Here’s another riff on comfort food of the past. For many mothers of the 1950s, -60s, and -70s, porcupine meatballs or just porcupines were a standby and family favorite. The recipe was included in The Joy of Cooking at least as early as 1943 and as late as 1974, but it had disappeared by 1997. I haven’t been able to find a recipe in contemporary cook books, but there are still several versions on the internet.
My first experience with porcupines came during my graduate school days. I lived with the family of one of my best grade school friends who had moved to Houston. The mother was a very good cook, but her meals were very much of the era. She knew dozens of ways to fix ground beef, and there was nothing that couldn’t be improved with a can of tomato or cream of mushroom soup.
Porcupine meatballs were one of her specialties. Whenever she made them, cheers would go up from the younger children in the family as well as me. The version in the Joy of Cooking called for a can of condensed tomato soup. Her version was more refined, using a can of tomato sauce with seasonings. Both recipes, however, called for rolling the meatballs in rice before cooking them. Internet recipes combine raw rice in the meatball. The recipe that follows uses Mrs. M.’s method.
I have also made two significant changes: first, I have made what are basically hamburgers instead of meatballs (much easier) and second, instead of some kind of tomato sauce, I have used a brown sauce with mushrooms. In part, this is because lately we have been eating lots of Italian dishes with tomato sauces, and I’m getting a little tired of tomato sauce of any sort on any thing.
Sorry, the images are not my best. I confess that the finished dish does not look like much, but I promise that it tastes good – almost as good as at Mrs. M’s table.
Hamburger patty coated with raw rice
Waiting to be cooked
Porcupines with mushroom gravy
Porcupines in Mushroom Gravy
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 4 cups beef stock
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 4 medium white mushrooms, sliced
- 1 pound ground beef
- ½ small onion, diced finely
- 1 egg
- ½ cup bread crumbs
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- dash ground bay leaf
- ¼ teaspoon ground thyme
- ½ cup long grain rice
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- salt and pepper to taste
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour until well combined. Cook until the mixture is bubbling, about 5 minutes. Do not allow to color. Whisk in the beef stock, stirring vigorously to break up any lumps. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the mixture is thickened. Stir in the tomato paste and mushrooms. Cook for another 5 minutes. Then reduce the heat to the lowest setting to keep the sauce warm until you are ready to add it to the porcupines.
- In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, onion, egg, bread crumbs, garlic powder, bay, and thyme. Use your well-washed hands and mix gently until well combined.
- Divide the mixture into 4 equal-sized pieces. Shape each into a patty about 5 inches across and ¾ inch thick.
- Place the raw rice in a bowl large enough to accommodate the patties. Individually, place the patties in the rice, pressing down with your hand to make sure the rice sticks to the surface and turning until the patty is completely and evenly coated with rice. Repeat the process with all four patties
- Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy bottomed cooking pot with lid. Add the rice-covered patties and allow them to brown lightly, turning once. Stir in the warm mushroom sauce slowly to avoid any flare-up. Bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 – 40 minutes until the rice is done. Check from time to time during the cooking.
- Serve one or two patties to each diner with a good helping of the sauce.
We had a chance to help my son celebrate his birthday this year. I agreed to cook, and I wrestled with the menu. We often have steaks when we visit the family, and while they are not vegetarians, they do try to limit their meat intake. On top of that the girls are in the finicky stage of growing up so there are lots of foods they won’t eat, even with encouragement from their mom and dad.
That challenge made me think of spaghetti and meatballs. That way, if someone didn’t want meat – for whatever reason – he or she could forego the meatballs. Similarly, if the girls wanted only plain pasta, that would work, too. I thought of my mother’s homemade spaghetti sauce and meatballs. I guess the sauce could be called a marinara, but to me it is much richer than marinaras at restaurants or in stores. Mom learned to make the sauce at my father’s pleading when we were living in a basement apartment within a compound of a big Italian family. I remember Mom going upstairs to take daily cooking lessons – there was always a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove – until she thought that she had mastered the recipe. Over the years, she and I have cut corners (no longer fresh tomatoes, carrots, etc.), but I think the recipe is still a good one.
The meatballs are another matter. I am not particularly fond of most meatballs. They are usually dry and not, IMHO, very flavorful. I think this recipe has cracked the code, and the recipe makes enough for lots of leftovers. After the birthday party in Silicon Valley, I brought some sauce and meatballs back to San Francisco so that my daughter and son-in-law could have a midnight snack when they got back home on the late flight from New York City. There was nothing left in the morning but the dirty dishes.
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled, trimmed and mashed
- 1 28 ounce can whole tomatoes with juice
- 1 6 ounce can tomato paste
- 1 cup beef broth
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 6 to 8 cremino mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed, and sliced
- 1 tablespoon Italian herb seasoning
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- juice of ½ fresh lemon
- more salt and pepper as needed
- Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil and stir in the onions. Cover to sweat the onions until they are soft and translucent. Be careful not to let them brown.
- Add the garlic and stir for another minute or so, being careful not to brown the garlic.
- Stir in the canned tomatoes, tomato paste, beef broth and red wine. Bring to the boil and then reduce to the simmer.
- Cook, covered, for an hour, stirring occasionally to avoid burning. Add water if the sauce become too thick.
- Stir in the sliced mushrooms and herb seasoning. Simmer for another hour, uncovered, stirring and adding water as needed.
- Add the sugar and lemon.
- Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.
- Add the browned meatballs (see below) and simmer for another hour or until the meatballs are cooked through.
- 1 pound ground beef (85% lean)
- 1 pound Italian sausage (sweet or hot according to your taste)
- 2 extra-large eggs
- 1 tablespoon Italian herb seasoning
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 3/4 cup (about) fresh bread crumbs
- In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, sausage, and eggs. Use your hands (freshly washed of course) to mix the ingredients thoroughly
- Mix in the herb seasoning, salt, and pepper . Make sure they are thoroughly combined
- Stir in the bread crumbs. Hold back a few to make sure the mixture is not too dry. Then add them if needed. Add more bread crumbs if the mixture is still too moist.
- Let the mixture sit for about 15 minutes so that the bread crumbs absorb moisture from the eggs. Then roll a bit of the mixture – slightly larger than a golf ball – between your palms until it forms a round, smooth meatball. Repeat the process until you have used up all of the meat mixture. You should be able to make about two dozen meatballs
- Working in batches, brown the meatballs on all sides in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium skillet. When all of the meatballs are browned, add them to the spaghetti sauce and cook everything over medium low heat for another hour.
- Serve over cooked spaghetti or other pasta of your choice with freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top.
Canned tomatoes and tomato paste
Italian seasoning – marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, and basil
Meatballs ready to brown
Meatballs simmering in spaghetti sauce
The only thing missing is the spaghetti and meatballs
Dinner is served