There are a few special skills that I possess of which I am exceptionally proud: I can fold fitted sheets with unusual competence, I can make excellent meatballs and in middle school I could figure out any boy’s schedule if I knew when he had lunch, gym and study hall.
In retrospect there, I probably should have just left you at meatballs.
The thing is, there are some things that are so simple but yet, so hard to do well. There is nothing fancy about the meatball, it’s small and unassuming and when cooked properly, packs more flavor per square inch than anything else I can think of.
Except maybe flourless chocolate cake. I digress.
The first few things I learned how to cook — and cook well — were turkey chili, grilled cheese sandwiches and baked lemon chicken. Shortly thereafter, I tackled the meatball. People love meatballs, hearty and reminiscent of home. I love the Italian-style meatball — and I dare say mine are impressive — but since I don’t have an Italian grandmother whose recipe I can coyly claim as my own because she doesn’t know how to use social media, I seem to be afflicted an obsession with taking creating less-than-typical variations of your typical recipe.
Let me tell you, something fun happens when you mix otherwise dull ground chicken, beef, pork or turkey up with softened bread or breadcrumbs, fresh herbs and a few special extras. These meatballs are made with ground chicken, which is leaner than most other ground meats, so we’re upping the ante on flavor by adding pancetta.
Why stop at healthy when you could instead add pork products to an otherwise nutritionally balanced ball?
- 3 slices Italian bread, torn into small bits (1 cup)
- ⅓ cup milk
- 3 ounces sliced pancetta, finely chopped (you can swap in Canadian Bacon if you can’t find pancetta)
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 large egg
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste, divided*
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Preheat oven to 400°F. While oven preheats, soak bread in a small bowl with ⅓ cup milk until softened, about three to five minutes.
- Heat one tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta, onion, and garlic with ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Cook until pancetta begins to crisp and onion is soft, white and translucent, about 6 minutes.
- Squeeze bread to remove excess milk, then discard milk. Lightly beat egg in a large bowl, then combine with chicken, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, pancetta mixture, bread, and parsley. Form 12 meatballs and arrange in another 4-sided sheet pan (think: cookie sheet, jelly roll pan or 9x13 roasting dish).
- Stir together remaining tablespoons of tomato paste and oil and brush over meatballs. Bake until meatballs are just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Serves 4, or more if you serve on buns as sliders or as an appetizer, which I highly recommend.