I meet towering Chef Don Dickman at the bar, and he ushers me beneath strings of tiny Italian flags, past a jet black, wood-burning oven, and into the kitchen’s inner sanctum. He’s got all of the ingredients set up in plastic containers to make memorable meatballs.
At All’Acqua, an Atwater Village restaurant from Dickman, Claudio Blotta, and Adria Tennor Blotta that celebrates all of Italy’s regions, meatballs are a big seller. Dickman typically cooks hundreds of pork meatballs per week in tomato sauce and plates with whipped ricotta. This time, he options for a lighter approach by incorporating Laura’s 92% Lean Ground Beef, which is all natural, vegetarian fed, and never contains added hormones or antibiotics.
Dickman has clearly given meatballs plenty of thought. “In Italy, there is no one meatball or one anything,” he says. “The way your family makes a dish is different from your next-door neighbor. We’re both right about it.” In this case, he unites the “Holy Trinity” by melding beef’s earthy flavor, pork’s sweetness, and veal’s levity to create “an identity that’s all by itself.” To keep the meatball light, he uses fresh ricotta and soft, airy ciabatta breadcrumbs from longtime favorite Ca’d’Oro Bakery. Ultimately, these pan-seared orbs luxuriate in tangy, light white wine, and lemon broth that may take eaters by surprise.
He adds fluffy ricotta, sharp Pecorino Romano made with sheep’s milk, and Pecorino Moliterno flecked with black truffle for the sake of “elegance.” Crushed chili flakes supply “zing.” Sea salt and fennel pollen join the fray, as do the aforementioned breadcrumbs, plus eggs for binder. “My formula is pretty much one egg per pound of meat,” he says. “If you add too much egg, you end up with a rubbery, dense meatball.” Next comes chopped Italian parsley and Meyer lemon zest to add alluring fragrance.
Make sure not to over-mix, since the breadcrumbs will become too gluey. When working the ingredients by hand, just be sure to evenly distribute egg to hold the balls together.
Dickman explains, “As the mixture sits, the moisture in the cheese and eggs, combined with the starch in the breadcrumbs, will start to become one.” That’s also what helps the meatball come together, instead of you trying to pack it too tightly.
Dickman rolls two-ounce tufts of meat between his flattened palms, preferring to form imperfect orbs to “keep it more interesting.” Since he’s got large hands, Dickman’s able to roll two balls at a time. He first learned this trick to optimize efficiency while cooking aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach in the ’80s. “Banquets were super high-volume, thousands of people,” he recalls. “We had to roll 1,000 meatballs for the party.”
While the stove heats up, Dickman rolls meatballs in all-purpose flour to help form a crust when they brown. The crust builds flavor while keeping their coats crispy and cores tender. Too much flour and you’ll get gummy, pasty balls, so be judicious.
For Dickman, even the act of pouring olive oil in a pan is deliberate. Too much oil and the meatballs will start to steam, defeating the purpose of browning. Add meatballs one by one, making sure to flip them so they brown on all sides. This step may take a few minutes, but warrants patience, since these meatballs benefit from deeper flavor and texture. [Note: save higher-end oil for finishing since it burns up; here use medium grade.]
Once the meatballs are golden brown, they’re ready to get plucked, and dirty oil is ready to get dumped. Residual bits help flavor the resulting sauce, which starts with white wine that helps deglaze. Dickman suggests “any dry white wine that you would be happy to drink.” Toss in Meyer lemon juice, but not much, since the sauce could become too tart.
Let the sauce reduce. This cooks off alcohol, integrates “grapey flavor,” and allows the sauce to become thick and sticky. Return the meatballs to further balance the sauce and finish cooking. Add light chicken stock to round out the flavor and lend moisture.
Toss in hand-torn bay leaves that Dickman favors for “beguiling flavor.” Tear herbs to release essential oils. As the sauce is thickening, add slices of Meyer lemon from the same fruit that gave us zest and juice. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Brighten up with chopped parsley. Flip the meatballs in the sauce to coat accordingly.
Finish with premium extra virgin olive oil. Lemon’s acidity joins the oil’s fat to form an emulsion. As Dickman says, “It will get a little thicker, a little creamier.”
Bring four meatballs to the plate. Pour some sauce over the top. Dickman calls the finale like a sports announcer, saying, “The final touch is a little grated Pecorino Romano, another little shot of extra virgin olive oil, and there you go.”
Enjoy a sample of Chef Dickman’s recipe at Los Angeles magazine’s The Food Event 2017 in Malibu on Sunday, October 15.
Plus, look for Laura’s Lean Beef at your favorite local retailer.
Chef Don Dickman’s Sicilian Meatballs with White Wine, Meyer Lemon & Bay Leaves
1 lb. Laura’s Lean Ground Beef
8 oz. Ground Pork
8 oz. Ground Veal
1 1/2 cups Pecorino Romano – grated
1 cup Pecorino Moliterno with Black Truffle – grated
2 cups Ciabatta Breadcrumbs – made from day old & crustless ciabatta
1/2 cup Italian Parsley – chopped
2 Meyer Lemons – zest
3 Tbl. Sea Salt
1 tsp. Crushed Red Chili Flakes
1 Tbl. Wild Fennel Pollen
1 cup Ricotta – drained
2 Large Eggs
1/2 cup All-Purpose Flour – for dredging
2 cups White Wine
1 cup Chicken Stock
2 Meyer Lemons – juiced
8 Fresh Bay Leaves – torn
8 slices Meyer Lemon – paper thin
Sicilian Olive Oil – for finishing
Pecorino Romano – for finishing
- Zest two Meyer lemons on a microplane, then juice the two lemons and set aside.
- In a large non-reactive bowl place beef, pork, veal, Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Moliterno, breadcrumbs, parsley, meyer lemon zest, salt, chili flakes, fennel pollen, ricotta, and eggs.
- Using your hands, lightly mix the meat mixture until everything is homogenous. Do not overmix.
- Get a small skillet hot, add a dab of olive oil, make a small test patty and fry on both sides. taste the sample for seasoning, add more salt as necessary to taste balanced.
- Roll your meatballs to the size of a golfball, and chill for 15 minutes in refrigerator. the moisture will hydrate with the cheeses and breadcrumbs and become one!
- Get a large non-stick skillet warm. Roll your meatballs in the flour and dust off. Add olive oil to nicely coat the bottom and let the oil get hot to medium heat, you do not want it blazing hot.
- Drop the meatballs in the oil and cook until nicely browned. You can do this in batches if your pan is not big enough. Remove meatballs to a plate and pour off excess oil.
- Put meatballs back in pan and add the white wine. Let it cook and bubble to evaporate the alcohol. You want it to reduce by 1/2 then add the reserved lemon juice and chicken stock.
- Let this reduce until thickened. Add torn bay leaves and lemon slices. Taste the sauce for salt and pepper.
- Remove meatballs to a warm bowl, reduce sauce more if necessary. pour sauce over meatballs and drizzle with good finishing extra virgin olive oil. top with bay leaves and the lemon slices. dust with grated pecorino romano.