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Pheasant Italian Meatballs

This is the last of the pheasant from this year’s harvest, but I still have some grouse left for a few more game recipes, and there is that venison backstrap in the freezer waiting for the grill.

I used 2 pounds of ground pheasant and 1 pound of ground pork, but if you’re making a chicken or turkey meatball, you could make up a different ratio that even adds veal. Three pounds of meat yielded about 3 dozen meatballs of golf ball size. It was a lot, but we had subs the first night and pasta the second. My husband had subs again the third night, but I was all meatballed out by then. I also made my own sauce, because I’m not too fond of any of the commercial sauces. Thank you, pheasant and little dog hunter.

The most interesting choice I made was to use panko crumbs instead of soft fresh or fine dry crumbs. I liked the body they added to the meatballs, keeping them moist, as well. Not sure how that works, but it works.

Pheasant Italian Meatballs

  • Servings: makes about 3 dozen
  • Difficulty: easy
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I let my meatballs cook completely in simmering sauce, with no beforehand browning. I used a true simmer gas burner, which is lower than the low on most burners. If you only have regular burners, the cooking time would be shorter, because I find that the lowest setting on my other burners keeps dishes at more of low boil that you have to watch for burning and sticking. I can just let my pot sit for hours without that happening. The downside is that my sauce doesn’t want to thicken at that low simmer, so I remove the meatballs later, and turn up the heat to cook down the sauce, uncovered.

For the meatballs:

2 lbs ground pheasant (or any poultry)

1 lb ground pork (mine was reduced fat)

Optional: 2 tablespoons bacon fat or other fat to compensate for lean meats

2 cups panko bread crumbs

2 eggs

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1/2-1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (I keep it ready in the freezer)

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

  1. Mix all the ingredients with a large meat fork, which cuts through all the ingredients, rather than mashing them as a spoon does. Or mix with your hands, which gives you a good sense of when everything is evenly combined. I start out with the fork and then get my hands in there to fold it all together.
  2. Into a large pot (about 6 qt) of simmering sauce, drop shaped meatballs, first covering the bottom and then dropping some into the spaces between balls, until all are made and in the pot. Do not worry that some are sitting on the top and not covered by sauce. DO NOT STIR at this point. Your meatballs will not fall apart if you just put the lid on and let them simmer away. I go in after about 1 1/2 hours to give a light stir, just to see how it all looks. Once the meatballs are in the sauce, this is pretty much a hands-off process. People who complain that their meatballs fall apart if not browned first are obviously unable to keep that spoon out of the pot. I can see how that would be an issue without a true simmer burner, though. If you must pre-cook your meatballs, I would bake them, as in this recipe: “Jen’s Incredible Baked Meatballs
  3. Remove meatballs after 2-3 hours and reduce sauce, if necessary, by raising the heat to a low boil and cooking uncovered to desired thickness. Return meatballs to sauce to keep hot.

For my sauce:

2 28 oz cans peeled plum tomatoes, crushed by hand or with a potato masher

1 tube or small can of tomato paste (sizes vary from 4.5 to 6 oz)

Optional: water, as needed, if you think the sauce is too thick at this point

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1/2-1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

  1. You’ll notice that my sauce flavorings are the same as in the meatball. Don’t expect the sauce to flavor the meatball all by itself.
  2. Mix all ingredients in your large pot and bring to a simmer while making the meatballs. The sauce should be simmering before dropping in the meatballs so you don’t have to bring the whole thing up to heat.
  3. After removing the cooked meatballs, I used a hand blender to further chop up some of the tomato pieces to help it thicken, and I cooked it, uncovered for about a half hour, stirring often. Then I returned the meatballs to the sauce to keep hot.

At a simmer, you can cook meatballs for a looooong time, longer than the 2-3 hours, if necessary, and of course, you can make them in the crockpot, but my crock is cracked. Make sure you have plenty of extra Parmesan for garnish and mozzarella if making subs.

To reheat the next day, let the meatballs and sauce come to room temperature, or heat slightly in the microwave, before heating on the stove at a low temperature or simmer. I don’t like to heat them completely in the microwave, which seems to have a toughening effect on meat.

Savory Pheasant Meatballs

Eventually, I’ll try Asian and Swedish meatballs with all the pheasant in the freezer, but for this first batch, I’m just making a simple savory meatball with a mushroom cream gravy, so I can focus on both the texture and flavor of the pheasant. Later, I’ll think about matching other flavors with it.

