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Feature Thu Nov 13 2008
At his time of year, many stomachs and many home cooks turn their attention to comfort food. This year, especially, as food budgets shrink and panic hovers near the hearth, comfort food is being called upon to bolster our defenses. Amid all the mac and cheeses, soups, brownies and meatloaves spilling from stoves and take-out containers, the meatball often gets overlooked, even though it's a well-versed staple of comfort.
The other day my daughter, who often craves meat in our mostly meat-free home, wanted something meatier than the soy-based stuff I usually serve. As I haven't cooked much meat in several years, and can no longer happily handle cold, raw meat, I decided to satisfy her craving with something already cooked. This led me to a package of meatballs at the new Urban Fresh market. While making dinner I tasted one of the meatballs, and started to think about the many variations of the meatball, beyond the Aidell's and Trader Joe's standbys we ate that night.
Aside from the familiar version made with ground beef and bread crumbs, often seen on top of spaghetti, meatballs show up in different guises. In Middle Eastern cuisine, they're known as kibbeh, made with bulgur or cracked wheat and usually with lamb instead of beef. They're served in soup or on rice with a yoghurt sauce. Some people even eat them raw.
There's a Mexican soup with meatballs, or albondingas. Belgians stew meatballs in beer, of course. The Vietnamese serve pho with meatballs. And, I have a major sweet spot for the Swedish meatballs my mom used to make in the Crock Pot, but that can now be bought alongside lingonberry jam and home furnishings at Ikea. For some good Swedish meatball insight, check out this cooking video from The Muppets' Swedish chef.
Last year in the dead of winter, I made some fake-meatballs with spinach and cheese from this Rachel Ray recipe. It took forever to form all of the mixture into little balls and then bake them. But for someone who loves to hang around in a warm kitchen on a cold day, this is part of what makes meatballs soothing. For the rest of my family, who show up at the table looking for fun (or so they say when asked what they'd like to eat), bite-size balls offer a different kind of comfort.
For the meat and fake meat averse, meatballs--which probably shouldn't really be called meatballs--can be made from lentils, chickpeas or walnuts. Here's a video showing how to make raw, vegan walnut meatballs. The cook in this video uses a food dehydrator to prepare the meatballs. Not so helpful for those of us without a dehydrator. Also not so helpful is the food processor lid she leaves in front of the camera. But the end product sounds tasty.
If you venture out of your slippers and off of the sofa in your quest for comforting balls of meat, there are some interesting options around Chicago. Gioco, in the South Loop, was recently praised in Crain's Chicago Business, partly for their "hefty, tender meatballs of veal, pork and beef." Also in the South Loop, Mercat a la Planxa serves Catalan sausage-and-beef meatballs (albondingas a la Catalana) with spicy tomato stew. (If you decide not to go out, just visiting the restaurant's web site can feel a little vacationlike.)
Closer to my own heart, not only because I love Ruth Reichl's writing, especially Comfort Me With Apples, but also because I yearn for my mom's Crock Pot meatballs, is Swedish-Norwegian café Tre Kronor. Yes, they serve kottbuller, a.k.a. Swedish meatballs. Reichl listed this place as one of America's best restaurants, in the pages of Gourmet in 2003.
Elsewhere, Sweet Baby Ray's in Elk Grove has begun offering complimentary appetizers at the bar, including, on Wednesdays, jerked meatballs and on Thursdays, barbeque meatballs. And for those without a food dehydrator, Karyn's Cooked features a spicy lentil meatball sandwich or a vegan version of spaghetti and meatballs.
Traditional meatball aficionados, fear not. Last year, Steve Dolinsky, the Hungry Hound, took to the streets to find Chicago's best meatball sandwich. His favorite: Café Nucci in Schiller Park, where the meatballs are made sans recipe. LTHForum has a discussion that's been going on for a year, debating the best meatball sandwiches in town. When I wake up from my comfort-food stupor, I might wade in to the fray.