Seasons by the Sea: Grind It Up

Ground meats and fish are marvelous starting points for hearty, versatile, and economical meals
You don’t have to drive UpIsland for good dumplings. With some wrappers and a recipe from Lucky Peach, dumplings, above, are easy to make and pop into the freezer for later. Steak tartare, below, is one of many ground meat options. Laura Donnelly Photos

A couple of years ago I was overcome by a major craving for dumplings, like, serious, spicy Szechuan dumplings. The craving would not abate so I started researching where the nearest good Chinese restaurant was. I convinced myself that a three-hour round-trip drive UpIsland was not an unreasonable mission, and then realized that’s nuts! 

I told myself, “You know how to cook, surely you can figure out how to make dumplings.” And with the help of Lucky Peach’s “101 Easy Asian Recipes,” some won-­ton wrappers, and ground pork I did it. The recipe was easy, and it made enough for extra dumplings to be tossed in a Ziploc bag, popped in the freezer, and pulled out at a moment’s notice to impress friends and create a quick meal or substantial appetizer.

This time of year, we have more time and inclination to cook, but the appreciation for thriftiness knows no seasons. Ground meats and fish are marvelous starting points for hearty, versatile, and economical meals. 

Here is a ridiculously long list of ideas from around the world to give you an idea of how many variations and flavors there are. Let’s start with our own clam pie, rustic and old-fashioned. Then there are meatballs, hamburgers, meatloaf, moussaka, shepherd’s pie, pasties, empanadas, tacos, larb, pastitsio, corned beef and red flannel hash, chili, stuffed cabbage, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, Sloppy Joe’s, brandade de morue (made with dried salt cod), steak and tuna tartare, potted shrimp, conch fritters, pork rillettes, chopped chicken liver, patés, sausage, quenelles, croquettes, picadillo. Shall I go on? 

One well-known San Francisco dish seldom seen outside of the Bay Area is called Joe’s Special. It was invented by an Italian-American in the 1920s and is a garlicky mixture of ground beef and spinach scrambled with eggs and served with toasted sourdough bread. Larb is a tangy, spicy ground chicken dish from Thailand that is served in lettuce cups as a light starter. Remember deviled ham? Not the creepy, fatty, out of the can Underwood variety, but the good, homemade version of chopped ham bound with mayonnaise, mustard, and chopped pickles. This is the perfect way to use up ham scraps. It can be served as an hors d’oeuvre or sandwich filling. Way back in the good old days, you could find this in East Hampton at Dreesen’s Excelsior Market, like way back when they still had sawdust on the floor.

Shepherd’s pie is another old-school dish you don’t see very often anymore. It is a layered dish with ground lamb, some winter vegetables, and a layer of mashed potatoes on top. Made with ground beef, it is known as cottage pie.

Most good markets out here can provide you with ground chicken, veal, pork, and lamb. If you can’t find them, a good butcher may be willing to grind up your meat of choice. You can also do this at home with a food processor.

A lot of ground meat recipes are especially well suited for big crowds, such as chili for a Super Bowl party, or tamale pie made more easily with a boxed cornbread mix.

Cuban picadillo is a versatile dish made with ground beef (or a combination of beef, pork, and chorizo), chopped olives, raisins, and plenty of oregano. This can be used as a filling for empanadas or tacos, served over rice with black beans and fried plantains, or just with a salad.

With a bit more labor but economy still in mind, you can tackle a recipe for fish quenelles, basically little oval dumplings that are poached in stock, then served in a rich sauce. Traditionally made in France with pike, you can make them with many varieties of local fish like fluke, flounder, or monkfish.

Jim Villas, a local cookbook author, 30-year food and wine editor of Town and Country, and all-around delightful gourmand, wrote an entire cookbook dedicated to ground meats and fish, titled “Ground Up.” In his introduction, he describes a conversation shared over champagne with a fellow illustrious East Hamptoner, Craig Claiborne, the cookbook author and longtime food editor of The New York Times. Aware of the many meals around the world that Mr. Claiborne had enjoyed in his lifetime, Mr. Villas asked him to name his absolute all-time favorite meal. Without hesitation, he replied, “anything with ground meat.” 

If economy and ease aren’t enough to convince you of the value of these humble dishes, then surely these words from one of our wisest food icons should be.

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Craig Claiborne’s veal meatballs with tarragon.