Meatballs are as easy and sometimes as frustrating as making meatloaf. They can be dry if you don’t get the proportions of the added ingredients right. Dry bread crumbs, soft bread crumbs, egg or no egg, milk or stock, fat in the form of some kind of pork—these are what you try to figure out in getting the right mixture for a tender meatball. And then you have to decide if you want to bake or fry or braise them, and how that choice affects the result. I hope I’m choosing the right ingredients and method of cooking, because I don’t really want this first attempt to be a failed test.

I ground the boneless breasts of 5 pheasant—they’re not very big—and it looked like about 1.5-2 pounds of meat (yes, I need to buy a scale). I bought 1 pound of ground pork to add and did add the whole pound in the end. Some recipes for poultry meatballs add ground bacon or pork belly. I would not know where to get pork belly and I didn’t want the smoky flavor of bacon to take over, so I went with plain ground pork. Aside from onion, garlic, and parsley, the only other flavoring I used was a tablespoon of  Worcestershire sauce, which I think will add to that savory taste I’m going for.

We thought the meatballs turned out moist and flavorful, but I think I might try the braising method with the next meatball recipe instead of turning on the oven.

Savory Pheasant Meatballs

  • Servings: about 28 large meatballs
  • Difficulty: easy
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Preheat oven to 200° to keep meatballs warm while you make the gravy or 350° if you want to finish cooking them in the oven.

Make the Meatballs

2 lbs ground pheasant (or chicken or turkey)

1 lb ground pork

4 small slices (about 4 oz) white bread, torn in pieces

1/2 cup milk for soaking bread (most will be thrown away)

1 medium onion, small dice

2 cloves garlic, minced or grated

1 egg

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

olive oil for sautéing

  1. Place torn bread in bowl with milk and soak for about ten minutes. When ready to add to meat mixture, squeeze out milk and just add moistened bread. Reserve the milk until you see if your mixture needs it.
  2. In large bowl, combine meats, onion and garlic, egg, parsley, soaked bread, and seasonings. You can sauté the onion and garlic first and add after it has cooled—I did not, today. Mix with hands or a large meat fork to distribute the ingredients well without overmixing. I have seen meatball recipes that ask you to beat the meat mixture for 5 minutes in a stand mixer, but that goes against everything I’ve heard about how too much mixing makes meatballs or meatloaf tough.
  3. Form meat mixture into meatballs. Mine were a little larger than golf balls, maybe two large tablespoonfuls each. I didn’t want to be rolling and browning meatballs all evening. Smaller ones would, of course, cook more quickly by sautéing , and is probably a good idea if you plan to cook them on the stovetop. Trying to sauté large meatballs until done in the center would take a long time. Here’s what I did:
    1. Over medium-high heat, sauté meatballs in batches in olive oil in large frying pan until browned on all sides. Give up on them remaining perfectly round and accept that you will have some flat sides. Remove browned meatballs to parchment-lined baking pan.
    2. Place browned meatballs on baking pan in 350° oven for about 15-20 minutes. Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness—I think 150°-160° is plenty for these little balls that will continue to cook after removing.
  4. Place meatballs in gravy just to coat. Another alternative to finishing the meatballs in the oven would be to add them to the sauce ingredients before thickened, and braise, covered, for about 10 minutes after browning.

Serve with sauce (below) alone or with noodles.

Make the Mushroom Cream Gravy

6 oz small mushrooms, sliced

1 cup chicken stock

1 cup half and half, plus more to thin sauce as needed

1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) all-purpose flour

salt & pepper to taste

  1. While the meatballs are finishing in the oven, or after they have browned and are waiting to be braised, brown the sliced mushrooms in the same pan, adding more olive oil, if needed.
  2. Stir in the flour until combined. Ideally, you want to have equal amounts of fat and flour to thicken the sauce.
  3. Stir in the chicken stock until combined.
  4. Stir in the half and half and continue stirring until thickened.
  5. Optional: If you are braising the meatballs, do that before thickening the sauce, then thicken with the flour mixed with enough water to remove any lumps.

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

We don’t eat Italian red sauce very often, and by that I mean maybe once a year. We used to eat it more, but just found things we liked better—lighter sauces, more vegetables, even pizza with white sauce instead of red. Even during the last few years when we were eating a red sauce more often, we had moved away from the thick sauces to ones made with canned crushed tomatoes that didn’t seem to mask over other flavors in the dishes.

