Those of you who know me know that I’m am hyper-analytical. It’s a blessing and a curse. I just finished writing this piece, and it’s entirely too long and entirely too detailed. For that, I apologize. It’s just that there’s so much to say about this recipe… a classic with more than a couple of twists.
When the meatball mixture came together, the aroma made me think that I would soon be posting a notice in my kitchen that read, “Know all men by these presents: Henceforth, from this kitchen, all meatballs shall include bacon. Thanks, Management”. Well, I can’t post that notice – at least not yet. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s begin with a rundown of the ingredients, shall we? There were three that immediately stood out: uncured applewood-smoked bacon was the biggie, then the parenthetically noted preference for San Marzano tomatoes, and marjoram instead of oregano. This is the kind of thing that, as a lifelong cook and enthusiastic BA reader, will make me take interest in a recipe and consider actually cooking it. (If I cooked everything that I raised my eyebrows at, I wouldn’t have time for my day job, and therefore could not afford groceries.)
First, the uncured applewood-smoked bacon. My first thought was: Isn’t all bacon cured, by definition? I turned to Chowhound, one of my favorite websites, and sure enough, there were folks duking it out over uncured bacon. (I love the guy towards the end who simply states that he’s filing the misnomer “uncured bacon” alongside “bone-in filet” and “vodka martini”.) It sounds like uncured bacon is in fact cured, albeit by a natural process that excludes additives.
When I found the right stuff at Central Market, the brand was Pederson’s Natural Farms, and the label mentioned all of the following: certified humane raised and handled, raised without the antibiotics or growth stimulants – ever!, minimally processed, no artificial ingredients, no preservatives, no gluten, no lactose, no MSG. Oh, and their demanding process requires that they use only inspected select grain-fed pork. It seems then, that the pseudo-uncured angle is an attempt toward a more healthful and less morally repugnant way of consuming our beloved porcine friends.
In search for the uncured stuff, I swiped some plain ol’ applewood-smoked bacon, in case I couldn’t procure the other. The unintended benefit was that I got to compare the taste of applewood vs. traditional hickory vs. uncured applewood. The applewood was delicious – it had a much milder smoke flavor than hickory, and it made me realize just how much the taste of hickory-smoked bacon is salt and smoke, and how little of the pork flavor comes through. The uncured applewood was also milder in the smoke department, and possibly milder on salt, but that’s about it. The difference between traditional and uncured applewood was barely discernible.*
Now for the tomatoes. In my blissful ignorance, I thought that San Marzano was a brand name. I knew there were “better-quality” canned tomatoes available, but I’ve never really explored that whole scene. Turns out that San Marzano is an heirloom variety of tomato, grown in a specific region of Italy. Huh! How ’bout that. Apparently they have a stronger, sweeter, and less acidic taste, and are considered the best tomatoes to use for sauce. The brand I picked up was Cento, and I was interested to see if it really amped up the sauce or not. This could be one of those secret ingredient type things…
Finally, marjoram. A rarely used herb in my house, I was eager to give ‘er a spin. My good friend Lisa told me that she was pleased to see marjoram get billing here, because it was an ingredient she used often and sometimes over-used because she loved it so much. Sign me up! A quick glance in my copy of Joy of Cooking told me that marjoram and oregano are “closely related and often confused”. The brand I snagged was Generation Farms (considering that they’re based in Rice, Texas, I am not surprised that I couldn’t find a website for them).
683 words in and I haven’t even started cooking yet. Geez.
I made the meatballs the night before, as the recipe indicates is possible, and my second impression (the first was the aforementioned bacon-y aroma) was that this was an obscene amount of food for eight servings. I used a 2-tablespoon ice cream scoop to make the meatballs, and I got 44 of those little suckers, which would be… wait for the mental math… 5.5 meatballs per serving. Yowza. (A quick glance at the nutritional information confirms the obscenity observation. I urge you not to look.)
