This is an unsolicited review of an item I bought at my local farmers market. I paid my own hard earned cash for the product, didn’t mention that I would be reviewing it (can you imagine? who has the brass neck to do that?) and the opinions are absolutely my own.
I made dinner for a friend recently, and when I told him we were having buffalo meatballs he assumed that I meant Buffalo style, like the chicken wings. I assured him that wasn’t the case, and that there is a thriving (and tasty) herd of water buffalo living in right here in Scotland, in beautiful Fife. He was somewhat surprised by the news. If it’s come as a surprise to you, too, you can find out more about them by visiting the Puddledub Buffalo website. They’re you’ll see information about their buffalo products as well as their Auchtertool Angus and Jacob Lamb. They also have another site dedicated to Puddledub Pork; I’ve had the pleasure of trying some of their sausages, and they are hearty, full of flavour bangers. Happy pigs really do produce better meat.
I bought a packet of mince and a packet of stewing steak from the nice Puddledub man at the farmers market, and with the mince I made mozzarella stuffed meatballs, which I baked in a tomato and mushroom sauce and served over wholewheat spaghetti. They were very satisfying – the site describes buffalo as tasting ‘like beef used to taste’, and I can definitely see what they mean. Beef from the supermarket, where I freely though not proudly admit to doing the vast majority of my shopping, can be pretty lifeless in flavour. While literal lifelessness is what I’m looking for in my meat products, having never gone on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle course, I’d like the taste to be fresh. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that sometimes you’re hard pushed to really taste the meatiness with cheaper products, particularly with minced meat, which defeats the purpose altogether. This buffalo meat was at the other end of the scale; the meatballs were flavoured very simply, because I wanted to be able to really taste what buffalo is like. I needn’t have worried. It’s not a gamey meat, as I thought it might be, it’s more that it has a deep, full flavour, like a good steak. The colour of the meat is a little different to beef; I definitely thought it had a more purple hue, and the richness of the colour reassures me about the quality of the meat. As they say at Puddledub, if you like good beef, you’ll like buffalo.
To make the meatballs, I put the following ingredients in a big bowl and squished them together with my hands. I started off by trying to use a spoon but it’s so much easier to just get on with it and accept that there will be a certain amount of hand washing throughout the process.
- 500g buffalo mince
- big pinch sea salt
- eight turns black pepper
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp mustard (I used my fancy chipotle mustard)
- 60ml water
Adding water the the meatballs does seem a bit odd and it will seem like it’s not going to be absorbed, and you’ll be left with a bowl of raw buffalo soup, but keep mixing and it will soon come together. As I mentioned, I wanted to keep the seasoning very simple to let the flavour of the meat shine through. Another time I’d probably add some fresh basil and a hard cheese. Although the next step does add cheese into the middle of the meatballs, a bit of pecorino in the mixture wouldn’t go amiss. It so rarely does.
Next, I broke the meat up into twelve small portions, each about a generous tablespoon’s worth. I started by just separating it and leaving the meat in little mounds on a chopping board, so that if I didn’t end up with an even number of meatballs I could play around with changing the size. No point in rolling them up all neatly if you’re going to have to change them in a second, right? I ended up being happy with twelve, gave each one a roll between the palms of my hands and then cut half a ball of mozzarella into 12 cubes, to stuff them. If you go too big with this, they’ll melt right out; they have to be small enough to be contained right in the centre of the meat without any escape routes.
I didn’t take any photos of the meatball assembly; while my camera will generally be covered in something kitchen-related (usually flour but sometimes mashed potato), I have a real thing about not touching anything after I’ve had raw meat on my hands. Sometimes I think I might be over cautious about it, but I’d rather be over cautious than give myself food poisoning, my blogging cred would suffer dreadfully. In the absence of photos, I’ll talk you through the process.
