The first time I took notice of meatballs was in a movie called Hancock. Will Smith stars as a man with super powers who does nothing but waste his time, get drunk, and has no real goal in life. I don’t remember the whole story but in the middle he’s in jail for some reason. Charlize Theron plays a vague role in the first half of the movie and its only in the start of Act Two that you understand why she was paid to play this role at all. Anyway, in one scene set in a prison, Smith’s meeting with Theron and her son, she hands him his favorite meal— spaghetti and meatballs. Strands of semolina noodles are seen covered in marinara and a giant brown mass of meat the size of a baseball. While the character ate it with such immense pleasure, I found it largely disturbing. It however did intrigue me that people take a mash of meat and mold them into different shapes and then just, eat it. I am used to more story, taste, and flavor in my food which didn’t look the case for whatever this character was eating. It took me sometime really to understand the versatility of minced meat.
Because of my largely negative viewpoints on meatballs, I stayed away from any kind of meat that was repurposed into a new shape. This meant, that I barely ever ate meatloaf, meatballs, or even chicken nuggets. The idea of mince meat being related to mystery meat (def. meat that is pureed and usually made of different uncommon parts of an animal carcass) bothered me too much to try. This all changed on a trip to my close friend Hannah’s home during a summer between sophomore and junior year. She lived 7 hours by car from Denison up in beautiful Whitehall, Michigan on the west side of the state on the shores of Lake Michigan. Let me tell you something about Lake MI: it’s one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world and is absolutely beautiful. The water is freezing cold, azure blue with a hint of translucency, and acts like an ocean with waves, tides, and beautiful sandy beaches. I have been to Hannah’s lake adjacent house twice and this was my second time. This was one of the best trips I took in my four years in the US. Hannah’s Mum, Jen, is an amazing cook. Her specialty is baking and her kitchen is straight out of a Williams Sonoma catalogue. Think of a cooking utensil and she probably has it. Two things that I fell in love with in her kitchen were a drawer full of baking accruements and her vintage white Kitchen Aid blender which I had the honor of using for one dinner party where Hannah and I made a whole Indian dinner followed by a red velvet Oreo cheesecake with a dark chocolate drizzle.
Alas, I deviate. Jen knew that I wasn't the biggest fan of sweets (even though I took home a batch of her cupcakes with cookie dough frosting) and I had asked what her special savory dish was. To this it was decided that she would make us spaghetti and meatballs. Even though I was hesitant for odd shaped brown meat, knowing that Jen was making it assured me that it would be quality food. Unlike Charlize, Jen’s dish looked and tasted amazing. The meatballs were small, and made with a mix of beef and pork. Beef gives it fat and pork, flavor. The outer crust was well done but the center was soft, almost like a doughnut. My favorite thing about the meatballs that really just took them to a whole other dimension was the singular piece of fennel in the middle of every meatball. They added this amazing burst of flavor and cut through uniform tasting meat. All of a sudden the dish was elevated from a fun kid-friendly meal to like an adult meal with this mature flavor that signs it off. I distinctly remember exclaiming that there was fennel in the center and Jen was very surprised that I noticed while Hannah had a look as though she had no idea what I was so excited about. Jen further explained how this was something her mum did which made it almost like this traditional thing. As you may have realized by now, I love food with a story and this really touched me. Since then, I have gone out of my way to taste meatballs and make some too. But mine are different because they always have fennel in the center.
I have been testing many meatballs recipes. I have gone traditional with a beef, pork mix with breadcrumbs soaked in milk. But my favorite protein to use is lamb. It’s softer than the other two options and has this wonderful flavor when pan fried and baked. I also find it so unique. People are always in awe when I make meatballs with lamb, perhaps because of how unorthodox it is for an Italian dish. There two things that I add that are a little different than most preparations. The first is a chiffonade cut of fresh mint which is inspired by traditional greek preps and the second is a touch of tahini (sesame paste) instead of breadcrumbs as a “moistmaker” (Friends reference). Lastly of course, fennel in the center. I make small precise balls with two teaspoons worth of meat which I salt cure and then pan fry followed by a bake on low heat until some of the nutty fat leaks out. I made this along with some fresh tomato marinara for my friend potluck where I made momo-chromes which people seemed to love!
Go try these meatballs while I go watch Hancock.
As always like, comment, share, and let me know what I should be making next!
For the Marinara
8 large tomatoes, scored, balanced, and deseeded (or get a can of San Marzano)
250 ml of red wine (Merlot, Shiraz, Carbarnet Sauvignon all work well)
1 whole bulb of garlic, minced
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 tablespoon tomato paste
10 leaves of basil
Dried oregano, two teaspoons
1 tablespoon of Olive Oil
Salt & pepper, to taste
For the Meatballs
500 grams of minced Lamb
4 tablespoons of tahini
1 large egg
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped finely
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 seeds of dried whole fennel per meatball
1 teaspoon of fresh rosemary, chopped (or 2 teaspoons of dried rosemary)
2 teaspoons of kosher salt
In a food processor, blend deseeded tomatoes. In a pot add olive and begin begin cooking onions and garlic until the onions have become shiny and translucent
Drop the tomatoes in and reduce the heat. Cook for exactly 2 minutes and then add the rest of the ingredients. Mix well and cover for 45 minutes. Checking periodically. The sauce should reduce to half its volume. The sauce will be done in 45 minutes.
Take the lamb mince and all the ingredients apart from the onions and garlic that will need to be sautéed on high heat until the garlic burns a little and the onions get a caramelizing char.
Once the garlic and onions are cool, add them to the meat mix. Mix well and salt. Place cling film and let it sit in the fridge for a minimum of 1 hour and a max of 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 300F/150C. Use an ice cream scoop and make tiny dollops of meatballs. Drop them in a skillet with olive oil on high heat. Only add them once the pan is steaming. Add the balls one by one clockwise so you know which ones you put first. Don't overcrowd the pan otherwise the temperature would drop making the meat soggy. Add no more than 6 meatballs in a 12 inch pan. Cook on two sides fro a minute each or until you see a crispy crust forming and then remove from the heat.
Stick the meatballs in the middle rack for 15 minutes but keep an eye on them. Remove once some of the fat starts oozing out. Meatballs are ready! Add them to a hot batch of Marinara and serve quick!
Ps: you can make these and day early and freeze them. They taste wonderful once defrosted in marinara.