Introduction: Frankenstein's Meatballs
Delicious orbs of steak, spaghetti and eldritch horror!
It started with a simple question by a hungry man: Why don't we make papercraft or sewing patterns for meat?
We have the technology to join different cuts of meat together, so why do we always make it look like, well, meat? Imagine a buffet of extravagantly assembled origami meatcraft: exciting carnivorous designs concealing mysterious and unexpected stuffings; beautifully engineered steak architecture supporting provocative pork sculptures; Gaga-esque wardrobes of stitched salami and tailored chorizo. Surely the possibilities would be endless?
Frankly, there are many good reasons why we don't do any of those things, but it still seemed like an interesting avenue to explore. Heading to the kitchen, I decided to start with something simple as a first experiment in the field of meat-based fabrication.
My aim was to create a dish which would look slightly inexplicable, but which would turn out to be edible, delicious and even familiar. I came up with the plan to produce a sphere of beef which would appear to have been grown as a single organ rather than glued together from ground meat like normal meatballs. Trying to think of something to fill the center of the sphere, I had the idea of making the whole dish into a kind of inside-out spaghetti and meatballs.
And lo, Frankenstein's meatballs were born.
Steak on the outside, spaghetti on the inside. What's not to like? OK, you might find the way it regurgitates dripping red spaghetti across your plate a little off-putting, but I think it's quite endearing. And yes, the fact that you might have to pull out a few stitches before you eat it might give you pause for thought, but I think it just makes you appreciate the chef's effort all the more.
Try serving them at your next dinner party and see what happens!
Step 1: What You'll Need to Make Frankenstein's Meatballs
The ingredients to this recipe are the same as whatever pasta filling you choose (here's a suggestion), plus the meat you'll use to encase it and the meat glue you'll use to seal it together.
Yes, that's right. Meat glue. See below for a quick introduction to this wonderful substance or take a look at my.Möbius bacon instructable for another example of what it can do.
For the meat, ask your butcher for a few pounds of thin flank steak. Ideally this should be about a half-inch thick and of a regular thickness across its whole area.
You'll also need a needle and some strong thread for sewing your meat together. Yes, this recipe involves some minor surgery. Let's get cutting!
"Meat glue" is the common name for an enzyme* called transglutaminase. Transglutaminase has the rather amazing ability to irreversibly bond animal proteins. In other words, it can permanently glue two pieces of meat together, leaving almost no trace of a seam. The enzyme is denatured by any temperature high enough to cook meat, so becomes completely safe to eat after cooking.
As well as being able to bind or thicken animal ingredients, meat glue is often used industrially to combine smaller scraps of meat into larger, more appealing pieces which can be sold as single cuts to the consumer. Ethical and safety issues aside, this is a very clever trick which opens doors to some intriguing cookery possibilities. With the rise in popularity of molecular gastronomy, meat glue has recently made its way into the home kitchen and can now be bought online very cheaply.
*Actually a whole family of different enzymes
Step 2: Cutting the Sewing Pattern
Spread the flank steak flat on a suitable work surface, then use a print-out of the fabric pattern (well, tissue pattern) I've provided as a template to cut the meat into panels. You'll need to cut four identical panels for each meatball you intend to make. These panels will eventually be sewn together much like a juggling ball, only less vegan-friendly.
Tip: Once a paper template starts becoming soggy, discard it and move on to another copy before it disintegrates entirely.
Step 3: Preparing the Meat Glue
Meat glue comes as a powder. The easiest way to use it is to pour some into a small container such as a shot glass or a small measuring jug. You can then sprinkle the glue directly onto the meat or dip your fingers into the container without worrying about contaminating your entire glue supply with raw meat.
You can also mix it with a little water to make a slurry, which you can smear over seams and into gaps.
Don't worry about getting the meat glue on your hands; the enzymes take many hours to break down and re-join meat proteins, so you won't accidentally glue fingers together.
Step 4: Joining at the Seams
Now you need to start stitching your balls together. To make a seam, stack two panels so their edges are aligned then loosely stitch them together all the way down one edge, leaving the other edge alone. Try to use a single long piece of thread to make the stitches easy to remove later.
Sprinkle meat glue all along the edge you've just stitched, then unfold the pair of panels so they lie side by side rather than in a stack. Make sure the powdered edges are pressed up against each other, then pull the stitches tight to pull the two panels together.
Right about now you should be noticing a ghastly smell and wondering if your meat has started to rot. Don't worry: that's just the ammonia fumes being produced by the enzymes as they break down the meat protein. The smell will be gone by the time you cook your meatballs, I promise.
