I have a calendar that celebrates national food days and I noticed it was recently National Meatball Day. I realized I hadn’t considered meatballs in some time. Many believe that meatballs are simply hamburger patties with seasoning and molded into a round shape. Others never eat them served without spaghetti. Meatballs, themselves, require ingredients to keep them moist and lighten their texture, and yet something to keep them from falling apart. A thick, smooth sauce — the kind produced by canned crushed tomatoes helps.
We had meatballs often in the when I was growing up. They weren’t particularly interesting, but then I suppose having to make 365 meals a year might have gotten rather mundane for my mom. They were quick and easy, and I never thought to complain. I suppose hers were of average size, but always rather thick, as I remember, and not always perfectly round. I didn’t care much for the onions in them because they seemed to be rather large and prominent. Nor were they served with spaghetti.
A meatball is ground meat rolled into a small, flattened, or rather thick ball, containing eggs, butter, and seasonings. They can be fried, which is how I remembered them, but also baked, steamed, or braised in a sauce. The preparations are endless using different types of meat and spices. They can be difficult to define exactly because of their many manifestations around the world, however, their shape is everything. They may be small, designed to go into soups, or to be part of a dressing for pasta, or large enough to be the main element of a savory dish.
Marcus Gavius Apicius, the first famous Roman to write a cookbook, included many recipes for meatballs, so we know the Romans had them often. The earliest, however, can be found in Persian cookbooks that generally featured seasoned lamb rolled into an orange-sized ball and glazed with egg yolk. Saffron, a rare but frequently used spice of this region, likely made them more delicious than those found anywhere else. They were known as Poume d’oranges or simply as “oranges” in Medieval times.
Amazingly, the influence of Arab cuisine also spread to Europe, particularly to Spain where the Moors ruled for centuries. Anglo-Norman manuscripts even point to such influence in their cuisine. Gradually, all Europe created their own versions. Perhaps, even more amazing is that Swedish meatballs are that country’s most famous culinary item. Nothing is thought to be more typically Swedish. Their meatballs are based on a recipe brought back from Turkey in the early 1700s by their king, Charles XII, but the chances of their admitting that are slim.
In Germany, they were known as Frikadelle, Fleischküchle, Fleischpflanzerl, Bulette or Klopse. A very famous variant of meatballs are Königsberger Klopse, which contain anchovy or salted herring, and are eaten with caper sauce. However, none of these names survived among Meusebach’s flock — if anything, perhaps something akin to Fleishe Knodel, but not in our home. They were always simply meatballs.
Most meatball recipes found in America are derived from Europe, but those large meatballs, doused in marinara sauce are 100% American. In Quebec, meatballs are called ragoût de boulettes or, more simply, meatball stew. In Mexico, albondigas, are commonly served with a light broth and vegetables, or with a chipotle sauce — imagine that! Most versions served in the United States are influenced by our European ancestry. Many are popularly served with spaghetti, or on pizza, or on a sub. According to Brian Hernandez in January’s 2013 Pizza Magazine you can even find a Greek style pizza with lamb and a sweet and sour sauce in the marketplace. A search for this pizza at Mr. Gatti’s, Pizza Hut, etc. proved unsuccessful, so it appears that it has not made it to Fredericksburg yet. Nevertheless, there seems to be a prevailing perception that meatballs are strictly Italian, including the accompanying marinara sauce, which is not necessarily so.
Marinara sauce is made with tomatoes which were introduced to Europeans by the Spanish. Right there seems to be the beginning of a joint venture. It is thought that Italian ships from Naples brought tomatoes back from the new world. Some might find it difficult to imagine many Italian ships lurking around the new world, which was divided between Spain and Portugal, yet tomatoes were found growing in Cosimo de’ Medici’s botanical garden in Pisa by 1548 even though it was still a fruit viewed with suspicion. No published Italian recipe included them for the next 150 years when the chef to Pope Urban VII, Antonio Latini, published his Lo Scalco Modern (The Modern Steward) describing a recipe mixing onions, tomatoes, and some herbs — yielding a very interesting sauce, but one perfect for meatballs. I have included a couple of recipes below for you to choose from, and if you are in a hurry, just douse them in a jar of Mom’s Sauce instead of making your own.
1 lb. ground hamburger
¼ lb. pork sausage
1 tbls chopped onion
1 cup soft bread cubes
1 clove garlic
2 eggs, well beaten
4 cups tomato juice
¼ tsp nutmeg
Salt, pepper, cayenne and paprika to taste
Combine sausage, hamburger, nutmeg, bread cubes, onion, garlic, eggs, and a few grains of cayenne and paprika.
Form in a small ball.
Roll in flour.
Heat tomato juice to boiling.
Season with salt and pepper.
Drop meat balls into boiling tomato juice.
Cover and simmer for 40 minutes.
Meatballs with Garden Tomato Sauce
1 lb. ground beef
½ cup uncooked long grain rice
½ cup water
½ tsp salt
½ tsp basil leaves
½ tsp pepper
Heat oven to 375ºF
In medium bowl stir together all meatball ingredients.
Form mixture into 12 meatballs.
Place in a 12” x 8” baking pan.
In a medium bowl stir together all sauce ingredients.
Pour over meatballs.
Cover and bake for 45 – 50 minutes or until rice is tender.
1 cup water
3 medium tomatoes, cut into 1” pieces.
2 stalks celery, slice ½”
1 medium onion, cut into ½” pieces.
6 oz. can tomato paste
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
1 tsp. minced fresh garlic
Or, our Mom’s Special Mariana Sauce can save much time.