We Learned How to Make These Perfect Meatballs

“The idea is to rethink the meatball,” Huw Thornton says. He looks a little like the Celtic gladiator in some Spartacus movie, only instead of wielding a sword today he’s using a chef’s knife to cut up pork shoulder, the first step in what’ll lead, eventually, to a meatball and beer lunch in the CHOW offices.

Huw’s a chef in the Bay Area, and a favorite in the CHOW Test Kitchen (he demo’d his crisp, buttery version of Irish colcannon in March). My collaborator Chris Rochelle wondered aloud one day why sometimes you get meatballs that are hard and chewy, and other times they’re tender: What’s the secret to softness? We sent up our Huw version of the bat signal (technically, an email), and a few weeks later he showed up with a shopping bag of pasture-raised pork and day-old bread and kale to show us how to make the best meatballs we’ll probably ever eat.

This recipe began, like so many stories about recipes do, with somebody messing up. “I asked a prep cook to prep this spicy chicken,” Huw says, “and he prepped 10 pounds of it. We were never going to sell that much.” So Huw turned it into braised meatballs, to match the Eastern Mediterranean spices (sumac, coriander, cumin) already on the chicken. “Instead of the heavy tomato sauce, I thought, 'Let’s do them like a light brodo, with wine for acidity, and some greens in there.'” Next time around Huw substituted pork for chicken, and the recipe you see here lurched to life.

Recipes are cool, but what you need for tender meatballs, Huw says, is the ratio. “Pork to pork fat, and bread to meat. And,” he adds, “the ricotta makes it really luscious.”

Huw Thornton’s Braised Meatballs with Kale and Sumac
Makes about 4 dozen (1-3/4-inch-diameter) meatballs, plenty for 10 guests

For the balls:
3 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1 pound pork back fat
2/3 pound (about 10 ounces) day-old bread, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
1 large yellow onion, large dice
3 ounces prosciutto heel, skin removed, large dice
1 1/2 pounds fresh whole-milk ricotta
4 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 (by weight) kosher salt

For the braise:
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, plus 2 tablespoons more for the meatball pan
1 large red onion, sliced
4 medium garlic cloves, smashed
3 bay leaves
Large pinch of chile flakes
2 cups dry white wine, like a Sauvignon Blanc
1 bunch flat-leaf kale, large stems removed, leaves torn or cut into rough, 3-inch squares
6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade, heated

For this recipe, you’ll need a meat grinder (or the sausage attachment for a KitchenAid stand mixer), fitted with a 1/4-inch plate.

Step 1: Cut the pork shoulder into 1-1/2-inch cubes.

Step 2: Cut the pork fat into 1-1/2-inch cubes.

Step 3: In a large bowl, combine the pork, fat, and bread.

Step 4: Add the remaining meatball ingredients.

Step 5: Use your hands to toss the ingredients like a salad. Make sure the meats and fat are well coated with the salt and spices.

Step 6: Make sure the meatball mixture is cold (pop it into the fridge for an hour if necessary). Grind everything together through a 1/4-inch plate. Set the meatball mixture aside, refrigerated, while you make the braise.

Step 7: Set a big sauté pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the red onion and garlic and cook till melted, about 12 minutes.

Step 8: Add the bay leaves and chile flakes. Pour in the white wine and turn up the heat to medium-high. Let it come to a boil, and adjust the heat to medium. Let the wine reduce by about two-thirds.

Step 9: Turn up the heat to medium-high. Add the kale and let it wilt, about 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock, turn the heat to medium, and let it simmer to combine the flavors, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside until you finish shaping and browning the meatballs.

Step 10: Turn the broiler on 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, then roll between your palms to form meatballs.

Step 11: Arrange the meatballs in a single layer in your oiled roasting pan.

Step 12: Place the roasting pan in the oven, under the hot broiler. Leave until the meatballs turn an even, medium brown, about 12 minutes. (Huw: “We don’t have to rotate them or anything—we’re just looking for some caramelization.”) Remove from the oven, turn off the broiler, and set the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Step 13: Pour the hot chicken stock over the browned meatballs—it should cover them by about three-quarters (add a bit of extra stock or water if necessary). Add the braised onion and kale mixture.

Step 14: Spread the braised vegetables evenly over the meatballs.

Step 15: Cover the roasting pan tightly with foil. Return the pan to the oven and bake 1 hour. (Huw: “The meat fibers break down; they get really soft and luscious.”)

Step 16: Serve the meatballs directly from the roasting pan either at the table or in the kitchen. Spoon four to five meatballs into a shallow pasta bowl, and ladle over the broth and kale. Optional: Grate a hard cheese like Parmesan or pecorino over each serving, and drizzle with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil. Thanks, Huw.

Photos by Chris Rochelle