One of the most popular dishes in our James Whelan Butchers range is the great family favourite, Mama’s Meatballs in a sumptuously rich Italian sauce and topped with local cheese. It’s filling, comforting and fantastic value. This is important as you can’t pick up a food magazine or go to a food website these days without seeing the words ‘budget’, ‘eat well, or spend less’. I don’t want to be controversial, but surely the wise amongst us were always interested in value and many people I know always worked to a budget. Savvy customers at James Whelan Butchers have always expected value without the compromise on taste or nutrition. In a recent chat with another retailer he relayed a sad tale that he has noticed people buying the lower end range in food while they continue to buy the high end brands of pet food. So Fido is getting the good stuff while little Johnny is being fed the less nutritious processed stuff. There is definitely something wrong with that picture.
Making great value but nutritious meals is nothing new. Meatballs are one such meal and a good homemade burger is just a slightly different take on the meatball. If it is good ‘stretch-a-bility’ you are after or you have to produce a real crowd pleaser then in my book you can’t go past these two firm favourites; meatballs and or burgers. Both are great budget meals, but also meals that never cease to delight or raise a smile.
Making meatballs is very easy, but making mouth-watering, full of flavour, tender, juicy little brown succulent orbs of meat is another matter entirely. While most Western countries are familiar with the meatball and, indeed, most European countries have their own version, I still love the Italian take on it. Maybe I’m slightly biased as the best meatballs I ever tasted were found in an Italian restaurant in the States. Now to be fair my wife likes to tease me that it was hardly a proper ‘Italian’ experience given that we were in America, but I beg to differ. The restaurant was run by immigrants and relatively young ones at that.
So what are the rules of great meatballs? Well great meat balls are actually balls of great meat! If you don’t start with quality at this stage you may as well forget about it. You also, ideally, need two types of mince preferably equal parts beef and pork. If you really want to push the boat out try adding some lamb mince for an extra taste dimension. The beef is what gives the meatball its substance while the fat from the pork and or lamb adds the real flavour. Where possible don’t have the meat minced too fine. Sometimes that thin, stringy meat that very large supermarkets are often guilty of makes the worst kind of meatball or burger.
The next imperative in a meatball or a burger is the adhesive. If you’ve ever cooked either and they have fallen apart during cooking it is highly possible that you didn’t have enough ‘glue’. Now meatball and burger glue comes in the form of milk soaked bread. I discovered this tip while trying out a Delia Smith recipe for meatloaf. Instead of adding plain breadcrumbs, Queen Delia wanted bread with the crusts cut off soaked in milk added to the meatloaf mixture. The next time I was making meatballs I tried it and it worked really well. The moist bread binds everything together without flavouring it, leaving the herbs, the meat and any other additions to do their job without interference.
Finally when it comes to meatballs I always seal them on a pan on a very high heat before cooking them off, whether that’s in a sauce or baking them in the oven. By sealing them quickly on a hot pan you keep all the lovely juices on the inside. I like my meatballs prepared medium in size and served with a tomato sauce, but maybe you would prefer the creamier paler sauces favoured in Scandinavian countries – it really is up to you.
The rules for homemade burgers are very similar to meatballs in many ways. Start with great ingredients. Burgers are probably even more versatile in what you can add to them and how you serve them. Along with pork mince you could try adding some smoked lardons or how about stuffing them with cheese? British chef, James Martin, has a wonderful cheese stuffed burger recipe. I also like all the things that go with burgers – the onions, lettuce, slivers of juicy beef tomatoes all topped with crispy streaky bacon and with warm melted cheese on the top, sandwiched between soft burger buns. The main trick with burgers is not to make them too thick. If you do you run the risk of cooking them too much on the outside and not enough in the middle.
With meatballs and burgers you really get a lot of bang for your buck plus they are always a real crowd pleaser. In my house we often make miniature burgers. They are great for little hands but work particularly well as substantial finger food for adults, always eliciting a little ‘wow’ as people chomp into the juicy meat without the guilt of a full size whopper.
Mix up your mince, try it with different herbs and flavourings and along with being great value you’ll also find that it’s very tasty too. Drop by the website or the store in Oakville any day for more great money saving ideas. Great meat at great value is what we are really, really good at.
We hope you enjoyed reading this post by Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers. Pat is a 5th generation butcher, cook book author and the director of James Whelan Butchers with shops in Clonmel, the Avoca Food Market Monkstown and Avoca Rathcoole. Sign up to our newsletter for more updates from James Whelan Butchers