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Celebrate the humble meatball

Grocery shopping around 10 o’clock at night has its advantages.

I’m not just talking about fewer customers in the store, surfaces that haven’t been touched as frequently and wide-open checkout lanes. The late hour, I’ve realized, is the time to stock up on meat that’s been slashed in price.

At least that’s how rotating stock seems to work at the large locally owned retailer I favor. The meat department staff determine whether a label’s “use or freeze by” date falls on the following day. Then they slap the package with a bright orange “$2 off” sticker. Sometimes, there’s two such stickers on a package. And when I can get $4 off a package of organic meat, that’s an offer too good to refuse.

Feeling like I’d just hit the jackpot, I recently loaded about a half-dozen of those close-dated packages — everything from ground turkey to a whole chicken — into my cart on a recent shopping trip.

The key to this strategy, of course, is to follow the label’s instructions for using or freezing immediately. I do the latter, which allows me to keep pounds of good-quality meat on hand in my extra freezer out in the garage. When I’ve accumulated a critical mass of ground meat, it’s time to make meatballs.

Meatballs can be many things: large, small, sweet, savory, spiced or sauced. They can include just about any supplemental ingredient a cook desires — and indeed are the perfect vehicle for using up leftovers, scraps and odds and ends that otherwise would go to waste.

The humble meatball, however, can be fashionable — the little black dress of the culinary world — accessorized for cocktail parties. More often, meatballs are the workhorses of dishes from sandwiches, pasta and pizza to soups. Made around the world, meatballs also invite cooks to experiment with globally inspired spice palettes.

Yet meatballs don’t really require a recipe, given their form relies on ratios of ingredients rather than precise measurements. And meatballs can be cooked in a variety of ways — baked, broiled, fried and poached in liquid or melted fat.

The common thread stringing any and all meatballs together is they should be succulent and satisfying. Incorporate enough moisture into your ground meat — but not so much that it sticks to your hands while rolling or falls apart while cooking — and you’ve basically got it right.

Moisture very often comes from eggs, but cooks also can use dairy products, such as yogurt, sour cream or ricotta cheese, or soft tofu.

If you’re making a big batch of meatballs, just increase the quantities of moisture, binder and other ingredients in this ratio: for every pound of ground meat, use up to 1 cup finely chopped or minced additional ingredients, one egg (or 1/4 cup dairy or tofu) and 1/4 cup breadcrumbs or 1/2 cup (packed) torn bread.

While the formula is forgiving, manhandling the meat yields leaden meatballs. So mix the meat gently with the other ingredients, just as you should for meatloaf and burgers. Make your hand into the shape of a “claw” to distribute ingredients through the meat with your fingers, scooping it up and flipping over portions of meat to bring items from the bottom of the bowl to the top.

Avoid using the heel of your hand to knead the meat like bread dough, which compacts everything and makes a denser, tougher meatball. If you feel the urge to slap the meat around in the bowl or strangle it with your fists, remember, this animal’s already dead.

Then season your meat mixture with herbs and spices, including salt, to your taste. Frying meatballs in a skillet, then deglazing the browned bits with liquid lays the foundation for savory sauces. Baking meatballs allows fat to drain off but does sacrifice some of the flavor in your finished dish.

The happy medium, I think, is poaching meatballs in soups and stews, where they stay succulent. You can even add frozen meatballs directly to simmering liquid, making them perhaps the easiest freezer-to-table meal a cook can prepare.

I’ve written enough about meatballs over the years that I’m forgoing my family’s favorite Sicilian-style meatballs in marinara sauce with this column for some less common recipes to inspire your menus.

Lamb Meatballs in Yogurt Sauce

In a bowl, stir together 1 small onion, minced; 1/2 cup minced parsley; 2 eggs, beaten; 1 teaspoon salt; and 1/2 teaspoon each pepper, cumin and cinnamon. Mix in 1-1/2 pounds ground lamb until blended.

Form mixture into 1-1/2-inch meatballs. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Fry meatballs in batches until golden-brown and cooked through, for 5 minutes. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate.

