Recipes: Mastering the well-rounded meatball

There are so many ways to make meatballs, and some varieties don't even include meat. Eggplant “meatballs” fortified with lentils and flavored with an abundance of herbs pair well with spaghetti noodles and marinara. From “Umami Bomb: 75 Vegetarian Recipes That Explode with Flavor” by Raquel Pelzel (Workman, $19.95). Courtesy of Kate Sears
There are so many ways to make meatballs, and some varieties don't even include meat. Eggplant “meatballs” fortified with lentils and flavored with an abundance of herbs pair well with spaghetti noodles and marinara. From “Umami Bomb: 75 Vegetarian Recipes That Explode with Flavor” by Raquel Pelzel (Workman, $19.95). Courtesy of Kate Sears

Credit: Kate Sears

Credit: Kate Sears

The possibilities for expanding the definition of this comfort-food favorite know no boundaries

Until recently, I rarely thought of meatballs without spaghetti and red sauce. They did not show up on my dinner table unless I had a lazy weekend to devote to preparing a full-blown traditional Italian American spread from scratch.

That narrow view has evolved. In the course of scrutinizing mountains of new cookbooks regularly for my weekly reviews in this Food section, it’s dawned on me how virtually every cuisine on the planet is represented by a meatball in some form, with flavor profiles and cooking methods as individualized as their cooks.

Meatballs go by other names depending on their origin, with histories that date back centuries: kofta in the Middle East, albondigas in Spain and Mexico, köttbullar in Sweden, lion’s head in China, boulettes in France and Cajun country. Polpettes, the original Italian meatballs, can be traced to the ancient Roman empire. They were as small as marbles, made with all kinds of animal protein from tripe to fish, and served plainly in broth. Even today, the meatballs you get in Italy are typically served as a stand-alone dish, without pasta.

Whatever you call them and however they’re cooked or served, all meatballs share a basic template: ground meat (or plant-based substitute), starchy filler, egg or some other binder, and flavorings that reflect a particular time, place or circumstance. They’re economical, easy to make and, while perfect for feeding a crowd, they freeze beautifully for multiple smaller meals.

Atlanta cooking instructor Nancy Waldeck takes a healthful approach to celebratory fare. Courtesy of Chloe Clark
Atlanta cooking instructor Nancy Waldeck takes a healthful approach to celebratory fare. Courtesy of Chloe Clark

Credit: Chloe Clark

Credit: Chloe Clark

RECIPES

Making great meatballs requires no special skill. “Just use a light hand and don’t pack them too tightly, enough to hold them together,” advises Atlanta chef Nancy Waldeck, who has taught health-focused cooking classes around the world and counts her recipe for Chicken Meatballs with Red Pepper Jelly Sauce among her most well-received. “You don’t want to make mud pies.”

Meatballs freeze great, cooked or uncooked, for 3 to 4 months, she adds. Package them in meal-size servings, in double plastic bags or freezer bags, to accommodate the bumpy texture of the meatballs. Thaw them in the fridge the night before, or if you’re planning to bake them, they can go straight in the oven — just add an extra 5 or 10 minutes for baking.

Chicken Meatballs with Red Pepper Jelly Sauce makes a great appetizer on a toothpick, as well as an entree over rice. From “Taste and Savor Life!” by Nancy Waldeck (Taste and Savor, Callawind Book Publishing, $18.95). Courtesy of Chloe Clark
Chicken Meatballs with Red Pepper Jelly Sauce makes a great appetizer on a toothpick, as well as an entree over rice. From “Taste and Savor Life!” by Nancy Waldeck (Taste and Savor, Callawind Book Publishing, $18.95). Courtesy of Chloe Clark

Credit: Chloe Clark

Credit: Chloe Clark

Chicken Meatballs with Red Pepper Jelly Sauce

Atlanta chef Nancy Waldeck devised a lighter meatball using lean ground chicken, and gave it a Southern spin by pairing it with a simple tangy sauce of melted red pepper jelly and stone-ground mustard for a cocktail party. I served them over rice as an entree, and they were outstanding.

