Thursday, March 2, 2017

Forcemeat Balls: Meatballs with an Historic French Flair

Forcemeat Balls in Gravy
Recipe Provenance
The following recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

The Recipe
Forcemeat for Patties, Balls, or Stuffing Crumbs of bread, chopped parsley, fat bacon (if it has been dressed, the better) suet, a piece of fresh butter a little anchovy liquor, an egg, a bit of onion, a very little sweet marjoram, pepper, salt, nutmeg. To the above you may add cold veal or chicken, which is a great improvement, lemon, or lemon-thyme is a good substitute. Tarragon gives a French flavour, but a very small proportion is sufficient.

About the Recipe
The vague measurements given for this recipe illustrate a common method by which recipes are communicated. This recipe is a good example of the transmission of folk culture, or informal cultural learning. This particular recipe probably never had exact measurements. It was probably transmitted by observation using measurements such as “a piece” or “a little.” Anna Maria Morris most likely observed this recipe being made and recorded what she saw to the best of her recollection. 

About Forcemeat
Forcemeat is heavily seasoned, ground meat that is used to make meatballs or patties and is often used as a stuffing. When made into balls, forcemeat is often used as a garnish, particularly for whole animal heads and stews.
Here are some examples of ways in which forcemeat was used in historic recipes:

English Housewifery by E. Moxon (Leeds, 1764)

A New System of Domestic Cookery by M. Rundell (London, 1824)

Jennie June's American Cookery Book by J. C. Croly  (NY, 1870)
Adding a Bit of 'French Flavour"
Notice that tarragon is suggested to be included to give a "French flavour." The addition of French elements to the American cuisine can be traced back to the late 18th-century. First, the fall of the French aristocracy as a result of the French Revolution left many notable chefs without employment. Many of these chefs opened their own eating establishments in Europe as well as America. 

In addition, as a result of the alliance America made with France during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, French culinary styles became more acceptable than ever. The initial French influence on the American diet revealed itself in the preference for delicate sauces, wine, pates pastry and confections, and, of course, herbs. 

While tarragon is widely used in cooking throughout Europe, Asia , and North America, the French variety is the one most associated with cooking. As a matter of fact, it is recognized to have been Thomas Jefferson's favorite herb. By the late 18th-century, Thomas Jefferson found a French chef in Annapolis he hired to train one of his slaves in the French culinary arts. In addition, when Jefferson undertook his diplomatic assignment in France, he brought a slave for the sole purpose of learning the French ‘art of cookery’. Not doubt these chefs incorporated tarragon as much as possible to provide the right hint of 'French flavour' to satisfy Jefferson. Perhaps Ann Maria Morris was inspired by Jefferson's love of this flavorful herb with a hint of anise. 

Modern Recipe Adaptation: Forcemeat Balls 
Yields: About 15-16 Two-Ounce Balls

  • 3/4 Cup Plain Breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 Cup Onions, Minced
  • 2 Tablespoons Chopped Fresh Parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon Chopped Fresh Marjoram
  • 1 Tablespoon Fresh Thyme or Lemon-Thyme Leaves
  • 2 Teaspoons Chopped Fresh Tarragon Leaves
  • 2 Teaspoons Fresh Lemon Zest
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Grated Nutmeg
  • 2 Tablespoons Melted Butter
  • 1 Teaspoon Anchovy Liquor, Paste or Fish Sauce
  • 1/4 Cup Water
  • 3 Large Eggs
  • 1/2 Pound Ground Chicken
  • 1/2 Pound Ground Veal
  • 2 Ounces Atoro Suet
  • 2 Ounces Bacon Fat, Finely Chopped
  • Suet or Lad for Frying (optional)
  1. In a large bowl, use a rubber spatula to mix together the breadcrumbs, onion, herbs, spices, butter, anchovy/fish sauce, water, and eggs. 
  2. Add the chicken, veal, suet and bacon fat. Mix together using your hands. Be sure not to over-mix or the forcemeat balls might get tough.
  3. Measure the meat into 2-ounce balls. Make sure your hands are wet to avoid sticking.
  4. Choose One Method to Cook:
    • Bake: Place the balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place in a pre-heated 400º oven and bake for 20 minutes.
    • Fry: Heat suet, lard, or vegetable oil/shorteningover medium-high heat. Fry the balls for about 15 minutes and be sure to turn them so that they brown evenly. Drain on paper towels.
  5. To Serve: 
    1. You can use the meatballs to garnish a roast and gravy or other meat dish.
    2. You can serve with beef gravy.
    3. You can serve with your favorite dipping sauce (light cream sauces, soy-sauces, and any tangy sauce like a tzatziki sauce would work; I would not serve with Italian tomato sauce).

  • Fowler, Damon Lee. ed., Dining at Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Inc. (2005)
  • Mitchell, Patricia B., Cooking in the Young Republic 1780-1850 (July, 2000)
  • Mitchell, Patricia B., French Cooking in Early America (May, 2002)

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