By Barbara Revsine–Entertaining in the pre-microwave, pre-gourmet-shop ’50s and ’60s was a challenge–especially if you had small kids and a tight budget like I did. I needed a dish that was likeable, inexpensive and easy-to-make. Sweet and sour meatballs qualified. Not only were the meatballs made with universally-appealing ground beef, they could be prepared the day before the party. (Not a bad idea, as the meatballs benefited from a short stay in the fridge: It made it easier to remove the fat.) Also, because the balls didn’t have to be browned separately from the sauce, they were a snap to make.
Reviving sweet and sour meatballs for this story, I compared the original recipes that shaped this appetizer icon and found some interesting similarities and differences: While all of the sauces had a sweet/sour flavor, the ways they achieved that, differed. Grape jelly played a role in many of the recipes, including the one featured in both the original “Elegant but Easy” (1960) cookbook by Marian Burros and Lois Levine, and the follow-up “The New Elegant but Easy” cookbook, (1998). A variation credited to Marilyn Brown, manager of the Consumer Test Kitchens at H.J. Heinz in Pittsburgh, and featured in Jean Anderson’s “the American Century Cookbook,” (1997) offers home cooks a choice of chili sauce or ketchup and either grape or red currant jelly but makes no mention of lemon juice or any other “sour” ingredient. And there are others out there.
But my favorite–because it comes closest to the recipe my mother used to make–is from Chicago-based writer Florence Kerr Hirschfeld’s “Cooking with Love” (1965). Her sauce includes canned tomatoes, gingersnaps, lemon juice, and equal parts brown and white sugar that cooks down to a delicious lacquered glaze on the meatballs
Makes 8 servings
- 3 slices of bread, crusts removed
- 1 cup cold water
- 2 lbs ground chuck beef
- 1 small onion, grated
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp pepper
- 1/4 tsp paprika
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup ice water
- 1 lb can tomatoes
- 4 gingersnaps, crumbled
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup white sugar
- Juice of 1 1/2 lemons (4 1/2 Tbsp)
- Soak bread in one cup of cold water; squeeze dry.
- Mix beef, onion, salt, pepper, paprika, egg, bread and ice water together in a bowl. Form into small balls the size of walnuts.
- Sieve tomatoes directly into a saucepan; add crushed gingersnaps, sugars, lemon juice and salt. Cook slowly, covered, until dissolved, then add meat balls and simmer two hours. Meatballs will be glazed; the sauce thickened.