When I set out to make turkey meatballs I knew exactly what I was up against . See, I married a boy who grew up on a Wyoming cattle ranch, who’s father ran a butcher shop and game processing store. Dinner for Noah often meant calling down to the store and putting in an order for the night’s fresh cut of well-marbled beef. Noah has talked wistfully, many times, about how his dad would show up with a paper-wrapped bundle stuffed with 2-inch thick rib eyes. If I had to guess, I’d bet his desert-island meal would be a 20 ounce t-bone. For someone so lean and lanky, with such low cholesterol and low blood pressure, you’d never guess how voraciously he can put away a steak of that size, Uncle Buck style, with little to no gristle remaining on the plate.
For Noah, cooking and eating steak is a ceremonial tradition, rooted in childhood memories. Dad would spark a fire in the grill, using wood from the apple orchard. He tended the coals with an artists care, often, I imagine, with young Noah at his side. A few mesquite chips or pieces of whiskey-soaked Crown Royal barrel might be tossed in towards the end, surely luring in all manner of chop-licking critters as the meaty smoke wafted through the Bighorn Mountain air. The juicy, perfectly seasoned pieces of meat that were served rivaled anything you might find in the overpriced steak houses of Chicago or Houston.
I grew up in a health-conscious household of broiled fish, boneless skinless chicken breasts, and turkey burgers. Not that we never ate steak, but if we did it was a special indulgence, grilled up at the cottage on a humid summer night, with ears of fresh Michigan sweet corn, and cookout potatoes. I liked it, but I didn’t I really get steak until I met Noah, who like his father, takes the cooking of beef very seriously, and who because of those manly Western skills, has converted me into a reluctant but admitted lover of steak, especially those rib eyes. I try to be good. I try to pick the smallest tenderloin filet in the case– which Noah tends to as tenderly as his t-bones– but he has taught me, and I have become a believer, that what really makes a steak is the marbling– the veins of buttery fat that melt during cooking, basting the meat, and carrying the flavor of every hot, juicy, tender morsel across every grateful taste bud. You won’t get that in a filet, but you sure will in a rib eye.
Lucky for my cholesterol (which is so-far pretty low, but far more genetically predisposed to becoming high than Noah’s) I pick dinner most nights. We eat a lot of chicken, and shell out for Wild Alaskan Salmon whenever we can find it. I have a couple locally raised pork chops in the fridge for tonight, and pot of Rick Bayless’s Tortilla Soupin the fridge from last night. I use leaner cuts of beef and incorporate them into meat-light dishes like stir-fry, curries, and soups. If we make tacos it’s with ground bison. Occasionally I take a page from my mother’s book, and sneak ground turkey into dishes typically made with beef– like spaghetti sauce. Noah loves my cooking and tells me so without restraint, but if he ever squeaks about something it’s when I do stuff like trying to make bolognese sauce with ground turkey. I love turkey spaghetti. I grew up on it and it’s nostalgic for me. But to Noah, why someone would make something like meat sauce or a burger with anything but beef, lamb, or bison is beyond him. So how the heck was I going to pull off turkey meatballs?
They needed to be really flavorful, doctored into something less bird-like and more bovine. And if the whole point of using turkey was for our better health, I could not violate my intent by doing something like adding bacon.
I decided to reference a recipe I developed for an Italian-style turkey meatloaf which incorporates heart-healthy oats and is cooked in a bath of tomato sauce. I call it Amore Turkey Meatloaf, and promise to post the recipe on here someday. For the sauce, I quelled from the recipes of my Italian cousin-in-law, who makes the most legendary beef meatballs in a super-simple tomato sauce, and I must give her credit here as the sauce portion is admittedly hers.
I used a trick I learned from culinary school when making anything with seasoned ground meat, like sausage, burgers, meatloaf, meatballs: TASTE IT. Take a little pinch of the mixture, put it in a hot skillet and cook it up, then taste it. How else can you know that it needs more salt, or could use just a touch more oregano? I highly recommend using this trick if you’re ever winging it with stuff like meatballs or meatloaf. When I did this I shared the sample with Noah to get his initial take, and he gave it two thumbs up, saying it didn’t need anything at all. Phew! First hurdle crossed…
A note on cooking meatballs: There are two schools of thought with meatballs. One is to cook the raw meatballs directly in the tomato sauce, infusing the sauce with every possible drop of meatball flavor. This produces a meatball with an ultra-tender, almost cloud-like texture. Some like their meatballs this way, soft like a dumpling. Others prefer the second method, where you brown the meatballs before adding them to the sauce. This produces a rich brown crust, giving them more of a meaty texture even after they are simmered in the sauce. It also adds the flavor of the caramelized brown bits to the sauce. I opted for the second method, knowing that the turkey would benefit from a meatier texture, and the dark flavor of a brown crust. Because they’re not really cooked through when you add them to the sauce, they still infuse the tomatoes with plenty of meaty flavor.
When we sat down at the table with our beautiful nests of brown rice spaghetti and organic turkey meatballs in tomato sauce, the baby and I got excitedto eat. So pretty, so fragrant… yummm. But I watched closely as Noah took his first bite. If he liked it, then this poultry recipe had satisfied the meatiest of meat eaters.
“Wow…Yum…,” he said, continuing between mouthfuls to say, “Mmmm…This is really good. Thank you for making it.”
It passed the test of the toughest judge in the room, and now I pass it on to you. Mangia!
Recipe: Amore Turkey Meatballs with Spaghetti
With ground turkey, rolled oats, and a heap of garlic, these are meatballs your mouth AND your heart will love. Serve over your favorite spaghetti.
This makes a big batch– enough for about 10 servings. Perfect if you’re having a BIG family-style dinner. If not, you can easily halve it but why not economize your efforts, and freeze the remaining meatballs in sauce for those nights when you want a home cooked meal without having to do the home cooking? For two of us, we had 4 servings to eat over a couple days, 3 or 4 to freeze, and with the rest we split a baguette and made a quick and easy french bread pizza with the remaining meatballs and sauce, black olives, artichoke hearts, fresh tomato, mozzarella, and Asiago cheese. YUM.
- 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey
- 1/2 cup rolled oats
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
- 1 egg
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 5 medium cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
- 2/3 cup freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
- 1 heaping teaspoon kosher salt
- freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a large mixing bowl combine all ingredients and mix with your hands to combine. For best texture, do not over mix. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. Roll turkey mixture into 1 1/2 inch balls and arrange in rows on rimmed baking sheet so that none of the meatballs are touching. Place oven rack about 7 inches from broiler, and heat broiler to high. Place meatballs in oven and broil 5 minutes or until nicely browned. You may need to flip the meatballs and brown the underside (I didn’t) if the heat from the baking sheet didn’t brown them already. Just depends on your oven. Keep an eye on them until they are nicely browned on at least 2 sides. Set aside until you’re ready to add them to the sauce.
For the sauce:
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 5 medium cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
- 2 [28 ounce] cans whole peeled tomatoes, whizzed in blender 2 to 3 seconds
- 5 large basil leaves, or equivalent
- freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish
Saute the garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and meatballs and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low, and let simmer, uncovered, 45 minutes. Roughly chop fresh basil, add to sauce. Simmer 15 minutes more. This is a good time to boil your spaghetti. Taste the sauce for salt and pepper and serve over pasta with freshly grated Parmesan.