“Corned” meatballs might sound odd, but I’m hearkening back to the original meaning of “corned” here, back when corns referred to any small grains. Often, those grains were coarse grains of salt used in brines and pickling solutions. That’s where we get corned beef from — it doesn’t have anything to do with the kind of corn that grows on long stalks, but it does have a lot to do with salty brines.
Rolling these meatballs in coarse, grainy cornmeal makes them corny in both the traditional and modern sense of the word. The cornmeal also provides a nice crunch and is a healthy swap for commercial breadcrumbs. (Breadcrumbs are a snap to make yourself, though: just buzz some staling slices of bread through a food processor, pour the fresh crumbs into a screw-top glass jar, and stick the jar in the freezer. You’ll have breadcrumbs any time you need them! Fresh crumbs can also be briefly toasted to deepen their flavor before adding them to recipes.)
When shopping for cornmeal, be on the lookout for the coarsely milled variety. The finer meal is nicer for baked goods — if you mill the cornmeal finely enough, it becomes corn flour — but the coarsely milled cornmeal works better as a breadcrumb stand-in. It also imparts a more pronounced crunch and flavor to savory cooked dishes.
Corned Pork Meatballs with Basil & Mint
1 pound ground pork, preferably from pastured hogs
1 medium onion, minced
1/4 cup or so of fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/4 cup or so of fresh mint leaves, chopped
Pinch sea salt
To make the meatballs, place pork, onion, herbs, egg, and salt in a large glass mixing bowl. Use your hands to thoroughly combine them. The mixture will be very wet, so add enough cornmeal to make a mixture dry enough to roll into balls. (It’s best to add the cornmeal a bit at a time, mixing the meat each time, until you’ve reached a nice consistency. If you dump in a large amount of cornmeal at once, you might wind up with a too-dry mixture that will be crumbly. Add a little water if this happens.) Stack the balls on a plate as you roll them.
Scatter some cornmeal on another plate and roll the balls in the cornmeal one by one until each is completely covered. In a large saucepan, heat about 1 T. of extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat for about 1 minute. Add meatballs — working in batches if your pan isn’t big enough to hold them all — and cook them for about 5 minutes or until they’re golden-brown on all sides. You’ll have to shift them around with a spatula (or gently shake the pan) to make sure you cook them evenly.
The meatballs make tasty appetizers, or you can include them with your favorite pasta dish. They’re also great with eggs in the morning. If you have leftover meatballs, you can quickly re-fry them on the stovetop to bring back the cornmeal crunch, or you can serve them cold. I actually preferred their flavor when I sampled them cold the next day — their overnight stint in the refrigerator made the basil and mint flavors stand out more.
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