May It Please the Palate ...

Meatball Sandwich

Some years back I went with some friends on a UM football road trip. Can’t recall if we were in West Lafayette, Champaign Urbana, or Bloomington, but it was one of the lesser Big Ten venues. After the game, Dave said that one of his favorite things to do on a road trip was to eat local food. He had somehow scouted out a bar that sold meatball sandwiches. This was well before Yelp and I suspect he went to the library and got a book about American road food, or “Meat Sandwiches of the Big Ten.”

We found ourselves in a bar and as I recall, all they had were meatball sandwiches and beer. No eight-page glossy menu with Jalapeno Poppers or Thai Lettuce Wraps. Just meatball sandwiches, by the sack. Patron after patron went to the bar, ordered two or four or six, and got their meatball sandwiches in a white paper bag. I recall the choices were cheese, or no cheese. If you clamored for other toppings they had a shaker of red pepper flakes.

I’ve often thought about these sandwiches. A single large meatball, slightly crushed with a bit of sauce, on a workaday toasted bun. With or without a slice of melty mozzarella. They were simple, and flawless. The Zen koan of sandwiches. Not to mention a perfect union with a frosty mug of beer.

Why, I wondered in wild frustration, does everyone else insist on lining up half a dozen meatballs on a hoagie bun? Eating that is about as awkward as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie making it through a yoga session. I dreamed of opening a bar selling simple meatball sandwiches back in Ann Arbor. I formulated a business plan. I lined up investors. I … fell asleep in the car after three meatball sandwiches.

So here’s one for your next casual party or tailgate. The important thing here is the concept, not the precise meatball recipe. There are many variations on the meatball. Some are all beef; others include pork and/or veal. But I find it hard to improve on the recipe below. Adjust to your liking.

Nick’s Big Ten Meatball Sandwiches
Makes 4

For the meatballs:
1 lb. good ground chuck, preferably grass-fed, or grass and hot pepper fed
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/4-1/3 cup minced onion
1 large or 2 small eggs
2 TBS olive oil
1 tsp oregano
1/2  - 1 tsp crushed red pepper
3-4 dashes Frank’s Hot Sauce (ancient Greek recipe)
optional: pinch of fennel seeds
salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients, hand form into 2” meatballs. Broil on low heat until nicely browned on all sides. They will be nice and pink in the center.

For the sauce:
2 28 oz cans San Marzano style crushed tomatoes
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
2 TBS olive oil
1/2 tsp @ nutmeg and cinnamon
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
a dash or three of Frank’s
salt and pepper to taste
Saute the garlic in the olive oil in low-medium heat briefly; add the other ingredients, reduce heat, and simmer. Add meatballs to keep them warm.

For the sandwiches:
4 workaday hamburger buns (or 8 mini’s)
olive oil for brushing (optional: add crushed basil and garlic to olive oil)
4 slices mozzarella
crushed red pepper, oregano for additional flavor

Brush both sides of buns with oil. Grill or broil until lightly browned. Spoon a bit of sauce on the bottom bun, place one or two crushed meatballs on top. Add another spoonful of sauce and if desired, crushed pepper, oregano, and cheese. Add top bun. The heat of the meat and bun will nicely melt the cheese.

Enjoy with a cold beverage. Even better after a Michigan football victory.
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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for Ann Arbor’s “Current” magazine. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

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