Chicken Meatballs with Red Pepper Jelly Sauce
  • Red Pepper Jelly Sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 cups red pepper jelly
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (or apple juice)
  • 1/4 cup stone-ground Dijon mustard
  • Chicken Meatballs:
  • 20 ounces lean ground chicken
  • 3 tablespoons minced onion
  • 3 tablespoons minced celery
  • 2 tablespoons minced carrot
  • 1/4 cup whole-wheat (or regular) panko crumbs, plus more as needed
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil, olive oil, or canola oil
  • Make the Red Pepper Jelly Sauce: In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and add garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook and stir until aromatic. Add jelly, wine and mustard. Whisk together and let cook for a few minutes until all ingredients are melded. Set aside. (Can be made ahead, covered and refrigerated for several weeks.)
  • Make the Chicken Meatballs: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, place the chicken, onion, celery, carrot, 1/4 cup panko crumbs, egg whites, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper. Mix together with your hands.
  • Make small, uniform meatballs, adding more panko crumbs if necessary to hold the meatballs together. Be careful not to pack the meat tightly. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to firm up.
  • Heat oil in large saute pan on medium-high heat. Put meatballs in, one at a time, making sure they don’t touch. Saute until browned all over. Place in the oven to finish cooking, 15 to 20 minutes or until interior registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Serve with the Red Pepper Jelly Sauce. Serves 6 as an entree, 10-12 as an appetizer; about 2 cups sauce.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving of meatballs only, based on 6: 225 calories (percent of calories from fat, 52), 19 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 13 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 81 milligrams cholesterol, 254 milligrams sodium. Per tablespoon sauce: 32 calories (percent of calories from fat, 12), trace protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace fat (trace saturated fat), 1 milligram cholesterol, 36 milligrams sodium.

From “Taste and Savor Life!” by Nancy Waldeck (Taste and Savor, Callawind Book Publishing, $18.95).

Warm spices, fresh cranberries, and a meat mixture enriched with sour cream put a new twist on Swedish Meatballs with Noodles and Chutney.  Reprinted with permission from “Live Life Deliciously: Recipes for Busy Weekdays and Leisurely Weekends” by Tara Bench (Shadow Mountain, $32). Courtesy of Ty Mecham
Warm spices, fresh cranberries, and a meat mixture enriched with sour cream put a new twist on Swedish Meatballs with Noodles and Chutney. Reprinted with permission from “Live Life Deliciously: Recipes for Busy Weekdays and Leisurely Weekends” by Tara Bench (Shadow Mountain, $32). Courtesy of Ty Mecham

Credit: Ty Mecham

Credit: Ty Mecham

Swedish Meatballs with Noodles and Chutney

Tara Bench, aka “Tara Teaspoon,” departs from the traditional Swedish meatball recipe, as popularized by Ikea, in several ways. She adds sour cream to the meat mixture rather than the sauce, making the meatballs extra-tender and flavorful. She browns one spare meatball to flavor the beefy translucent gravy. And instead of lingonberry jam, she adds a bright surprise at the end with a dollop of savory-sweet cranberry chutney — a great reason for keeping an extra bag of cranberries in the freezer while they’re in season.

Swedish Meatballs with Noodles and Chutney
  • Sweet and Savory Cranberry Chutney: 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
  • 1 (12-ounce) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup pomegranate or cranberry juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Pinch ground black pepper
  • Swedish Meatballs: 8 ounces ground pork
  • 8 ounces ground sirloin
  • 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 3 tablespoons fine dry breadcrumbs
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 (16-ounce) package egg noodles
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Make the chutney: Heat oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Saute shallot until just soft­ened, 2 to 3 minutes.
  • Stir in cranberries, sugar, juice, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until berries just begin to burst and sauce is thickening, 8 to 10 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let cool. Serve warm or chilled. Refrigerate chutney in an airtight container up to a week.
  • Make the meatballs: In a large bowl, use clean or gloved hands to mix together pork, beef, onion, sour cream, egg, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, allspice and nutmeg until well com­bined. Shape into 23 (1 3/4-inch) balls. Reserve 1 meatball to use in sauce. Place remaining meatballs on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet and freeze 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from freezer and reroll each meatball in hands to make round again, if needed.
  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake meatballs until browned and cooked through, about 30 minutes. While the meatballs are cooking, prepare noodles according to package directions. When meatballs are almost finished cooking, whisk together the broth and cornstarch in a medium bowl and set aside.
  • Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add reserved meatball and break up into small pieces. Let cook, stirring occasionally, until pieces are deep brown. Add the vinegar and deglaze the pan by scraping up browned bits. Cook until vinegar is almost evaporated. Whisk in reserved broth and cornstarch mix­ture. Bring to a simmer and stir until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
  • In a large bowl, toss cooked noodles with melted butter and caraway seeds. Serve noodles topped with meatballs, sauce, and plenty of chopped parsley and cranberry chutney. Makes 22 meatballs (6 servings); 1 1/2 cups chutney.

