Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meatball Skillet Supper

I am of the opinion that some words just should not be used in recipe titles.  Surprise, for instance.  Nothing associated with my meal should be a "surprise."  What if it's surprisingly good, you might ask?  No, still not cool.  I don't want to be surprised that my food tastes good.  I don't want to look at it and think, "Boy, that sure looks awful but it's surprisingly good!"  No, I want to be very confident that my meal is going to taste great and then be rewarded accordingly for my faith.  In the course of reading a lot of old cookbooks for VKR, any number of recipes claim to be a surprise.  I suspect not in a good way.

I'm sure this is not an exhaustive list as I will certainly encounter more of these taboo food words as I continue my old recipe research, but the following should also never be used in recipe titles: mock, jellied, anything in quotations marks, and balls.

But today I'm going to make an exception and make some delicious meatballs.  The scientist in me, along with the part of me that doesn't like the word balls associated with my food, would like to call them meatspheres, but I don't suppose many people would get on that trolley.  Oh well....

This is another great classic from my Grandma, Marguerite.  The story is that Grandma and Grandpa, along with their 2 sons, my dad and his brother, were ice skating on a pond near their home in Spanish Lake, Missouri, when Grandma fell and broke her wrist.  With all the crazy shenanigans that my dad and my Uncle Larry pulled when they were kids, this had to be a difficult time for poor Grandma.  Luckily, a very sweet neighbor named Jan showed up one day with a tasty dish of meatballs, carrots and green peppers, served over mashed potatoes.  If nothing else, at least a good dinner came out of that injury.  It became a recipe that Grandma made quite often, and eventually my parents made it in our house quite often, as well.  For Christmas in 1992 (I know the year because she inscribed it on the inside of the book) Grandma gave me a blank cookbook where you could write in your own recipes.  She wrote a bunch of things in there by hand, and I added some of my own as well.  That book is such a treasure to me because it has her handwriting in it, along with some of her favorite recipes that she lovingly chose for me.  One of the recipes she wrote in was Jan's Skillet Supper.  Since it is such a family classic, and because I always like to try to eliminate things like canned gravy and pre-packaged dried breadcrumbs, and because at the latest it is early 60s vintage, I thought I would try my hand at a couple of changes.

One ingredient I did not change was dry spaghetti sauce mix.  It is so important to the way the dish tastes that I really felt like it had to be left in or it would change the entire character of the dish, and I dare not insult Jan that way.  I never met the woman, but who am I to tell her that her skillet supper needs that much retooling?  Other changes that I made were mostly to the meatballs.  The dry breadcrumbs got the axe in favor of a panade made with bread and whole milk.  I also went for a 50/50 mixture of ground beef and ground pork instead of all ground beef, and added garlic and fresh chopped parsley for a little extra flavor.  In Jan's version, the onions go in raw along with the carrots and green peppers.  In my version, I sauteed them first after removing the meatballs from the pan, scraping up all those good browned bits that the meatballs leave behind and letting the onions caramelize a bit.  In the end, my version kept to the character of the original, but had a bit more flavor and juicier, tastier meatballs.  Which was exactly what I was going for. 

So here's to you, Jan.  I'll bet you never guessed that neighborly food drop would be remembered through generations of my family!

Meatball Skillet Supper

Use a nonstick skillet for this recipe or you may never get the meatballs out of the pan intact.  The meatballs will all fit in a 12" skillet, but you might have to leave a few out in the beginning until some of them get cooked well enough that they won't fall apart when you move them.  They are pretty delicate when they're raw.  Once they've browned up a bit you can kind of pile them on top of each other to make room for the last few meatballs.   And all this stuff simmers for an hour, so if you think the meatballs may not have cooked through during that initial browning phase, don't worry.  They will be done by the end of the simmering time.  Serve this up with mashed potatoes or even some egg noodles.


2 slices white sandwich bread
1/2 cup whole milk
1 egg
1 1/2 Tbs. dry spaghetti sauce mix
1 Tbs. fresh chopped parsley
1 garlic clove, pressed through a garlic press
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3/4 lb. ground beef
3/4 lb. ground pork

2 tsp. oil


1 medium sized onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, pressed through a garlic press
1 1/2 Tbs. dry spaghetti sauce mix
1 Tbs. tomato paste
1 (14.5 oz.) can reduced sodium beef broth
3 Tbs. flour
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
4 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4" coins
1 large green bell pepper, cut into 1" squares (my peppers were small, so I used 2)

Cut the crusts off of the sandwich bread and discard (or feed to your dog, who is staring into your soul because she thinks she's so hungry).  Cut the bread into cubes and place in a mixing bowl.  Add the milk to the bread and stir to make sure all the bread is well coated with milk.  Let soak for 10 minutes.  Use a wooden spoon to mash the bread into a paste.  Add the egg, spaghetti sauce mix, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper to the milk and bread mixture and stir until it is well combined.  Add the ground beef and pork and mix thoroughly into the bread mixture with your hands.  Form meatballs using 1 Tbs. of meat mixture each.  I like to place them on a wax paper-lined sheet pan as I form them.  This yields approximately 40 meatballs.

Heat the oil in a 12" nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  Add the meatballs and brown all over.  Remove meatballs from the pan and set aside.  Depending on how much fat is in your meat, the meatballs might look a little greasy.  (Mine did.)  If this happens you can put them on some paper towels when you remove them from the pan to drain a bit.  Also, if there is a lot of fat left in your pan, you'll want to pour some off before you put the onions in.  You only need about a teaspoon or two in there.

Add the onions to the hot skillet along with a sprinkling of salt.  Cook until well softened, scraping up the meaty bits of fond on the bottom of the pan.  Your onions should be a nice dark, golden color when you are done.  Add the garlic and spaghetti sauce mix, stirring into onions and cooking until you can smell the garlic, about 1 minute.  Add the tomato paste and cook another minute or 2.  At this point, if there is anything beginning to stick on the bottom of the skillet, add just a splash of the beef broth and scrape up whatever is sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Add the flour and stir, coating all the onions with flour, and cook for 1 minute.  Using a nonstick friendly whisk, slowly whisk the rest of the beef broth into the skillet.  If you don't have a nonstick friendly whisk, use a wooden spoon and just stir vigorously while you slowly add the broth.  Add the tomato sauce and stir until well combined into the gravy.  Return the meatballs to the pan and add the carrots and green peppers.  Bring to a simmer, cover and simmer over low heat for one hour, stirring occasionally.  Serve over mashed potatoes with a sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley.


  1. I have never even heard of dry spaghetti sauce mix. And why you no like balls? You must get tired of me saying balls all the time. Balls!

  2. Your enthusiastic use of the word balls always warms my heart, Laura. But I don't like balls to be in the name of my food. I think it started when I saw a recipe for fish balls in some 1930's cookbook. GROSS.

  3. Fish is gross enough on its own without being in ball form.