In their day, cocktail meatballs were as popular as the avocado-green Crock-Pots or the Salton hot trays used to serve them. The sweetness usually came from grape or cranberry jelly (as in “Tangy Grape BBQ Meatballs” from Welch’s, circa 1968), while the tang came from vinegar and chili sauce or ketchup (think Heinz’s “Ultimate Party Meatballs’’). Sweet and Sour Cocktail Meatballs are easy to serve for a crowd, and the sugary sauce is a guilty party pleasure.
Element of Distress
The retro flavors tasted better in theory than in practice. Browning dozens of meatballs in a skillet was a headache. The sauce was sickly sweet. We froze the meatballs in order to avoid much last-minute work; made with all-beef and filler, they turned hard and dry. They tasted, essentially, like beef-flavored grape Popsicles. Heartbreaking.
Line of Attack
We’d bring sweet and sour meatballs into the 21st century with a fast, easy, tangy, delicious version that we could freeze without compromise.
Have you heard our mantra? Mo’ fat, mo’ flavor, mo’ juiciness: Meatballs intended for the freezer need fat to keep them moist. After testing various meats and percentages, we landed squarely on 85 percent lean ground beef, combined with ground pork, for tenderness. We also elected to use two egg yolks in place of a whole egg. And we bound the meat together with a panade—the word is French for a paste made from bread softened in liquid (in this case, milk). All together, our meatballs held onto their liquid from freezer to pan, with no dryness in sight.
Next question: Does ball size matter? To form the meatballs quickly, we shaped them with a small melon baller (think tiny, cute, 1¼-inch orbs). And to brown them easily, we set them on a rimmed baking sheet in a 450-degree oven—the meatballs were done in 15 minutes. After they cooled, we froze them in zipper-lock bags. Sleep well, pretties.
And now the sweet, sour, and the ugly—finessing the sauce. Our ground zero was a basic mix of chili sauce (spicy ketchup at heart) and jellied cranberry sauce. When subbing in other jams and jellies, tangy apricot preserves came out on top—but the chili sauce evoked a dreaded “shrimp cocktail” effect, so we replaced it with plain tomato sauce. With the basic components in place, we added complexity with a sautéed onion, dark brown sugar (which added a pleasing molasses-y undertone), Dijon mustard, red pepper flakes, and Worcestershire sauce.
Come serving time, the frozen meatballs are dumped into the bubbling sauce and are hot and ready to eat in 10 minutes. If only we (and our fabulous beehive hairdo) were just as speedy to get ready for the party…