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.
When I was in my graduate program, I lived with the family of an old school friend. The mother was a good cook of the Betty Crocker/Good Housekeeping school, and there were still young kids living at home. We often had many of the classics – tuna-noodle casserole, macaroni and cheese, meat loaf – but a cheer would go up from the kids when they learned that dinner would include porcupine meatballs. It was even a celebratory dish for birthdays or good report cards.
The meatballs get their name not from being made from porcupine meat but from the rice on their surfaces that supposedly sticks up like the quills on a porcupine’s back. You clearly need the imagination of a child for this creation.
Honestly, I think that the reputation of the dish was overblown, but it really is something to make when you have run out of ideas for what to do with a pound of ground beef. And that’s exactly what happened. I had a pound of ground beef to use up, and I didn’t feel like the usual hamburgers or pasta with meat sauce.
Then I thought of porcupine meatballs even though I hadn’t had them since my college days. They are easy to make with the single challenging step being the tomato sauce in which the meatballs cook. If you insist, you can make a very elaborate sauce. Alternatively, you can open a can of plain tomato sauce. Those two options run the gamut of hard to ridiculously easy and of tasty to why-bother. Fortunately, there is a middle road. I bought a large jar of Rao’s tomato/basil pasta sauce (straight from the world-famous Manhattan restaurant, according to the label), and that worked perfectly to make this an easy, one-pot meal.
Put a green salad on the side, and you have all your food groups.
Bread soaking in milk
Meatballs formed and ready to roll in rice
Porcupine meatballs cooking in tomato sauce.
Ready to eat
- 1 thick slice sourdough bread, crusts removed
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
- 1/4 teasoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup long grain white rice
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 quart jar commercial pasta sauce
- grated Parmesan cheese
- In a large mixing bowl, soak the bread, torn into pieces, in the milk. Use a fork to mash the bread into a paste.
- Add the ground beef, egg, and tomato paste, and with your hands, mix until completely combined. Stir in the bell pepper, onion, garlic powder, salt, and pepper and mix until completely combined.
- Form the mixture into 8 meatballs.
- Place the rice in a shallow dish. Roll the meatballs in the rice until they are completely covered.
- In a large pot, brown the meatballs in the oil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta sauce, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes or until the rice is cooked. Some of the rice will have fallen off the meatballs into the sauce.
- Serve while still hot, topped with grated Parmesan cheese
A while back, my friend, John Ed, and I made a batch of Andouille sausage. We used a recipe from an excellent book, Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, W.W. Norton and Co., New York and London, 2005. We wound up with more than we had anticipated, so I put some of it in the freezer. The other night when I woke at 3 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep, I decided to reorganize the freezer. (What else is there to do at three in the morning?) I came across the Andouille and thought a bowl of gumbo would be good during the changing fall season.
I wasn’t sure, though, how the sausage would taste after those many month of storage, so I made a quicky throw-together meal to try it out. The meal turned out better than I expected, and the Andouille was in good shape. Next on the schedule, then, is chicken and Andouille gumbo.
For making the sausage, you should have a stand mixer which can be fitted with a meat grinder/sausage stuffer attachment. You will also need some sausage-making supplies including “pink salt” (DQ Curing Salt, aka DC Curing Salt, aka Prague Powder #1, aka Insta-Cure, aka Modern Cure.) Whatever the name, the salt is a mixture of regular salt and 6.25% sodium nitrite. The sodium nitrite prevents bacterial growth, especially the organism that cause botulism. You will also need sausage casings, preferably medium natural hog. If you live in a big city you can probably find those things in a local meat-packing or butcher supply house. If you can’t find them, you can get them on-line from Butcher and Packer
The quick dish is basically tomato sauce and cooked spaghetti, but the flavorings from the Andouille season the mixture beautifully. Few dishes to wash, and you can get back to whatever you are doing.
- In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and chill until ready to grind.
- Using the meat grinder attachment of your stand mixer, fitted with the small die, grind the mixture into the mixer bowl that has been set in a larger bowl filled with chopped ice.
- On medium speed, using the paddle beater, mix the ground meat mixture for about 1 minute until it becomes sticky.
- Correct seasoning by frying a small piece of the ground meat in a small skillet, tasting it, and adjusting seasonings as needed to suit your taste.
- Change the meat grinder so that it has the sausage stuffing horn attached.
- Thread the hog casing onto the stuffing horn, and working slowly but smoothly, fill the hog casing with sausage mixture.
- Twist the filled casing into 6-inch links.
- Hand the sausage string on a hook or stick and let dry for 2 hours at room temperature.
