I'm back, people. And here to tell you I am not afraid of Swine Flu. I am, however, afraid of swine, um, I mean pork.
Or at least I was until a few years ago. I come from a world where mothers and grandmothers and generations of women before them believed that a single piece of under-cooked pork could fell an entire village. If one of the women folk saw any pink - perceived or otherwise - in a piece of pork, she would throw herself in front of my plate, as if she was saving me from on-coming traffic. And God forbid you had a little stomach ache after eating at the neighbors house, one of the women folk would get all worried and start calling the doctor, "It was Patsy's pork. I knew I saw some pink in my piece...For cryin' out loud, that woman's gonna kill someone with her pork butt."
Swine was never to be messed with. It was the meat that could kill.
From the time I remember, I believed that pork was a dry, tasteless meat that was akin to eating a sneaker. I never loved anything pork-related - except bacon, of course, which is like food of the Gods and if it didn't exist would make, I believed, killing a pig for food absolutely unnecessary.
Pig as I knew it, was served after a good hearty incineration in the oven until it was bone dry and throat-closing. You'd have to be drunk to eat this stuff and believe it didn't taste like shoe laces. I never had really succulent, juicy pork until I was well into my adult years and definately by accident because I would never have ordered it from a restaurant on purpose.
Think I'm nuts? If you don't believe me, all you need to do is go to a BBQ joint where there is always a disclaimer on a prominently-placed sign saying that pink meat is just fine in BBQ/smoked meat and is not a sign that your meal is underdone or that you will have to be admitted to the ICU several hours after paying your bill. Every BBQ joint has one of these. And there is a reason - someone from my family might be eating there.
So, when I was reading Matthew Amster-Burton's new book "Hungry Monkey: A Food-Loving Father's Quest to Raise an Adventurous Eater" - a fantastic and funny book that will give you some great ideas about cooking for and eating with your kids - he was going on and on about pork meatballs and I thought I would give them a whirl.
In the past, I have been faithful to Rocco DiSpirito's mom's recipes for meatballs, which involve a veal, pork, beef combo with breadcrumbs. (For the record, I also often make a variation of her marinara, which is both easy to make and lovely to eat.) Matthew suggests all pork and as filler, bread and milk in his meatballs.
He even brazenly says that the secret to good meatballs is more filler/less meat, which I had never even considered, so I tried out his theory and discovered that more filler, gives a lighter, fluffier meatball and the milk/bread filler is way easier to work with than the breadcrumb one.
The meatballs were awesome, but working with ground pork makes me a little crazy. There is always a child around here that needs to be held or breastfed or comforted or needs a juice just when I am up to my elbows in killer meat. And so, I was going to the sink a lot to wash my hands, which is fine except I kept getting raw pork meat all over the handle of the faucet and so, I'd have to wash my hands and then reach over to turn off the water, only to remember that I turned the faucet on with my swine-covered hands and I had probably reinfected myself. I washed my hands and the faucets, like 30 times.
I also kept having utensil issues. I kept forgetting which utensil I used on the raw meat, so I kept having to go in the drawer and get out a new one to use for the other food. I used about 30 different spoons, forks and knives just for the preparation of this one meal. I had to re-wash flatware just to get through dinner service. And even then, I wasn't sure that some of the swine hadn't lived through the surge of hot tap water and soap. I would've felt better running them through the dishwasher, but there was no time.
And then there was what happened to the gigantic wedge of parmagiano that we bought at Costco. I was adding the cheese to the meatball mixture when I realized that I grabbed the wedge with my hands all porky and probably contaminated the whole thing. I was horrified because (a) it was our only parm and (b) it was so huge and so expensive that to throw it out was like throwing cash right in the bin.
I was flumoxed. I kept staring at the infected edge wondering what to do: throw it in the bin or wash it off and hope innocent parm-eaters don't perish. It was a real toss-up - throw it in the bin, kill people. Throw it in the bin, kill people.