Step 5: Rinse and Repeat (without the Rinsing)
Repeat the process so you have four panels stitched together side by side. At this point, if you stitch and glue the two free edges together you'll make a ball with no way in or out. You need to leave an opening to stuff spaghetti into, so only stitch half the length of the final two edges together.
You should be left with a collection of adorable little meaty mouths waiting to be fed.
Step 6: Let the Enzymes Do Their Thing
If you're not in a rush (and your meat is fresh), now is a good time to leave your half-formed meatballs alone to allow the edges to seal. This will stop them seeping pasta sauce when you fill them.
Stuff each ball with a rough sphere of scrunched up aluminum foil to help them keep their shape while the meat glue works its magic. Make a little slurry from meat glue and water, then spread it along all the seams to make absolutely sure they seal.
Resist the urge to devour them raw at this early stage.
Step 7: Chill Out
Wrap each ball separately in cling film, then refrigerate overnight. You can probably skip or at least shorten this step if you use a very thick pasta sauce, but be aware that it will make your balls more prone to unexpected leakage.
Step 8: Cook the Less Meaty Stuff
While you're letting the balls chill, you can prepare the spaghetti filling. You can of course fill the meatballs with whatever pasta recipe you want, but spaghetti Bolognese is a good way to go.
Try to make the sauce a little thicker than you would usually have it, using corn starch or even gelatin if necessary. This will make it much less likely to spontaneously spurt through your dinner's sutured wounds while you cook it. Set the prepared pasta aside to cool.
Step 9: Stuff It
Now it's time to feed your hungry meatballs!
Make sure their seams are completely glued, then cram spaghetti into their gaping orifices. I started off trying to do this with tongs, then quickly gave up and used my fingers. The tactile sensation felt at once deeply wrong and extremely satisfying.
The meat will shrink down slightly during cooking, so don't overstuff your balls.
Step 10: How to Manage Assorted Meatballs
I recommend using a muffin tray to hold the filled (but not yet fully sealed) meatballs upright. This is especially handy for sorting out balls with different fillings.
Step 11: The Last Stitch
Just like before, stitch and glue the remaining edges of the meatballs. Wipe off any pasta sauce that's made its way to the outside of the balls, then go over the seams with meat glue slurry.
Step 12: Chill Some More
Take a moment to marvel at your lovely collection of meaty treats. Each one will hopefully look like something you'd find sitting in a jar in pre-Victorian medical laboratory.
Wrap the balls up again and leave them in the refrigerator overnight to make sure the seams are completely sealed.
Step 13: Remove the Stitches (optional)
You're almost ready to cook these things!
At this point you have the option of removing the stitches. Depending how careful your needlework was and how well the glue fused the meat together, you may find it difficult to remove the stitches without re-opening old scars. After a couple of botched attempts, I chose to leave the stitches in, reasoning that it would add to the bizarreness of the final dish.
If you want a clean, steak-like appearance for your meatballs, try to remove the stitches. If your guests are the kind of people who don't mind removing sutures from their food before they eat, leave the stitches in!
Safety warning: Whether or not you choose to remove the stitches, please do not serve this dish to anyone who is incapable of picking a piece of thread out of their mouth while chewing or who is not willing to face the risk of accidentally swallowing an unnoticeably small piece of non-toxic thread. It would be unfortunate for any of your dinner guests to go the way of Hilaire Belloc's Henry King.
Step 14: Sizzle and Stir
While you preheat your oven to around 205°C (400°F), you can brown the meatballs.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of lard or vegetable oil in a heavy pan until it's ready to spit at you. Toss the balls in a few at a time and let their outsides develop some delicious golden colors.
Step 15: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Oven
Spread the balls out on a tray and bung them in the oven. Twiddle your thumbs for a while, or start cleaning up the kitchen.
Step 16: When to Call It Done
Keep an eye on the meatballs and assess whether they're fully cooked using either a meat thermometer (the core should be at least 60°C / 140°F straight out of the oven) or your own best judgment. As you can see in my photos, some of my meatballs came out a little bit crispier than I'd intended.
Step 17: Serve, Disgust and Enjoy
Present your dinner guests with an enticing plate of piping hot Frankenstein's meatballs. Be sure to warn them that they are the result of medical experiments gone wrong, then give them tweezers to remove the stitches. Enjoy their faces as they see the steaming bloody guts spills out onto the plates in front of them.
As always, try it out and let me know how it goes!