I often think how amusing (and sometimes frustrating) how many words in the French language seemingly mean the same thing but have various subtleties and nuances that make them worlds apart. And thinking about it, I realize that Americans have a variety of words for seemingly (or exactly) the same thing, many based on where we live. Speaking of which, I had a craving for a meatball sandwich for — oh, say the last three years. And due to an abundance of bread crumbs, I thought I’d tackle them at home.
Technically, these kinds of sandwiches are called “grinders,” and if you call them something else, then you weren’t raised in Connecticut. Instead, you’re probably from one of the 49 other states that don’t call them grinders but refer to them as submarine sandwiches (or subs), torpedo sandwiches, hero sandwiches, poor boys, or substitutes. (Which I now realize, since the shoe is on the other foot, are all to confuse the foreigners.) So let’s call them meatball sandwiches, because who wants to argue over names where there are hot meatballs bobbing in tomato sauce, ready to be sandwiched between two pieces of crusty bread, then topped with melted cheese to eat?
In the states, these grinders were often served at Italian-American spaghetti joints that often have spaghetti and meatballs on the menu. Interestingly, I’ve been told that they don’t eat meatballs in tomato sauce with pasta in Italy. Of course, since I’ve not had the pleasure of seeing every corner of Italy, I can’t say for an absolute fact. But it’s amusing Italian-Americans are serving them upright and left.
But from what I’ve seen personally with my own two eyes (and accompanying mouth) in Italy, meatballs, or poppet, are served on their own Basta. In France, meatballs are called boulettes, and I’ve only seen them in Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurants. They’re invariably oversized meatballs that come as part of a plate of various appetizers. I’m not sure who was the first person to put meatballs and tomato sauce on a sandwich, but whoever it was, I thank them for an excellent idea. And they get no argument from me.
Speaking of tiffs (which, for non-English speakers who are kind enough to follow along here, is another word we use for “argument” or “row” or “fight” or squabble or “dispute” ), I once got into a bit of row in a supermarket in Southern California, when I was teaching a class at a cooking school next door and needed anise seeds. The folks I was teaching kept trying to give me fennel seeds, which they insisted were the same thing. Thankfully America is a melting pot culture, and I headed straight to the meat counter, found someone who would know the answer for sure – an Italian-American butcher – and he quickly concurred, “Of course, they’re not the same thing!”
The recipe loosely inspired me in Tartine Bread, where meatballs sandwiches were sometimes the staff meal at their bakery. I futzed around with the recipe quite a bit and came up with what I’ve been digging into for lunch lately. This recipe makes a kind of a lot of meatballs, but you can do as I did and freeze a portion of them in a zip-top bag or another container and use them whenever the urge strikes for a meatball grinder.
Inspired by a recipe in Tartine Bread (Chronicle) by Chad Robertson, I used fresh herbs from a recent trip to the countryside, including sage, savory, and thyme. Conversely, you’ll notice that I used dried oregano in the tomato sauce, which I did for two reasons: One, fresh oregano isn’t available easily here (I’ve only seen it for sale once), and two, dried oregano adds that unmistakable flavor of the meatball sandwiches that I fondly recall back in the states.
For the tomato sauce, sauté the two minced onions in a good pour of olive oil in a Dutch oven or huge saucepan, seasoning them with a bit of salt and a few generous turns of black pepper, stirring frequently – until the onions start to wilt. Add the garlic and cook until the onions are completely soft and translucent.
Add the canned tomatoes, the tomato paste, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, dried oregano, red pepper flakes, the bay leaf, and the sugar, and let simmer for 10 to 12 minutes over low heat, stirring everyone so often. Set aside.
To make the meatballs, sauté the onion in some olive oil in a large skillet, seasoning with a bit of salt and black pepper, frequently stirring, until the onions start to wilt. Add the garlic, and cook until the onions are completely soft and translucent. Remove from heat, scrape into a large bowl, and cool to room temperature.
To the bowl, add the ground beef and pork, the eggs, cheese, parsley, herbs, two teaspoons of salt, a few generous turns of black pepper, the fennel seeds, the breadcrumbs, and the milk. Use your hands to mix everything thoroughly.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper, or grease them with olive oil.
Form meatballs slightly less than the size of unshelled walnuts and place them evenly spaced apart on the baking sheets. Bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, remove from the oven, pluck out the bay leaf, and slide them into the tomato sauce.
You can also fry the meatballs in olive oil in batches in a large skillet until cooked through, although it can be pretty messy. (Note: If you like your meatballs sandwiches more “sloppy” or extra-saucy, leave out about a dozen of the meatballs. They can be frozen for another use.)
Heat the sauce with the meatballs in it until everything is warmed through. If the sauce is very thick, it can be thinned with warm water.
To make sandwiches, take crusty French or Italian bread cut it open almost all the way through. Slice some meatballs in half and put them between the bread, pressing down with a fork to meld them with the bread. Top with slices of cheese and heat in a hot oven (about 400ºF, 200ºC) or under a broiler until the cheese melts.
If you like this recipe, then I would suggest that you should try this recipe too: Tuna Melt Sandwich Recipe
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