Goodness, gracious, great balls o’ meat!

Sorry. I couldn’t resist.

The meatball is, I think, a vastly underrated thing. Most people think of meatballs as only those things you have with spaghetti and red sauce to make a meal more substantial, or perhaps as the little bite-sized morsels served with sweet-and-sour sauce at new year’s eve, or in gloopy brown gravy over egg noodles that somehow get away with calling themselves “swedish”. Usually made of beef and with far too few seasonings, quite often lacking pleasing texture or moisture, we’re all familiar with the mediocrity of the standard meatball. But does that mean they can’t be really, truly GOOD? I don’t think so.

I also don’t believe that meatballs should be relegated to the dishes above. Ground meat (or chop meat if you’re from on Long Island or New Jersey, apparently… I haven’t been a New Yorker long enough to hear that phrase without a certain confused tilt of the head) is endlessly versatile, refreshingly inexpensive, and usually quite tasty when its of high quality. When you start with a pound of ground meat – be it beef, pork, chicken, turkey, some sort of game, or a mix of two or three – the possibilities are practically infinite.

That’s why last week we decided to devote an entire week of dinners to the humble, forgotten, oftimes-abused meatball. And 4 meals later, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

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Meal #1: Chicken Koftas Avgolemono

I know, I know, here we go again. But hear me out. This was my brainchild, being still enamoured with the Avgolemono Soup from a month or so back and craving those flavors again, but wanting to mix it up a bit. I knew when we decided on this meatball week experiment that I’d want to do something Greek, and this dish sort of just tumbled out on a whim. Apparently the idea had merit, because J declared it a definite addition to our future dream restaurant menu.

From Wikipedia:

Kofta … is a Southeastern European, Middle Eastern and South Asian meatball or dumpling.

In the simplest form, koftas consist of balls of minced or ground meat — usually beef or lamb — mixed with spices and/or onions. The vegetarian varieties like lauki kofta, shahi aloo kofta, and malai kofta are popular in India, as is kofta made of minced goat meat.” More…

Traditional beef or lamb koftas (often made in cigar shapes rather than spherical ones) are delicious in their own right, and deserve a post of their own later this year when the weather gets warmer and we can grill them properly. But for this meal, to remain faithful to the original Avgolemono that was my inspiration, I knew that chicken would be the proper choice.

Each of the components of this dish are simple, but as there are several the prep was a bit time-consuming. First, the meatballs were made with ground chicken that was seasoned with oregano, garlic, lemon zest, crumbed feta, a tiny drizzle of honey and a goodly amount of salt and black pepper. We use the Alton Brown method for cooking, and a pound of chicken yielded a dozen two- or three-bite koftas. While those baked away, I boiled some orzo in chicken stock fortified with a bay leaf and extra black pepper, prepped some baby spinach, carrots, garlic and onions for the sautee pan, and whisked the juice of a lemon into an egg in preparation for the sauce.

The carrots, garlic, and onions were sauteed until just softened, then the spinach was added and cooked until it just started to wilt. By this time the orzo was done, and I drained off the remaining stock in the pan into a bowl to use for the sauce. Finally, when the meatballs were done and resting out of the oven for a few minutes, I made the sauce by adding the hot stock to the lemon-egg mixture slowly, whisking constantly to temper the egg, then heating the mix gently on the stove to allow it to thicken.

To serve, a bed of orzo was laid down on each plate, topped by a generous helping of sauteed spinach, a trio of keftedes, and a few spoonfuls of sauce drizzled all over. Finish with a sprinkle of crumbled feta and some chopped fresh parsley, and you’ve got yourself a meal.

The flavor of this dish was outstanding, and the meal felt quite healthy with the lean chicken and good green spinach. I know that the sauce needs some work, as it never got to quite the consistency I wanted, and a few bits of egg curdled while it was cooking and needed to be strained out before serving. I think with some tweaks here and there and a good reliable recipe (next time, I’ll write it down), J is right – this just might have a place on the menu if we are ever able to open the little cafe we dream about.

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Meal #2 – Almond-crusted Asian Meatballs with Vegetable Stir Fry

Think of these as dumplings without the wrappers and a with a bit more attitude. We’ve made similar things before with sesame seeds that have come out terrific, but I’m a bit of an almond fanatic so when J suggested the almond crust as something different, I was hardly going to argue.