Browning the meatballs confirmed my opinion that meatballs are, in general, a pain. The recipe indicates browning them in two batches, but with 44 of ‘em, I was lucky to get it done in four. I tried crowding the second batch a bit, in hopes of accomplishing the task in three batches, but they didn’t brown well at all, and a couple of them fell apart. And because I needed four batches, my “browned bits” were approaching scorch status by the time I was done. (In my early days of cooking, I would have taken the dark chocolate color to mean that it was burned. Only by actually burning a few things did I learn to delineate “burned bits” and “browned bits”. This is when I adopted the mantra “color equals flavor”.)
I actually laughed out loud when I read “Add onions and crushed red pepper to pot. Sauté until golden.” Like I’m gonna tell when the onions are golden – they were cooking in a flavorful mud-colored sludge. I observed the 6 minute cook time suggestion and pressed on.
All in all, the recipe came together pretty easily, although there were several steps and I managed to create quite a pile of dishes for myself (food processor, blender, two stockpots, and colander, to name a few). It goes without saying that this is not weeknight cooking for today’s busy lifestyle.
So, Matt and I sat down to a nice Sunday lunch to see if it the pah-skeddi was going to live up to the hype. Side salad for both of us, half a glass of the leftover wine from the recipe for me. No “hunk-o-garlic-bread”, much to Matt’s dismay. (A gentle hint at the nutritional info adequately explained my position.)
I was eager to see how the bacon, San Marzanos, and marjarom would play in the dish. I wanted to walk away with a new appreciation for meatballs, and promote them out of the “pain in the neck” category. Most of all, I wanted it to be worth the pile of dishes I was about to wash.
And all I can tell you is: the crushed red pepper overpowered everything.
The meatballs were tender. The pasta was al dente. I got a hint of bacon-y goodness, but not much, since the applewood was so tame. I suspect that the San Marzanos are worth their reputation, but I can’t attest to it. I’m sure the marjoram provided a sweeter, cleaner alternative to the more-expected more-powerful oregano, but I really have no idea because my palate was too busy registering heat.
Now, let me just say: I love heat. I’m a girl who tried to induce labor on my due date by shaking insane amounts of crushed red pepper on grilled chicken and jalapeno pizza at Collina’s. Ask Leah and Meredith. They tried to maintain eye contact and keep the conversation flowing, but eventually Meredith said: “How is your mouth not on fire right now?!” (To which I replied: “I’m smoking this baby out. It’s time.”)
Clearly I’m not biased against heat, it’s just that I lost any nuance that may or may not have resided elsewhere in the sauce.
So, what would I do differently?
- Obviously, scale down the crushed red pepper. I’d use maybe half of what was called for.
- I’d chop my roasted bell pepper more finely.
- To brown the meatballs, I’d rummage around for the electric skillet that Matt contributed to our marriage (if we still have it?) and go the non-stick, additional-surface-area route, then scrape all the lovely browned bits into the stockpot and continue.
Honestly, I probably won’t make this again. The meatballs actually didn’t beat out the current go-to recipe, which is here. (Sure, it’s a bit contrived, but how can you beat stuffing meatballs with mozzarella? I’m not sure you can.)
But I will use San Marzano tomatoes again, to see if they’re really what they’re cracked up to be. And I’d like to incorporate more marjoram into the ol’ repertoire.
All in all, I give this recipe a C. Maybe a C+, for potential.
What did you guys think? Did I miss the mark? Dianne, you posted a couple of weeks ago when you were up to your elbows in garlic and bacon… how’d it turn out?
* You may have noticed that the online version of the recipe includes a blurb about contacting the BA Test Kitchen with any questions. Well, I did just that. I’m paraphrasing, but my email read something like “What’s up with the uncured bacon? I don’t notice that big of a taste difference. Why not just note “preferably uncured”, like the tomatoes?” Yeah, well, they didn’t reply. So much for that idea.