Photo by Hank Shaw
Is there a meal more comforting than spaghetti and meatballs? Not in my world. It is my go-to dish when I tire of the trendy or the technically difficult.
I grew up in New Jersey, where spaghetti and meatballs is on someone’s table 365 days a year, and everyone has his own version: Vermicelli instead of spaghetti. Pecorino cheese. No, Parmesan. Lots of bread in the meatball – makes it fluffy. Red pepper flakes? Loathed or loved. Meat in the sauce? Blasphemy with spaghetti and meatballs. You just don’t eat meat with meat sauce, paisan. Capisce?
Traditionally these meatballs are golfball-sized, and I will not veer from that path. It is a good size, big enough to retain moisture, and you get to cut the ball with your fork, making sure every freshly cut side gets anointed with the marinara sauce that must accompany this dish. Traditional meatballs are also made with a combination of veal, beef and pork.
But I no longer buy meat and have no wild boar in the freezer. But I do have venison, specifically a whitetail doe that had lived its life in a Wyoming alfalfa field. I’d use this. But game is so lean, you say? Not this deer. Her cushy life let her lay down a two-inch thick layer of fat that was every bit as clean and sweet as the fat in prime beef. This, by the way, is very rare in the world of deer, where venison tallow can often be bitter and sour. So my pound-and-a-half of ground venison was ready to go.
Then the old problem: Fluffy or firm? Bread or breadcrumbs? Neither. I have a Greek recipe for meatballs that uses bulgur wheat instead of bread. I like bulgur, and thought its coarse earthiness would compliment the venison. I was right. These meatballs rock! Juicy, meaty and firm – but not as firm as a breadcrumb meatball – with lots of garlic, parsley and oregano. A revelation.
To celebrate this Greek victory, I made my traditional marinara sauce more Hellenic by adding sweet wine and cinnamon, which are often used in Greek tomato sauces.
[recipe_name]GREEK VENISON MEATBALLS[/recipe_name]
[summary]This is a riff off traditional spaghetti and meatballs, with a Hellenic touch. It jazzes up one of my favorite comfort foods with a bit more garlic, a bit more sweetness and a chewiness from the bulgur wheat that is a revelation.
These are not the fluffy meatballs of an old “red sauce” restaurant, nor the dry orbs that most wild game meatballs become. Serve this with spaghetti and grated myzithra cheese, if you can find it. Pecorino or parmesan is just fine, too.[/summary]
[yield]Makes about 18 golfball-sized meatballs[/yield]
Prep Time:[preptime time=2H] 2 hours[/preptime]
Cook Time:[cooktime time=20M] 20 minutes[/cooktime]
- [ingredient][amount]1 1/2 pounds[/amount] [item]ground vension[/item] or [item]ground lamb[/item] [/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]1/2 cup[/amount] [item]bulgur wheat[/item][/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]1/2[/amount] [item]red onion[/item], minced fine[/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]5 cloves[/amount] [item]garlic[/item], minced fine[/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]1/4 cup[/amount] minced [item]parsley[/item][/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]2 tablespoons[/amount] minced [item]fresh oregano[/item][/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]1 tablespoon[/amount] [item]salt[/item][/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]1 tablespoon[/amount] fresh ground [item]pepper[/item][/ingredient]
- [ingredient][amount]1[/amount] [item]egg[/item], lightly beaten[/ingredient]
- About [ingredient][amount]1/2 teaspoon[/amount] [item]nutmeg[/item], grated[/ingredient]
- Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to let the bulgur absorb moisture. Two is better.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Take the meat out and knead it well until it forms a cohesive mass. You are making the primary bind here, so the meatball stays together.
- Take an ice cream scoop and make your meatballs. Or you could use some kind of big spoon or other measure. Just make sure you are pretty consistent in size.
- Arrange the meatballs on stout cookie sheet or better yet a mini-muffin pan (got that idea from Alton Brown), that has been greased. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until nice and brown.
- You are now ready to finish them in sauce and serve.
[recipe_name]GREEK TOMATO SAUCE[/recipe_name]
- 2 quarts crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 minced onion
- 1 can anchovies in oil
- 1/2 cup sweet red wine (Mavrodaphne is best)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano, crushed
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- salt to taste
- In a pan, heat olive oil and saute onions over medium-high heat until they are translucent, about 3-5 minutes. Add anchovies, mash in the pan and combine with the onions.
- Add tomato paste and stir to combine. Cook this until it turns a deep maroon, about 4-5 minutes.
- Add wine and stir to combine. Add cinnamon stick and cook down by half.
- Add crushed tomatoes, combine well and add the oregano and salt. Cook this down uncovered over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
- If you feel adventurous, run this sauce through a food mill on a medium setting – after you remove the cinnamon stick. Serve at once, or pour over the meatballs and serve another day. Either is good.