Pour out all but 1 tablespoon fat from pan. Add 1 cup chicken broth. Heat to boiling; cook to reduce slightly, for 2 minutes. Stir in 1 cup sour cream. Simmer for 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup yogurt. Season with salt and pepper.

Return meatballs to pan; simmer until hot, for 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with warm pita and garnish with almonds and paprika.

Makes 6 servings.

Albondigas en Salsa de Limon (Meatballs in Lemon Sauce)

6 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

1/4 cup milk

3/4 pound ground veal

3/4 pound ground pork

2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks, divided

2 tablespoons finely chopped prosciutto

1-1/2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves or 3/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1-1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

5 tablespoons minced, fresh parsley, divided

3 garlic cloves, peeled, minced and divided

6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided

All-purpose flour, for dusting

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped Mayan onion

3/4 cup chicken broth

3 tablespoons dry white wine

Pinch of crumbled saffron threads

4 ounces mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed and caps halved or quartered

Chicken broth or water, as needed

To prepare meatballs, combine the breadcrumbs with milk in a large bowl. Gently mix in the ground veal and pork, eggs, parsley, prosciutto, thyme, salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, 2 of the minced garlic cloves, and half of the lemon juice. Shape into 1/2-inch meatballs and dust with the flour.

To prepare sauce, heat the oil in a shallow, flameproof casserole over medium-high heat, and saute meatballs until brown on all sides. Add the onion and saute until softened. Stir in the broth and wine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes.

Mash 2 tablespoons of the parsley with remaining garlic, the saffron and a pinch of salt to a paste in a mortar, or process in a mini food processor until finely minced.

Transfer meatballs to a warm plate and keep warm. Strain sauce through a fine sieve, pressing on solids with back of a metal soup ladle to extract as much liquid as possible. Return sauce to casserole and add the mushrooms, mortar mixture and remaining lemon juice.

Whisk the egg yolks with a little hot sauce from casserole in a small bowl, then add back to casserole. Cook over low heat, stirring continuously until thickened (do not boil). If sauce seems too thick, add a little of the broth or water (it may need no additional liquid). Return meatballs to sauce and simmer for 1 minute. Serve straight from casserole, sprinkled with remaining parsley.

— Recipe from “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas (Sellers Publishing; 2009).

Swedish Meatballs in Cream Sauce

For meatballs:

3 slices soft white bread, torn into pieces

1/2 cup whole milk, warmed

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1/2 yellow onion, peeled and minced (about 1/2 cup)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound ground beef

1 pound ground pork

2 eggs, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Olive oil, for greasing pan

For sauce:

2 tablespoons flour

2 cups beef broth or stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup sour cream

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

Cooked egg noodles, for serving

Chopped parsley, for garnish

Cranberry sauce or jelly, for serving

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place the breadcrumbs in a small bowl and cover with the warm milk. Stir to combine, then set aside.

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large saucepan or skillet. Cook the onion in butter until soft and translucent, for about 5 minutes.

Transfer onion to a large bowl and add the ground beef, ground pork, eggs, allspice, ginger, nutmeg and moistened breadcrumbs. Season with a generous pinch of the salt and a couple of grinds of the black pepper. Mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

Drizzle a little olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and evenly coat entire surface.

Roll meat mixture into round, golf ball-size meatballs (about 1-1/2 inches), making sure to pack meat firmly. Place balls in prepared baking dish being careful to line them up snugly in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. Meatballs should touch one another.

Roast in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until meatballs are firm and cooked through.

(Alternatively, fry meatballs in batches in oil or butter until well browned on outside and cooked through.) Transfer to a plate.

Make sauce: In a large saucepan (a 12-inch cast-iron skillet works well), melt remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Sprinkle in the flour. Stir with a whisk until flour browns, for about 3 minutes, to eliminate raw flavor. Whisk in the broth and heavy cream. Then season with salt and pepper.

Simmer, whisking regularly, until reduced to a sauce, for about 5 minutes. Then stir in the sour cream and mustard. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Add meatballs to sauce and gently stir to combine. Allow meatballs to simmer in sauce until warmed through, for about 5 minutes.

Spoon meatballs onto the cooked egg noodles and garnish with the chopped parsley. Serve with the cranberry sauce or jelly.

Makes 8 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.