“Miracles are like meatballs. Because nobody can exactly agree on what they're made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear” ~ Lemony Snicket, The Carnivorous Carnival
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When I think about all of the dishes, I'd love to master, meatballs are somewhere in my top five. I've decided that if one has a great meatball recipe taped to the inside of their cabinet door, you'll have the ability to make the people you love very happy.
There's nothing overly fancy about them really, and maybe that's the point. Meatballs are about as unassuming as a food can get, though when done really, really well, they can render far more flavor and soul per square inch, than anything this humble has a right to
My love of meatballs began twenty-five years(!) ago, the husband of a friend, who's (still to this day) one of the best cooks I've ever met. His meatballs were, and have remained, legendary. They're a dish that makes me think of them every time I make it. The sweetness of a time gone by.
Thankfulness for the gift of their friendship
For those who've set their sites on making meatballs for dinner, there certainly aren't a shortage of options. With all of the recipes out there, task one simply becomes a lesson in figuring out what makes for a good one to follow
Beef, pork, veal, lamb, or any combination can be called for. At this point, it's already starting to get complicated, and we haven't even gotten to breadcrumbs, herbs, or other add-ins. There are also considerations around whether they should be cooked in a sauce, separately in the oven, or even what's the best meatball size. I remember feeling stuck before I'd even started
So I did the only thing I knew how, and simply started cooking, using a recipe similar to the one he used to make. Of all the variations I tried, while they certainly were good, none seemed completely right for who I am now. They couldn't nail the tastes, textures, and hints of sophistication, my taste buds of today were searching for.
That is until I discovered Yotam Ottolenghi and bought a copy of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, a city blessed with an incredibly rich and intricate cuisine, drawing inspiration in everything from ancient traditions to waves of new immigration. Surprisingly, one of the city's obsessions? Meatballs.
Leave it to the humble meatball to cross all national and ethnic lines. If walking the streets, they can be found grilled or barbecued, stewed, cooked in soups, wrapped in pita with salad and garlic sauce, or cooked long and slow for the Sabbath. (1)
Certainly, they also offer a classic example of eating well on the cheap. Through the years, as many (immigrants, especially) people were relatively poor, meatballs were the perfect solution to the quality of beef available. The addition of bread crumbs, herbs, and spices helped it go further. They're also excellent at absorbing flavors, so it was easy to use whatever was in season. (2)
“But enough of the theory – a good meatball, as any old mama will confirm, tastes way better than even the best of steaks: it is succulent and full of flavour, it doesn't dry out or toughen, and it's always good, if not even better, the next day” ~ Yotam Ottolenghi
This recipe makes for an incredible meatball, it really does. One that will also be making an appearance at this weekend's Spaghetti Saturday.
The distinct flavors provide a complex version of sweet and sour, from the combination of dried figs, cranberries, and yogurt. Note that the figs are a must for flavor, though I found them a bit too soggy by the end, and took them out before serving
ps: More fun recipes and stories from Spaghetti Saturdays
pps: Interested in reading more about the Jerusalem cookbook, and the history of Spaghetti and Meatballs? A couple of great links:
(1) The Guardian Online – Meatball recipes by Yotam Ottolenghi
(2) Escoffier Online Culinary Academy – A History of Spaghetti and Meatballs
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~ Adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi
Lamb Meatballs with Cranberries, Yogurt, and Herbs
- 2 lbs ground lamb
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 1 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped and loosely packed
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed
- ¾ tsp ground allspice
- ¾ tsp ground cinnamon
- 6 Tbsp dried cranberries (the original called for barberries, and sour cherries would work as well)
- 1 egg (large or XL)
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1 ½ lb large shallots, peeled
- 1 cup white wine
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 sprigs thyme
- 2 tsp natural sugar (Sugar in the Raw or Turbinado)
- 5 oz dried figs
- 1 cup Greek yogurt (or labna)
- 3 - 4 Tbsp mixed herbs, mint, cilantro, dill, and tarragon coarsely torn
- fine grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Place the lamb, onions, parsley, garlic, allspice, cinnamon, barberries, egg, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon black pepper in a large bowl. Mix with your hands, then roll into balls about the size of golf balls.
- Heat one-third of the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot for which you have a tight-fitting lid. Put in a few meatballs at a time and cook and turn them around for a few minutes until they color all over. Remove from the pot and set aside. Cook the remaining meatballs the same way.
- Wipe the pot clean and add the remaining oil. Add the shallots and cook them over medium heat for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until golden brown.
- Add the wine, leave to bubble for a moment or two, then add the stock, bay leaves, thyme, sugar, and some salt and pepper.
- Arrange the figs and meatballs among and on top of the shallots; the meatballs need to be almost covered in the liquid. Bring to a boil, cover with the lid, decrease the heat to very low, and leave to simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer for about another hour, until the sauce has reduced and intensified in flavor. Taste and add salt and pepper, if needed.
- Transfer to a large, deep serving dish. Whisk the yogurt, pour on top, and scatter with herbs.