Subsistence Meatballs

A bowl of subsistence meatballs!

There is surely a more flattering name for these, but they definitely need to be distinguished from normal meatballs like these ones. There is a long tradition of naming dishes that are especially for “hard times”, but in my grandmother’s cookbook those names are cute and subtle (Make-Do cake, for instance, or WWI cake, which alludes to rationing). For now I’m rolling with Subsistence Meatballs.

Anyways, at the heart of this recipe is a trick for making sure your meat-supply stretches as far as possible. My original recipe is below, but the general technique I learned from a chef in Bologna. The gist is that meat is carefully taken from the bones that have been used to make stock, finely shredded, and then mixed with egg and breadcrumb to make meatballs. The result is much different than conventional meatballs that start with raw ground meat. These ones are softer and bready, almost like a dumpling.

The technique makes perfect sense in Italian kitchens, where the brodo is made from a balance of meat and bones, and the simmering time much shorter than for French stock. There is still plenty of flavour in the meat by the time the broth comes off the stove.

When I make stock I use bones with only a small bit of incidental meat, and I usually simmer them overnight to wring out as much flavour and gelatine as possible. By the end the meat is bland, but it is still has enough flavour and protein to make recovery worthwhile. A good hit of onion, garlic, herbs, and salt and flavour is restored.

Shredded meat pulled from bones after making stock.

Another by-product of stock-making is the layer of fat that renders out and floats on the surface. That too is collected and used for cooking.

Subsistence Meatballs


  • 2 tbsp fat skimmed from the surface of the stock
  • 100 g yellow onion, finely minced
  • 10 g garlic, finely minced
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 500 g shredded meat recovered from the stock pot
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 g bread crumb
  • ample salt and pepper


  1. Melt the fat in a heavy pan. Add the onion, garlic, and herbs and cook over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent.
  2. Put the shredded meat in a bowl. Add the onion mixture and the egg and mix to combine. Add the bread crumb and salt and mix thoroughly. I would highly recommend tasting to make sure the salt is assertive enough.
  3. Use a #30 (1 fl oz) portion scoop to divide into about 24 portions. Roll into smooth balls.
  4. Cook in a 375°F oven until internal temperature is 75°C, about 15 minutes. Alternatively, poach in gently simmering stock until the internal temperature is 75°C, about 12 minutes.

Yield: about 24 subsistence meatballs