First, pick up a meatball and flatten it firmly between your palms. Re-roll it into a ball, then flatten again. This brings the meat together so it’s less likely to fall apart in the pan. After the second flattening, put a cheese cube in the centre of the meat and wrap the rest around it, making sure to seal. There must be no escape for the mozzarella, if it can be avoided. Sometimes it does find its own way out, which is lamentable but then again, we should respect its ingenuity and also remember that we’ll be eating it regardless, so it’s not a huge deal. Once you’re wrapped the cheese and pinched the meat shut, roll the meatball between your palms to give it a nice round shape, and move on to the next one.
When they’re all done, put them in a hot, dry frying pan, for three minutes on each side. Make it a big frying pan because we’re going to cook the sauce in here afterward. I say ‘each side’ because I will usually just cook them top and bottom, and accept that my meatballs are a bit flat and look more like tiny burgers. I’m fine with that result, given that the alternative is trying to balance a round thing on its side, which is a frustrating and, some might say, foolish endeavour. If you find them burning you can add a drizzle of olive oil to stop this happening. You just want to colour them – once they’re done, gently lift them out and put in a deep baking dish. I have a good set of tongs which are rounded on one side, kind of like salad tongs. They probably are salad tongs, actually. They’re good for meatballs because the rounded side mirrors the shape, meaning they get less crushed when you pick them up. You can now use the frying pan to make the sauce, so as to lose as little of the meatball flavour as possible. Turn the heat down to medium high.
Tomato and mushroom sauce:
- one small onion
- two cloves of garlic
- leaves from several stems of thyme
- 250g button mushrooms (or your favourite kind of mushroom)
- several turns of a grinder containing salt, pepper, garlic, chili and fennel (or just salt and pepper, plus a pinch of each of those spices that you have to hand)
- 800g tinned tomatoes
- 1/2 tsp umami paste
- 1/2 tsp tomato puree
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- more chili flakes to taste
Fry the onions, garlic and thyme until the onion is transparent, then add the mushrooms and season. I got the spice grinder I mention above in a local Home Bargains shop, not a gourmet food boutique, but the result is quite as good without costing a fortune. In fact it was less then £1, and it’s not everything you can say that for.
Turn on the oven to heat to 180C.
Cook the mushrooms through, which will take about five minutes with frequent stirring, then add the tomatoes, umami paste, tomato puree and sugar. Stir well and simmer for ten minutes until slightly reduced. If you don’t have a big enough frying pan, you can make the sauce in a separate pot rather than face the inevitable splashes of tomato everywhere. When the sauce is ready, pour it over the meatballs in the baking dish and stir gently. Bake, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened, about half an hour. If you like, you can grate your favourite cheese over the top and bake until melted, about another ten minutes. I like. You could just serve grated cheese at the table if you prefer, or if you’re one of those people who can eat pasta without a pound of cheese on top, then I say kudos and you can go without and feel deservedly smug.
While the meatballs are baking, cook some wholewheat (or plain) spaghetti. I always use wholewheat now because I think the taste is so similar that it only makes sense to go with the slightly healthier option. When it’s done, drain and put in deep bowls, then add a couple of big spoonfuls of the sauce. Stir through and finish with black pepper and Tabasco sauce – I really like the chipotle one, but any one will do, or none at all if you’re not into that sort of thing. Are you the same person who can resist cheese? I feel like you’re missing out on some of life’s pleasures…
There should be enough sauce and meatballs to feed four; my friend and I ate fairly monster portions each (in fact *somebody* had seconds), and there was still a portion left. If you made the meatballs small I’d say you could feed six or more, maybe with some garlic bread and a salad on the side.
As you can tell, I really enjoyed the buffalo meat and will definitely be buying it more. In fact, at £5 for 500g of mince, it might just replace beef in my diet – I can buy a couple of packets every fortnight at the farmers market, it’s not a lot to pay for a good amount of good quality, locally reared meat like this. If you’re in Scotland, Puddledub are probably represented at a farmers market near you. What’s more, you can place an order with them online to pick up at the market, if you’re looking for something specific, or you can order for home delivery for maximum convenience. The meat is all vacuum packed and stays fresh for up to two weeks, or can be frozen and defrosted. Full details are on the Puddledub website, go and check it out.