Every few years, my parents throw an all-out, champagne fluting, gown wearing, music blasting, slightly glam and always soaked New Year’s Eve party. No matter where else I’ve been, I’ve always found New Year’s parties disappointing. It’s the one night of the year where everyone must have fun. According to popular belief, if you’re not celebrating there’s either something wrong with you or you’re a police officer taking advantage of some serious overtime benefits. But too often in my experience New Year’s Eve means freezing one’s ass off, drinking too much, a regrettable kiss, and a wholly forgettable evening. (It has also, on occasion, involved aforementioned police, eager to prove they are worth the overtime, searching (futilely, I should add) my car and person for drugs; friends stuck in the drunk tank; lots of throwing up; and falling asleep by 11 pm.) My parents’ party is refreshing for several reasons: 1. we don’t have to drive anywhere 2. a huge variety of people show up 3. the food is incredible.
On top of a myriad of appetizers, any given year we may do more substantial (but always napkin-portable) dishes like Peking duck breast with hoisin in handheld wraps or mini crab cakes dolloped with creme fraîche. This year, enveloped by the (what turned out to be crazy) fear that we did not have enough food, we served, on top of a million little extras, tuna sashimi, homemade gravlax in endive, Australian lamb chop lollipops, grilled flank steak with chilli sauce in lettuce cups, and – for many the star of the show – venison meatballs.
As my mother refuses to offer her guests plates on December 31st, meatballs – the perfect toothpick food – have always been on hand for the party. Regular old meatballs, though, do not fit into my father’s idea of what New Year’s Eve should be: glamorous, glittering and lavish. (He famously told one of his best friends year after year that jumbo shrimp were too mundane for NYE. This year, said friend brought them anyway, and they were gone in minutes.) Venison and an earthy cream sauce would add that je ne sais quoi to lift the meatballs above the spaghetti. And thanks to my uncle Matty, who hunts deer with a bow and arrow, venison is never scarce around these parts.
Through a lucky combination of snobbery and skill, these meatballs have become one of the New Year’s party guests of honor, a reliable repeat after being completely wiped out the first year they made an appearance. Some friends have been known to stand around the kitchen, toothpick in hand, awaiting their arrival. This year for the first time, and probably due to the sheer number of other offerings, some venison meatballs survived until the next day (when they were, in my opinion, even better).
When asked for the recipe in the past, my dad would answer honestly that he forgot, like most things that happened on the last day of December. So this year I followed him around, recording approximations of measurements and ingredients. And thus, I present to you a recipe very close to Jim’s famous venison meatballs. Which, I think, are good enough to merit your attention all year round. And fancy enough to help you celebrate no matter the occasion.
All measurements here are approximations, especially when it comes to the sauce. The recipe can easily be reduced by 2/3rds (so you use only 1 onion, 1 lb of venison, 1/2 lb of sausage, 1 egg, etc.) to make for a delicious dinner for 4 to 6. If you can’t find all the ingredients (red currant jelly is available from Trappist at Christmas Tree Shops for those of you in the Boston area!), don’t worry…these meatballs are just begging you to make them your own. Makes for relatively easy clean up since you make the sauce in the meatball pan, then cook everything together in the oven. Makes a ton and will keep (and even improve) for a few days in the fridge.
3 onions, minced
3 tablespoons butter
a bit of white wine
allspice & nutmeg
1 1/2 lbs plain pork sausage
3 lbs ground venison
1 cup milk (approx)
350 – 450 grams (about 1 container) bread crumbs (panko work well)
salt and pepper
1 shallot, minced
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup port
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup beef stock
2 cups heavy cream
2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tablespoons red currant jelly
4 -5 juniper berries
To begin making the meatballs, have all your ingredients are room temperature. Over med-low heat, saute the minced onion in ample butter, keeping the heat low so that it doesn’t darken or brown, for about 15 minutes or until completely softened. Add a big glug of white wine and about 1 tsp each of ground allspice and nutmeg. Cook down until no liquid remains. Set aside to cool slightly.
In a very large bowl, mix the meat, eggs, and cooled onions with your hands. Alternate adding milk and breadcrumbs, mixing gently. Add salt and pepper. Do not over-handle the mixture or it will become tough. Gently and without squeezing, form the meat mixture into bite-sized balls and set on baking trays to await frying. You may want to turn on the radio or something before you start.
Once all the balls have been formed, preheat the oven to 300F/150C. You’re going to make your sauce in the same pot after you fry the balls, so don’t worry if some meat sticks to the bottom. You may also want to have your shallot already chopped. Add ample olive oil to cover the bottom of a very large flat-bottomed high-sided ovenproof pot, and heat over med-high heat. Fry the meatballs in batches, adding more olive oil as necessary to keep the bottom of the pan coated. Do not overcrowd them. Once they are browned on one side, turn them to fry them on the other then remove, re-coat pan with olive oil and add the next batch.
Once you’ve fried your meatballs, make the sauce by throwing in the chopped shallot to the pan you used to fry the meatballs. Fry on medium for a few minutes, then add the port, turn up heat and reduce liquid by half. Then add the red wine and beef stock and reduce liquid by half. Meanwhile, in a small pot, gently warm the heavy cream with the crushed garlic; once red wine and beef stock have reduced, add the cream and garlic mixture to the pot and continue reducing. Add a few hearty tablespoons of red currant jelly, a few juniper berries and some salt and pepper to taste while the sauce continues to boil down until your desired consistency.
Once the sauce is the consistency you’d like it, throw the meatballs back into the pot, cover it, and stick it in the oven for an hour. Serve hot with crusty bread, rice, mashed potatoes, whatever delicious starch you want to soak up the awesome.