If you've ever made meatballs before, you know that it involves more than just meat, rolled into balls, to get to where you want to go. Well, maybe, maybe not. I've been known to buy sausage and call it a day. But if you're starting with straight-up ground meat, you're going to need to add some friends to the mix to achieve the big-flavor, wow-worthy meatballs we're after.
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop stylist: Brook Deonarine. Food stylist: Drew Aichele.
What you add, of course, depends on the recipe. Rao's Genius Meatballs are a good example of an Italian-American classic. You've got beef, veal, and pork, plus eggs, bread crumbs, grated cheese, fresh parsley, and then some. Cynthia Chen McTernan's Lion's Head Meatballs showcase the Shanghainese approach — with sugar, shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallion, ginger, garlic, eggs, and cornstarch. (Both have honorary Big Little ingredient salt, but you knew that already.)
But what are the essentials here? Meat, obviously. And some sort of binder. Eggs and crumbs both fit the bill, which is why lots of recipes include both. But there's something else that I like even better: cooked whole grains. This is an awesome way to stretch a high-value ingredient and add another hearty, nutty flavor to the mix. Whatever is in your pantry will probably work — be it rice, bulgur, or, my personal favorite, quinoa.
I've applied this method toward Italian-style pork meatballs with Pecorino, garlic, and fennel seeds. Not only does the quinoa fluff up the texture, yielding lighter, airier meatballs, but it creates an unbelievably crusty crust when crisped in oil.
In this case, I turn to chicken. Which, if I'm being honest, has always been my last pick when it comes to ground-meat dishes, whether it's meatballs, meatloaf, meat sauce, you get the idea. Unlike beef or pork, the ground chicken you typically find at the supermarket is all white meat, lean and dry and flavorless.
Then I read our latest book, "Dynamite Chicken" and found a better way: chopping up chicken thighs, pulsing them in a food processor, and ending up with DIY ground chicken. Because it starts with dark meat, the meatballs are flavorful to the nines, not to mention almost impossible to dry out. Combine this with just-cooked quinoa and you end up with a meatball that thinks it's a chicken nugget. And maybe it is!
You could put these toward a million things, and I hope you do. Pile them on tomato-sauced spaghetti. Sandwich them between a warm hoagie with mayo-mustard and bread-and-butter pickles. Plunk them next to tater tots and ketchup. But before you do any of that, serve them with garlicky greens.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
- 2/3 cup white quinoa, rinsed
- 1 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, chopped into 1-inch pieces
- 2 cloves garlic (optional)
- 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 12 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 2 heads escarole, quartered and washed well
- Add the quinoa to a small pot with 1 ⅓ cups water. Set over medium heat and bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low-as-possible. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until all the water has evaporated, and the quinoa is fluffy and tender. Dump onto a plate and spread out so it cools.
- Pulse the chicken thighs and garlic in a food processor, in small batches, until finely ground (but not pureed!). Transfer to a large bowl and add the salt, 1 tablespoon cold water, and cooled quinoa. Stir gently to combine. Form into small, nugget-size meatballs (figure a heaping tablespoon each—yielding 25 to 30).
- Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat and add enough olive oil to create a thin film. When the oil is hot, add about half the meatballs (pan-frying in batches means better browning). Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, turning as needed, until they're crusty and golden-brown all over and cooked through (about 165°F internal temperature); transfer to a plate or wire rack. Repeat with the remaining meatballs, adding fresh oil if needed.
- While the meatballs are cooking, sauté the escarole. Combine the olive oil and garlic in a super-large sauté pan or pot, then set over medium heat. When the garlic just starts to turn golden, add the escarole and toss. Cover and cook for 5 minutes until the escarole has wilted significantly, then uncover and cook for another 5 minutes or so until it's tender. Season with salt to taste.
- Serve the meatballs with the escarole—or on top of the escarole or whatever you want.