These Sicilian-inspired meatballs are combo of sweet and savory boasting of toasted Pignoli nuts & raisins for a comforting Sunday night dinner.
I said to my son the other night that I could eat meals like this every day. There is just something so satisfying and soul-warming about a plate of spaghetti paired with moist and tender meatballs, that it simply defies description.
Today’s meatballs are a bit of a Sicilian spin on my previous incarnations of this Italian American classic, featuring soaked bread, pignoli nuts, and chopped raisins, which combine to create a truly moist, succulently tender meatball that needs to be tasted to truly be appreciated.
Ingredient Tips, Explanations, and Pointers
1) Pecorino Romano vs Parmesan vs Reggiano. First things first, Parmesan is simply American produced Parmigiano Reggiano. Parmigiano Reggiano, due to Italian trademark laws, ‘must’ be produced in Italy. Thus, they are functionally the same cheese – although Reggiano is considerably pricier, and regarded to be of generally higher quality overall. Both are produced from cow’s milk, and are aged for two or more years, giving the cheese what many describe as a ‘sharper’ and saltier flavor. Pecorino Romano, by contrast, is produced from sheep’s milk, and is only aged for around eight months, giving it a slightly less sharp and considerably less salty flavor. Very often, these three cheeses are used interchangeably to mean “Grating Cheese.” The honest truth is, very, very few palates can ‘blindly’ tell the difference. No, Locatelli is ‘not’ a variety of cheese, it is an Italian brand of Romano.
2) Pignoli Nuts- What are they? Is there a replacement? Pinoli, Pignolias, or piñón, are simply pine nuts. They are valued for their small size, tender or even ‘buttery’ texture when cooked, and the large amount of oil that they contain – relative to their small size – which seeps out into the food they are being cooked in, thereby spreading their flavor more intensely and evenly than other nuts. As a result, a truly ‘good’ substitute is hard to find, since very few, if any, other nut carries this precise combination of desirable traits. For today’s recipe, I would likely opt for chopped almonds if you ‘must’ replace the Pignoli nuts.
3) Italian Parsley vs Flat Leaf Parsley. The truth here is that there’s very little difference between the two – usually. The first and most obvious difference is appearance. Italian Parsley is generally considered to be much more eye appealing due to its ‘fluffy’ or ‘ruffled’ leaves. Flat leaf parsley, by contrast, starts its life looking worn and drawn, and stays that way. However, there are some that claim Italian Parsley has a slightly ‘less punchy’ flavor than flat leaf, or that its flavor is simply less intense or robust, or that it’s simply ‘more pleasant’ on the palate. The truth is, both parsley varieties, when it comes to flavor, are very sensitive to where they’re being grown, meaning flavor, and the robustness of their flavor, can vary wildly. For today’s recipe, while I personally prefer Italian Parsley, there is truly no harm in subbing in flat leaf parsley if that’s all that’s available.
A Meatball Primer – Or How I learned to Stop Overworking, and Love the Mess
1) Don’t Overwork The Meat. While it might be tempting to work the meat ‘thoroughly’ before you begin rolling it into balls, let me stop you right there and advise ‘thoroughly’ against it. You want the meat and the ingredients to be uniformly combined, and that’s it. Overworking will have the effect of adding too much air to the meat, and of ‘squeezing’ the meat too much, draining the juices then and there, or causing the meat to drain during cooking. This results in ‘rubbery,’ ‘firm,’ and ‘dry’ meatballs later.
2) Don’t Over Roll Them. Once again, this comes down to overworking. You don’t need to pack the meat tight or form ‘perfect’ circular balls. Set them together into rough, loose balls just tight enough to maintain their form, and that’s it.
3) Soaked Italian Bread – It’s Not Filler. For this recipe, soaked bread is truly a key ingredient in making super moist, super tender meatballs. Today’s recipe features bread soaked in milk, eggs, parsley, and garlic. By adding this bread to the meat mix, you are actually giving your meatballs ‘pockets’ of flavored moisture, and during cooking these ‘pockets’ exude their flavored juices into the rest of the meatball, replacing any moisture the meatball might lose during frying, while simultaneously adding flavor.
4) They Love Being Fried. I used to bake my meatballs, but honestly frying them in a cast iron pan with some oil just makes a world of difference. Not only does it give them a crisp and succulent outside, but it truly makes them moister on the inside, since it is a less ‘moisture draining’ process than is baking.
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