Depending on where you grew up, the term ‘meatball’ will have different connotations and of course, different names. They could be the golf ball sized ground beef and onion balls served alongside spaghetti in a tomato sauce favoured by Italian Americans or fist sized pork meat balls wrapped in cabbage to resemble a lion’s mane of the Huaiyang province of China. It may be the Spanish albondigas coated in a spicy tomato sauce or nostalgic Swedish meatballs. As a kid Swedish meatballs sounded so exotic but are in fact just a another meatball variation, made of pork and beef and often covered in creamy gravy. These days you can pick up köttbullar in IKEA. In Australia a form of flattened meatball that has been char grilled beyond all recognition on the barbecue is known as a rissole.
An Unofficial History of Meatballs
There seems to be no definitive history of meatballs but it’s easy to deduce how some meat (probably past its prime) and other ingredients that the cook had to hand were combined to form an economical meal. Highly portable, you can trace the journey of the meatball along the world’s great trading routes such as the Amber and Silk Roads. Along the way they were adapted for tastes and availability of ingredients. It’s easy to see how the varieties of lamb kefte from across the Middle East that are sometimes stuffed, sometimes crumbed in cracked wheat and delicious either way, are cousins of the Indian kofta served in a spicy gravy and the kefta that appear in the tagines of Morocco. Greek keftedes with lamb and mint is a family member too.
You wouldn’t think that two recipes for meatballs from ‘Jerusalem’ by Yotam Ottolenghi could taste so different. The Lamb Meatballs w Barberries that I had made previously were sharp and tangy whilst these have a pronounced warmth in flavour from the cumin and baharat spice mix. To be flavoursome, meatballs need two things. Fat and lots of seasoning. Making meatballs is not the time to be using heart smart mince or low sodium substitutes. You need to choose meat with some fat content. The fat keeps the meatballs moist and conveys flavour. Whilst you may never add salt to other dishes, you need to have a generous hand when you add the seasoning otherwise the meatballs will be flavourless and dull. Yotam makes sure there’s plenty of flavour in these meatballs by having an ingredient list as long as your arm. Don’t be too worried about that. Whilst the list is extensive, it’s easy to shop for and the meatballs are easy to make. If you can’t get fresh broad beans (which I can’t), just substitute frozen broad beans. This is a great make ahead dish for a dinner party or if you’re catering for a crowd.
What do you think of when you hear ‘meatballs’? Do you have a favourite or one that’s traditional in your household? What’s the best meatball you’ve ever tasted? Leave me a message in the comments.
Meatballs w Broad Beans & Lemon
(adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi)
- 300g beef, minced
- 150g lamb, minced
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped or grated
- 120g fresh breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp each parsley, mint, dill & coriander finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tbsp baharat spice mix*
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tspn allspice
- 2 tspn capers, chopped
- 1 egg, beaten
- 3/4 – 1 tspn salt
- ground pepper to season
- additional chopped herbs for garnish
- 4 tbsp oil for frying
- 350g broad beans
- 4 whole thyme sprigs
- 6 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 8 spring onions, sliced into 2cm pieces
- 2 1/2 tbsp lemon juice
- 500ml chicken stock
- salt and pepper to season
- Place all meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix very well, making sure the spices are well distributed and the two types of mince are combined well. Form into meatballs approx the size of a ping-pong ball.
- Heat 1 – 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium frying pan and cook the meatballs, turning regularly so they brown evenly.
- Remove the meatballs when brown and add another 1/2 tablespoon oil to the pan. Cook another batch, being careful not to overcrowd the pan – you may need to cook four or five batches.
- Set all meatballs aside in a dish and wipe the pan clean with paper towel.
- If you are using fresh broad beans: throw the beans into a pot of boiling salted water and black for 2 minutes. Drain and refresh under cold water. Remove the skins from half the beans and discard the skins. If you are using frozen broad beans: defrost beans and peel half, discarding the skins. Try to peel the larger beans and keep the smaller ones in their shells. There is no need to blanch any of these beans.
- Heat the remaining oil in the pan the meatballs were cooked in. Add the thyme, garlic and spring onions and cook for a few minutes on a medium heat. Add the unshelled broad beans, 1 1/2 tablespoons of the lemon juice, 80ml of stock, 1/4 teaspoon of salt and black pepper to taste. The beans should be almost covered by the liquid. Cover the pan and cook over a low heat for 10 minutes.
- Add the meatballs and the remaining stock to the pan and simmer for a further 20 – 25 minutes. Remove the lid, taste the sauce and season. If the liquid is very runny (mine was), keep the lid off and reduce the liquid further though you will want some sauce with your dish. Stir in the shelled broad beans.
- The meatballs are now ready to serve. Set aside at this point for later re-heating or if serving immediately, scatter the chopped herb grayish (such as mint, coriander, parsley) across the top.
Serves 4 – 6 as a main
* you can buy baharat spice mix at Middle Eastern grocers or, make your own:
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 1tsp coriander seeds
- 1 small cinnamon stick, broken
- 1/2 tsp whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 2 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp cardamom pods
- 1/2 a whole nutmeg, grated
Place all of the spices in a coffee or spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind until fine. Excess can be stored in an airtight container for several week.