Goodness, gracious, great balls o’ meat! (Part 2)

I have to admit to being mildly skeptical about this recipe, which is part of the reason that we didn’t make it in the same week that we made all of our other meatball-centric meals. I’m a little wishy-washy when it comes to game meats; I like a little gaminess, but I’ve even had lamb that’s been too strong for my tastes, and venison that has been hunted in the wild is much stronger than any farm-raised lamb. I was afraid that this dish, which used up the remainder of a windfall of free deer meat given to us by our old butcher last year, would be exceptionally gamey and unpleasant.

I am pleased to report that I could not have been more wrong.

This was, hands down, the best meal we’d made in weeks, and we are now mourning the fact that don’t have access to more venison so that we could make this again.

I’m sorry to say that this was not our original recipe – J did some searching on the internet for meatball recipes using venison and came up with this one, which blended the venison with beef and had them served in a dried cherry and red wine sauce. I thought that sounded pretty good, though in addition to being concerned about the gaminess, I was worried that the sauce would be exceptionally sweet. I needn’t have worried about that either – the sauce was a perfect balance of sweet and savory with just a hint of tang, the sort of flavor that just makes you salivate and crave another bite. And when paired with the ultimately mild but distinctive flavor of the venison, these were just about perfect.

J took charge of this recipe, and made a few small changes – his altered version is below. The recipe for my side dish, a warm farro salad with young kale and white beans that turned out to be the perfect earthy counterpoint to the sweet and savory meatballs, follows as well.

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Venison Meatballs in Dried Cherry Sauce
Adapted from this recipe on MyRecipes.com, originally from Christmas with Southern Living, 2000

The original recipe was supposed to make about 4 dozen 1″ meatballs. J halved the recipe and made them slightly larger, and we probably got about a dozen or so (which was far too much for dinner but meant we had leftovers that tasted even better the next day). You can make them any size you like – simply adjust your cooking time accordingly.

Meatballs:
1/2 lb ground venison
1/2 lb ground pork
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
3/4 tsp ground allspice
1/8 cup minced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 beaten egg
olive oil

Sauce:
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped celery
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4-5 oz dried cherries (about 3/4 cup)
1 bay leaf
3 whole black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/2 cup Merlot
1 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 cups beef stock

Place ground venison and pork in a large bowl with salt, pepper, allspice, onion, garlic, thyme, and egg. Mix with your hands, being careful not to overwork the meat to ensure a good texture once the meatballs are cooked. Shape mixture into 1.5-2″ meatballs.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just shy of smoking, then add the meatballs and sear well on all sides by occasionally shaking the pan to roll them around. Use tongs or a slotted spoon (tongs work better with larger meatballs) to remove the meatballs when they are nice and browned and reasonably firm – you don’t need to worry too much about cooking them all the way through here, as they’ll finish cooking in the sauce later. Place on a plate or in a bowl and cover with foil to trap them in their own radiant heat, as this will also help them to finish cooking.

Add chopped onion, celery and garlic to the pan and sautee them in the remaining oil and pan drippings until softened and barely colored – keep the veg moving to avoid burning the garlic. Add chopped garlic; cook 30 seconds. Turn the heat down a bit and add the cherries, bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, wine, and balsamic vinegar, using a wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring mixture to a boil and reduce by half, then add the stock and reduce by half again. Remove from heat and discard bay leaf and thyme.

You want to blend this sauce to a smooth consistency, so use whatever method works best for you. We used our regular blender but if you have a stick blender you could also pour the sauce into a tall container and use that (next time, that’s what we’ll do – I hate using the regular blender for this stuff). Just a few tips if you use an electric blender: When you put the to on, make sure that one of the openings is fcing the pour spout so that there is a place for steam to escape, and place a towel over the top while you blend. Blending hot liquids can be an explosive ffair if you aren’t careful, and once you’ve had searing hot half-pureed fod go flying around your kitchen once, you never want it to happen again.

Once the sauce is blended, you can push it through a wire mesh strainer if you like, but we didn’t bother. Return the sauce to the pan and add the meatballs back in. Roll them around to coat in the sauce and let everything simmer together for a few minutes to ensure even heating and thorough cooking of the meatballs. If serving individual portions, these can be skewered on bamboo skewers or simply placed on a plate with n extra spoonful of sauce. If serving as a group appetizer or a party dish, pour all the meatballs and sauce into a chafing dish or large fondue pot to keep warm and provide toothpicks for self-service. They’ll be the best sweet and-sour cocktail meatballs you’ve ever eaten.

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Warm Farro Salad with White Beans and Young Kale

Young kale is paler green and has smaller leaves than the full-grown kind, and has a milder, slightly less bitter flavor. Use only the curly leaves, discarding the stems. If you can’t find young kale, regular will work just fine.

I actually think that this would be equally good at room temperature or even cold, especially if dressed with a simple lemon vinaigrette after chilling, but as I haven’t tried that yet myself you’ll have to let me know how it turns out.

1/2 cup farro, rinsed and soaked in cold water for 30 minutes
1 1/2 – 2 cups chicken stock (standard ratio for cooking farro is 1 part farro to 3 parts liquid, but I always find I need slightly more, so I start with a cup and a half and add more later if necessary)
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp good extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup minced white onion
2 minced garlic cloves
2/3 cup canned white beans such as navy or cannelini, drained and rinsed
1 cup roughly chopped young kale, well rinsed
salt & black pepper
freshly grated romano, parmesan, prima donna (our choice, as usual), or other hard, salty cheese, optional

Place 1 1/2 cups of the chicken stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, then drain the farro and add to the pan. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and simmer until the farro has absorbed all the water and is tender but still slightly chewy, usually about 20 minutes. You may want to stir it around every so often to keep it from sticking. If you find that the farro absorbs all of the stock but is still a little hard, just add more stock a little bit at a time and continue to simmer uncovered until it is properly cooked. This may take some nitpicking, but you’ll get it.

While the farro cooks, heat a bit of olive oil in a small sautee pan over medium heat and add the onions and garlic. Cook together, stirring frequently, until well softened and golden brown – we’re going for some slight caramelization here. Add in the kale and white beans along with a tablespoon or so of water, reduce the heat to low, and sautee until the kale has wilted and softened and the beans are exceedingly tender. Set aside.

When the farro is cooked, drain any excess liquid that there may be in the pan (I never have any, but you never know) and gently stir in the kale and beans mixture along with the red wine vinegar, good EVOO, and salt and pepper to taste. Add some grated cheese if you like. We did like, and even added a few extra slices of prima donna to our plates to nibble between bites of meatball and farro – it worked. Really well. Cover the pan and remove from heat to keep warm, but not hot, until ready to serve.

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