I lived in Los Angeles for 25 years and I can tell you that when Nancy Silverton opened the La Brea Bakery with her husband in 1989 she brought artisan quality breads to a city bereft of a defined 'bread culture'. I'm talking pre-fab white bread on the tables of fine restaurants, and bakeries filled with doughnuts, cupcakes, cookies...everything but real honest bread. For all of our years in LA we relied on the La Brea breads for everything from baguettes to croissants. It's no surprise to me that the brand soon went nationwide. That same year she and her husband also opened the restaurant Campanile, where Mediterranean cooking met up with the fresh local California produce and created a sensation. Their regular Thursday Grilled Cheese Nights have a cult following.
She sold both businesses and made many millions, but, sadly, her financial investor lost it all in the Madoff ponzi scheme scandal. Not to worry---by that time Silverton had already gone on to open two more restaurants, the hip Melrose Avenue Osteria Mozza and Pizzaria Mozza with partners Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, and just last month she published her 8th cookbook, the Mozza Cookbook.
I chose to make the famous Meatballs al forno, a favorite dish at Osteria Mozza. The recipe also appears in the cookbook. At the restaurant the meatballs are served Italian style, in a little bowl with sauce, not piled on top of a mountain of spaghetti like Americans eat them. Below is her recipe, I've simplified the instructions a bit.
A few notes: I substituted ground beef for the ground veal, since I don't eat veal, and I didn't have the dried chilies so I omitted them. I sent my husband out for the meat, and the butcher misunderstood and gave him prosciutto instead of pancetta. Oh well, close enough.
This is a dish that takes some time. There is a fair amount of prep and I recommend you do it ahead, and maybe even go so far as to use those little prep dishes for your ingredients since for much of this process you will be up to your elbows in raw meat. In other words, don't plan on chatting on the phone while you put together these babies.
When mixing the meat, Silverton advises you to "use the tips of your fingers as if you were playing the piano" to avoid tough meatballs. As I was doing the mixing this made a lot of sense, even though my only experience of the piano was painfully plodding through Mazurkas during my weekly lessons. It's a good technique, I plan to use it on my next meatloaf.
Meatballs al forno (from The Mozza Cookbook)
(heat oven to 350)
- 3/4 cup diced day- old, crustless bread
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano- Reggiano (about 6 ounces), plus a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating
- 1/2 large yellow Spanish onion, minced (about 1 cup)
- 2/3 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
- 2 extra- large eggs
- 4 large garlic cloves, minced
- 2 to 3 teaspoons pure ground red pepper flakes, plus more to taste
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound ground pork (preferably pork butt)
- 1 pound ground veal (I used beef)
- 6 1/2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped or minced in a miniature food processor
- All-purpose flour, for dredging (about 1 1 1/2 cups)
- 1/4 cup extra- virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
- 1 quart Passata de Pomodoro (recipe follows) or tomato sauce (I used tomato sauce)
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 3 dried bay leaves
- 3 dried arbol chiles (I omitted them)
Put the day- old bread in a small bowl, pour in the milk, and set aside to soak the bread for about 5 minutes. Combine the 11⁄2 cups Parmigiano-Reggiano, onion, parsley, eggs, garlic, ground red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper in a large bowl and stir to thoroughly combine. Add the pork, veal (or beef), and pancetta. Squeeze the bread in your fist to press out the milk, discarding the excess milk. Add the bread to the bowl with the other ingredients and use the tips of your fingers as if you were playing the piano to combine the ingredients without overworking them, which makes for heavy meatballs. Divide the meat into 2- ounce portions and roll each portion into a ball.
Pour the olive oil into a large Dutch oven or ovenproof skillet and add more if needed to cover the bottom of the pan to 1⁄4 inch deep. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is almost smoking and slides easily in the pan, 2 to 3 minutes. Working in two batches, place the meatballs in a single layer in the pan and sear them until they are lightly browned all over, being gentle when turning them so they don't fall apart. Remove the meatballs to a plate. Add more oil to the pan and heat it until it's almost smoking before cooking the second batch in the same way. Turn off the heat and wipe the oil and browned bits from the pan. Return the meatballs to the pan. Combine the passata (or tomato sauce) and chicken stock and pour the liquid over the meatballs.
The amount of sauce you need will vary depending on the size of the vessel you are pouring it into, so add more or less as needed; you want them to be submerged but not drowning in the liquid. Add the bay leaves and chile pods and place the meatballs in the oven to braise for 1 hour. Remove the meatballs from the oven and allow them to rest in the sauce for at least 10 minutes.
To serve, remove the meatballs to a plate and skim off and discard the fat from the sauce. Spoon a thin layer of sauce on a serving platter or individual plates, lay the meatballs on top of the sauce, serving 3 meatballs if you are using individual plates. Grate a thin dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the meatballs.
I had high hopes for these meatballs because of their reputation, and I wasn't disappointed. They are light and almost airy...with subtle flavor. I really liked them with the simple clean tomato sauce. I 'm making meatball sandwiches on good crusty Italian bread with the leftovers tomorrow.
Disclaimer: After I finished photographing the meatballs, we ate them on big piles of spaghetti.
Be sure to check out these other bloggers who are joining me in this exploration of the 50 Women Game Changers in the world of food---
Val - More Than Burnt Toast
Joanne - Eats Well With Others
Taryn - Have Kitchen Will Feed
Susan - The Spice Garden
Heather - girlichef
Miranda of Mangoes and Chutney
Mary - One Perfect Bite
Barbara - Movable Feasts
Jeanette - Healthy Living
Linda - Ciao Chow Linda
Linda A - There and Back Again
Martha - Lines from Linderhof
Mireya - My Healthy Eating Habits,
Veronica - My Catholic Kitchen
Annie - Lovely Things