Meatballs Braised with Kale
Achieving wonderfully tender and juicy meatballs is all about getting the proportions right: lean meat to fat, whole-butterfat dairy to bread, and even salt. It might seem a little fussy, but weighing the key ingredients and grinding them yourself is crucial to getting perfect results. This recipe is lighter than meatballs simmered in tomato sauce—the braise was inspired by an Italian brodo, with chicken broth, white wine for acidity, and rich-tasting kale. It also hints at the Eastern Mediterranean, with a mix of coriander, cumin, and sumac, a tart, aromatic spice popular in the Middle East. Try it with our tzatziki recipe.
Special equipment: You’ll need a meat grinder—we used the food grinder attachment for our KitchenAid stand mixer, fitted with a 1/4-inch plate.
What to buy: A prosciutto “heel” is meat from the shank end of the prosciutto, where it’s too skinny to yield pretty slices. Ask your butcher for this, or seek it out at a well-stocked Italian deli or specialty market.
For the meatballs:
- 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
- 1 pound pork back fat
- 10 ounces day-old country-style bread (levain is perfect), in 1-1/2-inch cubes
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped coarse
- 3 ounces skinless, boneless prosciutto “heel,” large dice
- 1 1/2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
- 4 large eggs
- 1/4 bunch Italian parsley, leaves and small sprigs only
- 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled but whole
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 2 tablespoons sumac
- 1 ounce kosher salt, by weight
For the braise:
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large red onion, halved and sliced thin
- 4 medium garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 3 bay leaves
- Large pinch chile flakes
- 2 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
- 1 bunch flat-leaf kale, large stems removed, leaves torn or cut into approximately 3-inch squares
- 6 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade, heated
For serving (optional):
- Parmesan or pecorino cheese
- Extra-virgin olive oil
1Cut the pork shoulder into roughly 1-1/2-inch-square cubes.
2Cut the pork fat into roughly 1-1/2-inch-square cubes.
3In a large bowl, combine the pork, fat, and cubed bread.
4Add the yellow onion, prosciutto “heel,” ricotta, eggs, parsley, garlic, spices, and salt.
5Use your hands to toss the ingredients together like a salad. Make sure the meats and fat are well coated with the ricotta, eggs, cheese, spices, and salt.
6At this point the unground meatball mixture should be cold—pop the bowl into the fridge for an hour if necessary. Set up a food grinder fitted with a 1/4-inch plate. Feed the meatball mixture through the grinder into a large, clean bowl. Cover with plastic film and set aside in the refrigerator while you prepare the braise.
7Set a large sauté pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the red onion and garlic cloves and cook until the onion is soft and melted, about 12 minutes.
8Add the bay leaves and chile flakes. Pour in the white wine and turn up the heat to medium-high. Bring it to the boil and adjust the heat to medium so the wine is at an even simmer. Let the wine reduce by about two-thirds.
9Turn up the heat to medium-high. Add the kale and let it wilt, tossing two or three times, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken broth, turn the heat to medium, and simmer to combine the flavors, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set the braise aside while you shape and brown the meatballs.
10Set the broiler to high and arrange a shelf so it’s about two-thirds from the floor of the oven. Smear the bottom of a heavy roasting pan with the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Scoop the pork mixture into lumps of a consistent size (an ice cream scoop works well), then roll the mixture between your palms to form meatballs. Do this as quickly as you can so you’re not working the meatball mixture too much.
11Arrange the meatballs in a single layer in the oiled roasting pan.
12Place the roasting pan under the hot broiler. Leave until the meatballs turn an even, medium brown on the top side, about 12 minutes (no need to turn the meatballs—browning the tops is enough to give them flavor and color). Remove the pan from the broiler, turn it off, and set the oven to 325°F.
13Pour the hot braising liquid over the browned meatballs—it should cover them by about three-quarters (add a bit of extra broth or water if necessary).
14With tongs, spread the braised vegetables evenly over the meatballs.
15Cover the roasting pan tightly with foil. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 1 hour.
16Remove from the oven and serve the meatballs directly from the roasting pan, either at the table or in the kitchen.
17Spoon four to five meatballs into a warmed pasta bowl, and ladle over the broth and some of the kale and onion. Optional: Grate a hard cheese like Parmesan or pecorino over each serving, and drizzle with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil. Serve hot.
Huw Thornton is a chef in Oakland, California
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