- Smoke the sausages in a Bradley stove-top smoker or in a charcoal grill with damp wood chips added. Internal temperature should reach 150°F (65°C)
- When the sausages are smoked, cool in an ice bath, and then refrigerate or freeze until ready to use.
Sausage and Mushrooms with Quick Tomato Sauce
- In a heavy-bottomed medium pot, brown the sausages and set aside.
- In the same pot, cook the onions and mushrooms, being careful not to burn. Return the sausage to the pot.
- Stir in the tomato sauce and minced garlic. Simmer for 15 minutes.
- Stir in the cut spaghetti, and cook at a slow boil until the spaghetti is tender, about 10 minutes.
- Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve while still hot.
Andouille sausage with tomato sauce
Sausage stuffing attachment at the ready
Another view of the meat grinder/sausage stuffer
One of the things I found in the freezer was a big plastic bag of vegetable scraps – carrot peelings, celery bottoms, onion skins and roots, bits of tomatoes – which I had been saving from a couple of months’ worth of cooking projects. For years I have made chicken stock from chicken parts and bones and beef stock from bone. But I never made my own vegetable stock until I picked up a tip from Sara Moulton on her television show, “Sara’s Weeknight Meals”. Save your scraps in the freezer, and when you have enough, put them in a pot, cover with water, and simmer for thirty minutes to an hour, cool, strain, and freeze into cubes to be used whenever you need vegetable stock. Works like the proverbial charm, and forms the beginning of today’s recipe.
The other thing I found in the freezer was a package of shrimp (21-30/pound size), and they became the inspiration and base for shrimp creole. In Louisiana, shrimp creole can be a simple country dish or a fancier version for company dinners and buffets. For that reason, some folks think it is just too complicated for a quick dinner. Too bad, because it is easy to make and fairly fast. This version took me about two hours to prepare, but that was because I was running around finding props and making images. You should be able to whip it up in a flat hour or so. Served with cooked rice, this recipe should serve 2 to 4 persons.
Making vegetable stock from frozen vegetable peelings and scraps
Thawed frozen shrimp with shells still on
Making shrimp stock by boiling shrimp shells in vegetable stock
Green pepper, one of the “Holy Trinity” of Creole and Cajun cooking
Celery and onions, the other parts of the cooking “Holy Trinity” along with tomatoes
Scallions, white and green parts, ready to be choppe
Paprika – this is mild, but you may use a hotter variety if you like
Canned tomato sauce makes for easy cooking, but chop up a few fresh tomatoes for texture
Shrimp have been added to the sauce and cooked for just a few minutes until they have become pink and lost their translucence
Finished shrimp Creole sauce served over cooked white rice. Add classic Louisiana hot sauce if you like.
Something you need to know before you start this recipe is that shrimp creole can be as piquant as you like. For family reasons, we don’t put much heat into Cajun and Mexican dishes, but if you enjoy heat, by all means use the hot sauce with abandon. For this dish – since it is from Louisiana – I suggest either Tabasco or Trappey’s.
- fresh or frozen shrimp (21-30/pound), shells on – allow 5 to 6 for each serving
2 cups vegetable stock
- 2 tablespoons bacon drippings
- ½ large yellow onion, chopped
- 2 scallions, chopped, including green tops
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/8 teaspoon ground bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon ground thyme
- 1½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon Tabasco sauce (optional or to taste)
- 1 can (14 ounces) tomato sauce
- 2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- juice of ½ lemon
Peel and clean the shrimp. Refrigerate the peeled shrimp until ready to add to the cooked sauce. Save the shells.
- Prepare shrimp stock by combining the vegetable stock and shrimp shells in a small saucepan. Bring to the boil and then simmer for 15 minutes. Strain. You should have about 1½ cups of shrimp stock.
- In a 4 quart stockpot, melt the bacon drippings over medium heat. Add the onions, cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and sweat the onions for 5 minutes or until they are translucent.
- Add the scallions, celery, and green pepper, raise the heat again to medium and cook the vegetables until tender, about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the shrimp stock, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, salt, pepper, paprika, and optional Tabasco sauce. Bring to the boil for 5 minutes.
- Then add the tomato sauce and reduce heat to the simmer for 10 minutes or so.
- Add the chopped tomatoes and simmer just long enough until the tomatoes are softened
- Correct the seasonings, add the sugar and lemon juice. Then add the shrimp and stir them into the sauce until they are cooked and pink – no longer than 5 minutes.
- Serve immediately over cooked rice. Allow about ½ to 1 cup of rice for each serving.