Cleaning Out the Freezer

Hunting season has started in states all over the country, and you know what that means?!  You need to get all the old meat out of your freezer before you start adding fresh stock!  Annoyingly, The Engineer and I didn’t draw any deer tags this year.  Frankly we should probably be hoarding our meat for the upcoming winter, but I guess if we have to go vegetarian over the winter that’s what happens.

To go along with our meat, we suddenly had a small surplus of fresh tomatoes out of the garden.  Late summer is a strange time like that.  Surpluses of fresh veggies, fruits, and herbs are all at your disposal, but you freezer might be left with just huge roasts and some less than stellar cuts of meat.  Since discovering that my Kitchenaid is more than capable of grinding up a large elk roast, we’ve become less worried about using up all our pounds of burger meat….we just make more!

I decided it was time to whip up a new recipe, and I really couldn’t have been happier with how things turned out.  It seemed like it had been weeks since I’d spent anytime in the kitchen making dinner, so I decided to really do it up this week!  Due solely to the fact that I don’t every decide to do things until late, prepping dinner actually took 2 days!  Don’t panic, it’s not hard nor does it take that long….I just didn’t have a plan going into things!

STEP 1:  Homemade Spaghetti Sauce

I had probably around 2 or 2.5 pounds of large tomatoes out of the garden.  We have two heirloom varieties, Cherokee Black and Siberian Prince, and they seem to have suddenly kicked production into high gear.  I simply blanched the tomatoes whole until the skin started to split and then peel and rough chop.  I didn’t bother to deseed the tomatoes, I just tossed the rough chunks into a medium sauce pan.  If you don’t have access to fresh, garden tomatoes, start with a quart of canned tomatoes.

To my quart of tomatoes I added:

  • Half a yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped roughly
  • 2 tablespoons each fresh minced thyme and oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil….our basil plant had a rough go of things this summer 😦
  • Salt and Pepper

Cook on medium until just before boiling before dropping the temperature to low.  Let simmer for 20-30 minutes.  If you’re going to eat it immediately, you will want to let it simmer longer…..longer is always better!  I of course started this whole process around 9pm….so after it simmered I placed it into the fridge for use later!

STEP 2: Elk and Herb Meatballs

I didn’t have a plan for using my tomato sauce when I made it, I just didn’t want that many tomatoes to go bad before I had a chance to use them!  The next night I was sitting around thinking….and it occurred to me….we need meatballs!  After consulting a variety of cookbooks I had laying around I settled on a variation of Anthony Bourdain’s recipe of meatball sandwich meatballs in combination with Steven Rinella’s recipe for wild game meatballs.

Anthony recommends a blend a veal, pork, and beef….and while I’m sure that makes a delicious, more traditional Italian meatball….those aren’t the meats I have hanging out in my freezer.  Steven’s recipe called for raw onions and breadcrumbs soaked in milk, but Anthony says to sweat your onions and add dry crumbs…..so I sweated some onion and added some extra milk to help soften the crumbs!

In a small pan heat a drizzle of olive oil and heat over medium.  Add:

  • Half a yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped roughly
  • 2 tablespoons each fresh thyme and oregano, rough chopped

Sweat the onions, garlic, and herbs together until the onions to translucent and soft.  Set aside and allow to cool slightly.

You’re maybe sensing a theme here, but trust me you really can’t over do the Italian flavors!  See what I mean when I say if I had planned this out better…..just chop double once and you’ll be able to whip up meatballs and sauce together in no time flat.

In a large bowl add:

  • 1 pound ground elk
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 milk
  • Cooled onion and garlic mixture

Mix lightly until everything seemed combined and the herbs, onion, and garlic seem evenly sprinkled throughout.  Form into golfball sized balls and set on a lightly greased baking sheet.  I got 13 meatballs from the pound of meat.

Also, I know it’s probably slightly controversial…but I didn’t add any fat to my meat mixture.  Elk is naturally very lean, and when we grind it at home we don’t add any beef or pork fat to the mixture, some people do….we just never have.  I still think they turned out great, but I feel I’m making Italians grandmas and chefs around the world over shudder in terror and frustration.

Since it was once again super late when I started the meatballs it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to be eating them that night.  So, I decided third day was gonna be the charm and we were having spaghetti and meatballs.  I did some googling and discovered that a crockpot is apparently an approved way to cook meatballs, and frankly there’s no better way to make sure food will actually be done and ready to eat when you get home.

I was slightly worried about the meatballs just dissolving into the sauce over the course of the day so I took a proactive step….I lightly broiled the meatballs just to form a crust.  I hoped the crust would help them hold together over the day of slow cooking in sauce…..and it worked like a dream!

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Simply broil on low for 8-10 minutes.  Turn the meatballs every couple minutes so that they can form an nice and uniform crust.  I added a small layer of sauce to the bottom of my crockpot to help with sticking and then stacked in my meatballs.  Toss the lid on your crockpot and put the whole thing in the fridge.  The next morning just cover with your remaining sauce and set to low.  I ended up cooking them on low for 8 hours and they came out great.  Serve with noodles, or in my case spaghetti squash, bread, cheese, and maybe a glass of wine and you’ve got yourself a fancy dinner!