Thursday, February 17, 2011

Close To Home

For those of you who actually know me, you know the past few months have been...well, let's just say difficult would be putting it lightly. Things have not been going well professionally, personally, or romantically for that matter. Not that it's really any one's business, you can care if you do or not, it truly doesn't matter to me. I'm just saying that as a preface to the rest of the entry.

Naturally, a subject that has come up has been comfort food. It's the kind of food you have when the chips are down. It's the culinary equivalent of a good friend, it's easy and there when there is trouble. It's largely a visceral thing, you just feel good eating it. This might be because they taste good, (for as bad as it is for you, fat just tastes delicious, c.f. bacon) they are easy to prepare, (out-of-the box macaroni and cheese) or have some sort of nostalgia attached (personally, I have my great-great-aunt's recipe for mashed potatoes memorized.) Everyone has a certain food or two that trigger that response. It's human nature.

The kitchen for me also offers an escape of sorts. Cooking is something that can be done precisely, or it can be done with a lot of improvisation and experimentation. It's very freeing. I woke up this morning feeling rather miserable and headed to the kitchen. Here is where my thought process and the nature of a kitchen combine to take a bit of a left turn. I knew I wanted to cook, but I honestly didn't have a clue what to make, so I decided to start at the beginning of the day and go for breakfast. Scrambled eggs sounded good, but an omelet sounded better. I opened up the carton and was disappointed to find only one egg. However, I also found a pound of ground beef and a jar of pasta sauce, so I decided to go with one of my comfort foods instead, a meatball hoagie.

Now, a little thing about the hoagie, is it is very much a regional item. Well, it is, and it isn't. A true hoagie has it's roots in the American Northeast, usually around a shipyard, depending on which origin story you read for it. Now, do to restaurants like Subway, it's an internationally known item. It satisfies all three requirements for a comfort food, it tastes great, has a lot of significance for me in my childhood, (spaghetti and meatballs was one of my favorite meals growing up) and it's actually easy to prepare. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't share my recipe.

To start off with, it's a very intuitive recipe. There is not a lot of measurement involved outside of the basics, most of the recipe is spices, which are subject to individual tastes. I use a pound of 80/20 ground beef for my basis, as I feel it adds a lot of beef flavor to use as a base. In a large mixing bowl, combine the beef with a single egg, and one cup of breadcrumbs. (just think 1:1:1, and you have the recipe down) It's then time to add spices. I used for this time today several large pinches of kosher salt, about 10 grinds of black pepper (I always use salt and pepper in seasoning) and then the specialty spices; in this case a teaspoon each of minced dried onion, and garlic powder, and two tablespoons of Italian seasoning (a mixture of thyme, sage, and parsley) and my personal favorite, two tablespoons of Brady Street seasoning. This is an amazing spice, available from Penzey's Spices, made with Romano cheese, sweet basil, minced parsley, and green peppercorn, and it is one of my favorites. Knead all of the meat, egg, breadcrumbs, and seasoning together, until you have a uniform mixture.

Then time to partition. In this situation, uniform size is key in order to make sure that everything gets done at the same time. Different sizes mean different cooking times, and that is the last thing you want. I used a tablespoon measuring cup as a partitioning device, and one batch of the meatball mixture yielded 38 meatballs, or one large cookie sheet. Place this into a preheated oven at 350 degrees, for ten minutes, then rotate the tray and bake for another ten minutes. 20 minutes total for the meatballs.

Please note the uniformity of the size, if not the placement.

While the meatballs are baking, prepare a basic tomato based red sauce, I would love to be able to give you a recipe, but I honestly can't. Let's just say it involved a jar of store bought sauce, a can of tomato soup, a can of tomato paste, and the contents of whatever fell out of the spice rack into the sauce as I was preparing it. I learned a few things during this part of the day. First of all, don't overload your spice rack. Bad things will happen. Second, and arguably more important, heated red sauce is like napalm when it splashes. Please practice burn safety. Fortunately, I was able to escape fairly well this time. Somehow it also turned out to be one of the best sauces I've made.

Mmmm...Saucy. Please note the remainder of the crash on the right hand side.

With the tomato sauce ready and heated, the meatballs should be done. Simply remove the meatballs to the sauce and allow to simmer. At this point, time doesn't really matter, but I like to go for at least 20 minutes to allow all of the flavors to integrate. Then serve and enjoy.

A side note for the health conscious: By baking the meatballs instead of frying or braising them, not only was I able to keep them from drying out, I was able to render out a significant portion of the fat. Bon Appetit!


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