That’s what I’m aiming for in this dish that uses up the last of the garden tomatoes. I’m just going to peel, seed, and crush the tomatoes, and then decide when I see the results if it needs any tomato paste for body, and as I always do, I’m going to cook the meatballs in the sauce. I’ve never liked the results of meatballs browned first; I like to just form and drop them into the pot of sauce and let it simmer until it’s all done. That method has produced both flavorful, tender meatballs, and flavorful sauce., as well as a lot fewer pans to wash.

Perhaps you can see in this video of today’s sauce with the meatballs removed the consistency after it has cooked down a bit and had a small can of tomato paste added:

Fresh Tomato Sauce with Meatballs

  • Servings: 4-6, about 20 meatballs
  • Difficulty: easy
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My red sauce ingredients are always simple and this will be the first time I’ve written them down, so don’t dwell on the proportions of any of the ingredients. Just use amounts that seem right to you. We like a lot of garlic; you might like more herbs. Likewise with the meatballs—I like grated Parmesan in them, and more garlic.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

This big pile of tomatoes, peeled and seeded, crushed with your hands or a potato masher is what I am working with. I don’t have a scale, so can’t tell you how much weight I’m using, but the quantity, crushed, comes half way up in this 6 quart pot. If using canned crushed tomatoes, I would use at least two large 28 oz cans for a single meal for 4-6 people.

The following are the ingredients I used for my quantity of tomatoes:

3 quarts tomatoes, peeled, seeded, crushed by hand or vegetable masher

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

6-8 large cloves garlic, chopped or grated (you can see the small chunks of garlic in the video)

1/4 cup dried or 1 cup fresh chopped parsley

1 tablespoon dried oregano (or basil if you prefer)

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon coarse ground pepper

Optional: 1 small can tomato paste, added after meatballs are cooked (see below)

Place all ingredients in a large pot over medium heat while making the meatball mix.

Ingredients with garlic
Ingredients with garlic


1 1/4 lbs ground beef, 80% lean

2 cloves garlic, grated

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup fresh bread crumbs

1 egg

1/4-1/3 cup milk, half and half, or condensed milk—I used half and half, but you could use stock if you don’t like to cook meat with milk

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon coarse ground pepper

Optional: herbs to match what you use in the sauce

Mix all ingredients by hand as you would for meatloaf. If you use dry breadcrumbs instead of fresh, you might want to let them sit in the milk for a few minutes to soften. Form into meatballs, dropping them into the sauce as you make them. Don’t worry if they come to the top of your sauce and are not covered; they will cook fine that way. Do not stir at this point, so you don’t break up the meatballs. Cover pot and simmer for about a half hour before stirring to allow the meatballs to hold their shape. simmer for another hour, for a total of 1 1/2 hours, covered.

Meatballs dropped in sauce

Remove the meatballs and raise the heat from simmer to low. Cook the sauce, uncovered, to desired thickness. Add up to one small can of tomato paste to further thicken or enrich the sauce. I did add one can because the majority of my tomatoes were not plum tomatoes, and thus were a little more watery. Return the meatballs to reheat when you are happy with the sauce consistency. Serve with pasta and more Parmesan for garnish. I used Barilla Plus® angel hair pasta, a pasta with extra protein and fiber. The meatballs are very tender cooked this way. The sauce is not one of those intense, heavy red sauces, but one with a lot of fresh tomato flavor and pieces of tomato. It seems lighter, but that’s probably just me fooling myself.



What to Bring to the Summer Get Together

Side dish or dessert? Side dish or dessert? You’d think with only two choices, making one would be easy, but whenever I hear that option, my head starts swimming with all the possible dishes I could make. First, I lean toward dessert, because within the narrow confines of my family I am known for some pretty good ones, whether elaborate or simple. But then I start panicking about all the possible things that can go wrong, most of them having to do with accidental burning or insufficient rising, overworked crusts or underbaked centers, or missed ingredients—in a dessert, the littlest thing turns into a disaster.

The dessert disaster scenario takes only seconds and I start thinking about side dishes. Now, that’s a gigantic category encompassing appetizers, salads, vegetables, each one of those its own abyss. I’ll have to admit that what first popped into my head was a corn-black bean-mango salsa, but did I want to bring chips or turn it into a pasta salad? Not really. I quickly fell back on the old standby macaroni salad because it’s easy to make and hard to ruin, but with visions of seeing 12 different bowls of the stuff, I had to figure out how to make mine stand out or at least compete well with the others so as not to be faced with taking home the only untouched dish.

Bacon, obviously

A quick trip around the web showed me the right dressing to go with the bacon, so I’m taking Bacon Ranch Macaroni Salad with homemade ranch dressing.

Continue reading What to Bring to the Summer Get Together