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving (meatballs only): 554 calories (percent of calories from fat, 34), 29 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams fiber, 21 grams total fat (9 grams saturated), 160 milligrams cholesterol, 888 milligrams sodium. Per tablespoon chutney: 36 calories (percent of calories from fat, 14), trace protein, 8 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 41 milligrams sodium.

Reprinted with permission from “Live Life Deliciously: Recipes for Busy Weekdays and Leisurely Weekends” by Tara Bench (Shadow Mountain, $32).

“Umami Bomb: 75 Vegetarian Recipes That Explode With Flavor” by Raquel Pelzel. Courtesy of Workman Publishing
“Umami Bomb: 75 Vegetarian Recipes That Explode With Flavor” by Raquel Pelzel. Courtesy of Workman Publishing

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Eggplant ‘Meatballs’

Roasted eggplant and lentils take the place of meat in these melt-in-your-mouth “meatballs,” which fry up crispy like a falafel, but with a lighter interior. Fresh basil, garlic and nutritional yeast — those nutrient-loaded flakes with a salty, funky taste that mimics Parmesan cheese — give it an Italian flavor that pairs well with your favorite marinara sauce. Raquel Pelzel, who shares the recipe in “Umami Bomb,” suggests adding the delicate “meatballs” to a pot of warm marinara (store-bought or your favorite homemade), allowing them to break up for a “Bolognese” effect, then serving them over pasta. Or you could stuff them in a pita with other roasted vegetables (or salad greens) and various condiments, such as pesto and mayonnaise, as depicted on the cover of her book.

Eggplant ‘Meatballs’
  • 1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (from 3 to 4 slices of bread)
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 large globe eggplant (1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds)
  • 1 large egg (or 3 tablespoons pureed carrot or sweet potato for a vegan option)
  • 2/3 cup cooked lentils
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 1/3 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup canola or grapeseed oil
  • Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees.
  • Place the breadcrumbs in a medium bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Transfer to a rimmed sheet pan and spread in an even layer. Bake until the breadcrumbs are lightly golden and completely dry, 12 to 15 minutes, stirring midway through. Transfer them to a large plate and set aside. Increase the oven temperature to 375 degrees.
  • Line the sheet pan with aluminum foil and set the eggplant on top. Prick it 3 to 4 times with a fork, then roast until a paring knife easily slips into the center, 40 to 50 minutes (it should be very tender throughout). Remove the eggplant from the oven and use scissors to cut an X in the bottom. Transfer it, stem side up, to a colander set in the sink and let it drain and cool for 20 minutes.
  • Set the eggplant on a cutting board and slice it open lengthwise, then scoop out the flesh and place it in the bowl of a food processor (if a few charred bits of skin get into the flesh, it’s fine). Add the egg, lentils, garlic, basil, parsley, nutritional yeast, 3/4 teaspoon salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes and process for 12 (1-second) pulses to combine. Add the toasted breadcrumbs and pulse 2 or 3 times to combine. Scrape the mixture into a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap flush against the surface, and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or overnight.
  • Heat the canola oil and the remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil in a large, deep, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Shape the eggplant mixture into golf ball–size pieces and roll them until they are nice and round. Drop 1 into the oil. It should immediately sizzle and be surrounded by small bubbles — if not, let the oil heat up some more. Add a few more balls to the oil, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Fry the “meatballs” in batches, browning them on all sides, 3 to 5 minutes for each batch. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate. Serve immediately. Makes 20 golf ball–size meatballs (4 servings).

Nutritional information

Per serving: Per serving: 705 calories (percent of calories from fat, 79), 10 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams fiber, 63 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 47 milligrams cholesterol, 600 milligrams sodium.

Excerpted from “Umami Bomb: 75 Vegetarian Recipes That Explode With Flavor” by Raquel Pelzel (Workman Publishing, $19.95). Copyright 2019.

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