This should have been a no-brainer.
But I couldn't throw it away. It looked perfectly fine and I was bound and determined I would figure out a way to scrape off the bacteria and make it a viable hunk of cheese again. Surely 100 other people have googled this, right?
I did this neurotic dance as 4 children and 4 adults waited for their lunch - Bin. Death. Bin. Death. There's me, frozen, holding a contaminated wedge of cheese. I was a mess. Finally, I washed the cheese in hot water and stashed in a plastic bag in the fridge. I could deal with this later after the guests left. I had more than enough cheese in the meatballs. I still have no idea what happens to parm when you wash it. I'm too afraid to look in the fridge this morning.
As I write this, I'm pretty sure there is a spot on my counter harboring live and active raw pork bacteria, just waiting for me to touch it and infect everyone around me. Every once in a while I walk into my kitchen and just spritz the counter for good measure. I'm sure it will stay there for weeks. I'm contemplating having David rip up the counters and build me a new kitchen.
So, forget the swine flu. That's for amateurs. I have my own swine issues to deal with. Cooking with ground pork turns me into an obsessive-compulsive mess. It's in my genes, written into my DNA.
Still, the meatballs were great. But at least with veal I can pretend to be a sane person. I give you your choice here. Enjoy!
PS: And thanks for all the e-mails gently telling me to get off my ass and post something. I love you all.
Matthew Amster-Burton's Pork Mini-Meatballs
(Also known as The Yummy Mummy's Fear of Swine Meatballs)
2 slices of white sandwich bread, crusts, removed torn into pieces (or just a quarter loaf of the skinny Italian loaf, which was all I had)
1/2 cup milk
1 large egg, beaten
2 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (Not sure how much I got in before I contaminated the wedge)
2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano (I usd dried because it was what I had on hand)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound or so of ground pork
1. In a bowl, combine the bread and milk and mash with a fork until it forms a paste. Stir in egg, Parmigiano, organo, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the pork and mix (hands work well)until well combined.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large non-stick (or cast iron) skillet over medium heat. Drop 1 tablespoon dollops of meat mixture into the skillet. (The meat mixture will be soft, but don't worry about that, the meatballs hold together nicely.) Working in two batches, brown the meatballs on two sides, about 2 minutes per side and transfer to a plate.
Make your marinara (either Matthew's from "Hungry Monkey" page 142-3 or Mama's or your own favorite) and bring a large pot of salted boiling water to boil. Add your pasta and cook until al dente. Drain. Combine the pasta, sauce and meatballs. Serve.
Mama DiSpirito's Meat Balls
1/3 cup chicken stock
1/4 yellow onion
1 clove garlic
¼ cup fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1/2 lb ground veal
1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
3-6 cups of Mama's Marinara or your favorite marinara sauce
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1. Place the chicken stock, onion, garlic and parsley in a blender of food processor and puree.
2. In a large bowl, combine the pureed stock mix, meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, red pepper flakes, parsley and salt. Combine with both hands until mixture is uniform. Do not over mix.
3. Put a little olive oil on your hands and form mixture into balls a little larger than golf balls. They should be about ¼ cup each, though if you prefer bigger or smaller, it will only affect the browning time.
4. Pour about 1/2-inch of extra virgin olive oil into a straight-sided, 10-inch-wide sauté pan and heat over medium-high flame. Add the meatballs to the pan (working in batches if necessary) and brown meatballs, turning once. This will take about 10-15 minutes.
5. While the meatballs are browning, heat the marinara sauce in a stockpot over medium heat. Lift the meatballs out of the sauté pan with a slotted spoon and put them in the marinara sauce. Stir gently. Simmer for one hour.
6. Serve with a little extra Parmigiano-Reggiano sprinkled on top. Serve alone or over spaghetti (in which case, you will need 6 cups of marinara).
Yield: Serves 4 as antipasto or over spaghetti