The meatballs were made with a mix of pork and beef and seasoned with soy garlic, onion, ginger, dry mustard, sesame oil, and a bit of sugar. Before dropping them into their individual muffin cups to bake, each ball got rolled around in some finely-chopped toasted slivered almonds to make a crust. Word to the wise – although the meatballs might seem rather fragile when you’re working with them, you really want to press the almonds in there so that they stick. J made these and found that when he tried to be more gentle on the meatballs, the almonds all fell off as they cooked – where they’d been pressed more firmly into the meat, they seemed to adhere and get nice and crunchy as we’d imagined they would.

We ate these with a simple stir fry of sugar snap peas, carrots, green bell peppers, and onions in a basic sweet-and-salty brown sauce, which is hard to screw up and always tasty. The meatballs themselves were tasty but seemed a bit on the bland side – next time we’ll up the seasonings by at least half. And my previous comments about the almond-crust aside, the bites were the almonds really got attached to the meat and got super golden-brown and crunchy were absolutely delicious and had great textural contrast. If we can get the crusting technique down next time, I think they’d be insanely good. I’d hate to suggest that they could replace J’s current signature Asian meatballs for a party appetizer but, well, I think they could.

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Meal #3: Curried Turkey Meatballs with Chana Masala

I’ve been looking for an excuse to make my new favorite chana masala recipe recently, so when J suggested an Indian-style meatball I jumped at the chance. Turkey may seem like an odd match for curry seasoning, but really, it works. Its distinctive earthy flavor was a really good base for all those aromatic spices.

J made these as well, using his own homemade curry powder blend as the main seasoning base and adding a bit of garam masala, sugar, and extra salt and pepper to round out the flavor. Nothing fancy in the cooking step here, just form and drop into the muffin tin to bake, so they were especially easy. I made the chana masala almost exactly the same way as last time, but upped the veggie quotient with some cubed zucchini in place of the potatoes, and it was just as good as I remembered.

This was definitely another winner. The best part was scooping up a bite of chana masala with my fork and spearing a piece of meatball on the end and eating it all together – the meatballs may have tended a bit toward the dry side, so the moisture from the tomatoes and onions and squash really improved the texture, and all of those great Indian spices blending together made for an intense explosion of flavor unlike anything in Western cooking. Quite exciting, really, for a weeknight dinner.

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Meal #4: Italian Sausage Ball Pizza

I don’t actually have any photos of this one, which is a shame because it was really, really good. Like, almost I-can’t-believe-I-made-this good. But, well, because it was so good, we ate it before it even occurred to me to take pictures.

I decided that if we were making meatballs all week, we really ought to do something Italian. But I wasn’t about to make spaghetti and meatballs – as a matter of fact, I didn’t want regular meatballs at all. But SAUSAGE balls, now that I could get behind. But we didn’t just buy sausage – we made it, fresh, from just some ground pork and spices.

Bet you didn’t know it was that easy, did you? Well, it is.

A pound of ground pork mixed up with a generous amount of garlic, onion, black pepper, salt, and most importantly, fennel (we used fennel pollen because we didn’t have any whole seed, and since we were making the sausage mix the day of rather than ahead of time, it would ensure a more pervasive fennel flavor) created a pretty authentic-tasting Italian-style sweet sausage. The mix was formed into slightly flattened balls and seared in a pan this time around, then sliced to make a more easily distributed pizza topping.

The pizza itself was built on some whole wheat dough I’d been saving in the freezer, starting with a thin layer of J’s homemade marinara, a sprinkle of shredded mozzarella, some pieces of brie, and the sliced sausage. Into the oven on the pizza stone at the highest heat we could get for maybe 5-10 minutes, and we had a bubbly, melty pizza with a golden brown crust.

The sausage was perfect here, with just the right amount of savory spice. The creamy brie and mozz complimented it really well, and although the crust was more chewy than crispy, the whole wheat flour gave it a pleasing texture. And with the dough made ahead of time, we were able to make the whole meal in about 25 minutes. Can’t really beat that!

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We have one more meal planned that we never got around to making, which we have high hopes for – venison meatballs in cherry sauce. If it comes out as good as I expect it will, I’ll be sure to share it with you. But in the meantime, I highly recommend that you give the lowly meatball a bit of thought, and a chance to elevate itself beyond that boring plate of pasta. Its a blank slate upon which fantastic meals can be built, and deserves a second chance at your table.

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One Response to Goodness, gracious, great balls o’ meat!

  1. Anonymous says:

    scandinavian meatballs are much more simplistic without all that sauce covering them. Just some meat, spices, maybe some grated carrots and onions…anyway the pictures look really great!

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