they add some texture to the meatball. These meatballs will deform as you roll them in the crumbs. No worry, just reshape and place on a cookie sheet that has a piece of wax or parchment paper set on it.
To me it is pretty obvious, but there are actually a lot of meatball recipes out there where you don’t fry the meatballs before finishing them in sauce. This is blasphemy in the part of New Jersey I grew up in. And when I say “fry” I mean fry, not saute. Meatballs and spaghetti is a dish designed to show off — really — as newly “wealthy” Italian immigrants found they could serve expensive meatballs and “expensive” factory-made pasta all the time. Much of Old Italy was so poor that these were festival ingredients, not weekly commonplaces.
This means you need lots and lots of oil to properly fry your meatballs. Can you saute them? Yes, but they will massively deform and probably develop burnt spots. Meatballs made with my method require the buoyancy of hot fat. Besides, you can reuse the fat for the rest of the week after straining it.
Again here, perfect meatballs require a bit of technique. The amount of oil should come up to exactly half the meatball — when they are all in the pan. Y’all remember Archimedes and his bathtub, yes? That means start with about 1/4 inch and get that hot, then add more oil little by little until it is at the halfway point. This keeps the oil hot and prevents the “Saturn’s Ring” of un-fried, or double-fried, sections in the middle of the meatball. It’s an aesthetic thing.
Oh, and flip the meatballs only once, after about 5 minutes.
Once they are done, remove to a rack to drain. This is better than simply putting them on a paper towel, although that’s fine, too.
You now have perfect meatballs, which need only to be finished in your favorite sauce. A classic tomato sauce is great, but Holly and I had eaten leftovers from Tom and Ani’s visit for days, so I decided on another recipe from Hazan’s Essentials, meatballs with stewed cabbage.
Basically you slice and stew savoy cabbage with some garlic and oil taken from the meatball frying pan until it is soft and slightly nutty tasting. For all you cabbage-haters out there, and I know there are a lot of them, try this dish. It is not “cabbagey” at all, and the little bit of tomato sweetens things up and gives you a taste link to that familiar red sauce your mind wants with meatballs.
I know some of you are thinking, “so what about those garbage ducks?” What about them? Could we taste that these were waterfowl, and not beef? Yes we could, because I cannot remove every trace of fat from the duck and goose meat. But were they fishy? Not in the slightest. These meatballs were pretty much as I’ve made, off and on, since I was taught this method by the Italians I knew back home: Light, large, meaty, slightly herby and so good you find yourself eating so many you regret it an hour later.
That’s what the grappa is for.
DUCK or GOOSE MEATBALLS
This is a great recipe for ”garbage ducks” that may have off flavors if you ate them roasted simply. I’m talking about sea ducks, some diver ducks, most spoonies as well as Ross’ and snow geese. Hell, Canada geese can often be sketchy tasting. And who doesn’t love meatballs? They are a classic comfort food and easy to make.
For you non-hunters, you can easily substitute domestic duck or goose, or just make these meatballs the traditional way — with a combination of beef and pork. NOTE: If you do this, omit the pork fat, as it will already be mixed into the pre-ground meats.
Makes between 18-22 large meatballs.
Prep Time: 60 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
- 2 1/2 pounds duck meat, skinned
- 1 pound pork fat
- 2/3 cup milk
- 3 slices of good but stale bread, crusts removed
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 4 tablespoons grated cheese (pecorino or parmigiano)
- 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
- Vegetable oil for frying
- Chill the duck meat and pork fat until it is almost freezing by sticking it in the freezer for an hour.
- Cut both the meat and fat into 1/2 inch chunks.
- Grind through your fine die in a meat grinder. If you do not have a meat grinder, you can use a food processor, set on pulse. Don’t crowd the processor and chop the meat in pulses until you get something that looks like ground meat — it will not be as good as with a grinder, but it is easier than hand-mincing everything, which is also an option. Put the meat in the fridge.
- Pour the milk into a pot and set it on low heat.
- Cut the crusts off the stale bread and break it into pieces. Add it to the pot. It will begin to absorb the milk. When it does, turn off the heat and mash everything into a paste. Let it cool to room temperature.
- In the meat bowl, add the salt and spices and herbs, as well as the cheese. Crack the eggs into the bowl, then pour the bread-milk mixture in.
- With clean hands, gently mix everything together. Do not knead it like bread, and do not squeeze things together. Just gently work the mixture — think cake, not bread.
- When it is mostly combined — you need not get everything perfect — grab a palm-full and roll it into a ball with your palms, not your fingers. You want meatballs about 1 to 1 1/2 inches across.
- Gently roll the meatballs in the bread crumbs. You may need to re-shape them before putting them onto a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.
- When the meatballs are all made, get a large pan ready; I use a big, old cast-iron frying pan. Fill it with about 1/4 inch of oil. I use a combination of canola and olive oil. Bring it up to temperature over medium-high heat. When a drop of water splashed in the oil immediately sizzles away, drop the heat to medium and add the meatballs. Do not crowd them.
- You want the oil to come up halfway on the meatballs. Add a little oil if need be; don’t worry, you can reuse the oil. Fry on medium heat for 4-6 minutes. You are looking for golden brown.
- Turn only once. The other side will need 3-5 minutes.
- When cooked, set the meatballs on a paper towel or wire rack to drain. They can be used right away or cooled and then refrigerated for a week, or frozen for several months.
- How to serve? In a standard red sauce — you could try my ducky tomato sauce – or as I did above, with stewed savoy cabbage and tomatoes, or any old way you want. Red wine is a must, though.