Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Once I get interested in a food I can get a little obsessive about it (see: poached eggs, quinoa, feta, fritters), especially when it’s a seasonal fruit or vegetable (see: corn, asparagus, fennel, radishes) that won’t be available at its peak quality for long. This can lead to long stretches where we eat the same types of things at least once a week, sometimes for months on end. No matter how delicious those things are, I know the repetition can be a little wearying for anyone who doesn’t share my passion, so I like to keep a few simple comfort foods in my back pocket, things that can be made year-round and that A is always happy to see on the menu, thus softening the blow that we’re also having, say, kale salad for the third week in a row. Ideally, though, these comfort foods will still be fresh, wholesome, and not too indulgent. That’s a tall order, but luckily, this is the sort of thing Cooking Light excels at, which is why I keep renewing my subscription. Two summers ago, it brought us a now-favorite, BBQ pulled chicken sandwiches, and now it’s served up another slam dunk.

I’ve never been particularly interested in meatball sandwiches or sliders or making burger-type foods at home, so I’m not sure exactly what attracted me to this recipe beyond the fact that the photo was very colorful and appealing, and I suspected A that would enjoy it. I suppose my enjoyment of meatballs has been steadily increasing over the years, from lemony pork meatballs with noodles to Italian wedding soup, as I’ve realized that, never a big fan of slabs of uninterrupted meat, I’ll take these little spiced, seasoned bites over a steak any day. I knew that A, who can have a bird-like appetite at times, would appreciate the petite, nonoverhelming quality of the mini sandwiches, and I liked the fact that they looked easy to put together but didn’t resemble anything else in my recipe collection.

Folks, these are incredibly delicious! I was a bit weirded out when I stirred the ricotta into the ground meat—there was enough that the whole mixture turned white and creamy and gooey, which made it trickier to form the meatballs—but the cheese is the secret ingredient that keeps these relatively lean meatballs so tender and moist. For the sauce, I just used a can of Trader Joe’s tomato sauce, then spiced it up with 1 teaspoon each of dried oregano, dried basil, and balsamic vinegar, plus a pinch each of fennel seed and black pepper, after I added it to the skillet—basically a streamlined version of my pizza sauce. I didn’t see slider buns at any of my usual shopping sites, so I just bought some small buttermilk dinner rolls from a bakery at the farmers’ market and they worked perfectly. (In the future, I’d like to try making little versions of yogurt sandwich rolls for this purpose.) The resulting sandwiches are messy, but so crowd-pleasingly enjoyable. Just don’t leave off the fresh basil leaves, as I accidentally did the second time I made this. They’re not just a garnish; they add a welcome bright, grassy note.

Pondering what to serve alongside this, I figured I might as well go with the simple spinach salad that the magazine suggested as an accompaniment. It sounded a little dull to me, but I knew I wanted some color and vegetables on the plate, and I rarely say no to cheese. It turned out to be an excellent choice; it was easy to make and surprisingly complex-tasting, more than the sum of its parts. The spinach, mozzarella, red pepper, onion, and balsamic dressing completed the Italianate flavor profile so perfectly that I’d never bother serving the sliders without the salad, and for your convenience I’m just combining them into a single recipe below.

Confession: I did not toast my panko (too lazy; seemed unnecessary) or my buns (just noticed that instruction in the original recipe now) and nothing seemed amiss, so I’m marking those steps optional. I suppose toasting the bun might keep the sauce from making it soggy, but as long as you eat these promptly after assembling, I don't think sogginess should be a major problem.

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 shallots, finely diced
1 cup thinly sliced red bell pepper
½ cup thinly sliced red onion
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
⅜ teaspoon salt, divided
¾ teaspoon black pepper, divided
6 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mozzarella
⅓ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
¼ cup panko, toasted if desired
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
⅛ teaspoon salt
8 ounces lean ground pork
2 4-ounce links turkey or chicken Italian sausage, casings removed
1 large egg
1½ cups lower-sodium marinara sauce
6 cups baby spinach
12 slider buns (or small dinner rolls, split in half horizontally), toasted if desired
12 large basil leaves

1. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat; swirl to coat. Add garlic and shallots to pan; sauté 3 minutes or until shallots are softened, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

2. While the shallots are cooling, combine red bell pepper, red onion, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and mozzarella in a large bowl; let stand while preparing the rest of the meal.

3. Combine the ricotta, parsley, panko, ½ teaspoon black pepper, red pepper flakes, ⅛ teaspoon salt, ground pork, Italian sausage, and egg with the shallot mixture in a large bowl. Mix well with your hands, then shape mixture into 12 (approximately 1-inch) meatballs; flatten each meatball slightly.

4. Return pan to medium-high heat. Add remaining 2 teaspoons oil to pan. Add meatballs to pan; cook 6 minutes, turning once. Add marinara sauce; bring to a boil, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 8 minutes or until meatballs are done.

5. Add baby spinach to the red pepper mixture and toss well.

6. Top the bottom half of each bun with 1½ tablespoons marinara sauce, 1 meatball, 1 basil leaf, and top half of bun. Serve with spinach salad on the side.

Serves: 6 (2 sliders and about 1 cup of salad each)
Time: 1 hour
Leftover potential: Good, if you store the salad and sliders unassembled. For the salad, store the red pepper mixture separately from the spinach, store both elements in the refrigerator, and combine just before eating. For the sliders, store the meatballs with their sauce separately from the buns, store the meatballs in the refrigerator and the buns at room temperature (or in the freezer), then reheat the meatballs in the microwave (you can also microwave the buns to thaw them, or just briefly to soften them if they are a bit dry), and put them on the buns just before eating. You can either put the basil on top of the meatballs before you store them (it will discolor a bit but will taste just fine), or add it freshly when it’s time to eat.

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