Up until a year ago, I was getting a few pounds of ground meat a month through our monthly meat CSA which means I needed something to do with a few pounds of ground meat. What I did was spend a lot of time making meatballs. There are no Italian grandmothers in my past and no family recipes so I sort of made it up as I went along.
For a while I made something akin to traditional Italian meatballs with the soaked breadcrumbs added to the mix. Even when I branched into other flavors – adding cumin, paprika and preserved lemon to make something North African or using pork, scallion, and ginger for a vaguely Chinese meatball – I still added the breadcrumbs. But recently I made a kind of shocking realization – those breadcrumbs are unnecessary.
Before you send your Italian relatives after me, this wasn’t just an arbitrary decision. There are some good reasons for dismissing breadcrumbs from your meatball repertoire. The key to a good meatball is that it should not feel like a burger. It should be lighter and less dense, so that it crumbles a bit when you cut it in half with a fork. And the way to accomplish that is to put other things into the ground meat so that when it cooks it can’t all bind together.
Breadcrumbs are certainly a way to accomplish that and soaking them in milk or water, another traditional step, gives some added moisture to the meat so it doesn’t dry out when you cook it. But what it doesn’t add is any flavor, or nutritional value come to that. So I did the unthinkable – I added more vegetables.
This isn’t a Jessica Seinfeld-type hidden vegetables moment – you certainly know they’re in there and that’s a good thing. Most meatball recipes include some chopped onion anyway to add flavor. But I upped the amount to accomplish what the breadcrumbs normally do while also adding flavor. The end result is light, fluffy, and more delicious than the original since every ingredient adds flavor as well as texture.
When it comes to meatballs I’m firmly in the camp of more is better. Spaghetti and subs is only the tip of the ice berg. Drop them in soup, serve with toothpicks at a party, throw them in your lunch for some added protein. Or just snack on them with a small cup of sauce. You won’t be missing those bread crumbs.
This recipe is for something Italian-tasting but what matters most is the type of ingredients (meat, vegetables, spices/flavoring, binder) and not the specifics. When you get bored of these flavors, mix up the ingredients while keeping the proportions the same.
Makes about 25-30 golf-ball sized meatballs*
1 ½ cups vegetables (1 onion, 2 celery stalks, and 1 carrot in this recipe but others work just as well, such as frozen spinach or squash) finely chopped, grated, or minced with a food processor)
1 tbs fat (optional)
2 lbs ground beef
¼ cup grated parmesan
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp each dried thyme, oregano, red chile flake, black pepper
Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the fat. Add the minced vegetables to the pan and cook for about 5 minutes until the onions are translucent and the vegetables are fragrant. This step is optional but it does minimize any raw-onion flavor in the final meatballs. Pieces in the center may not cook long enough to remove it otherwise. If you do lightly cook the vegetables, let them cool to room temperature before continuing with the recipe.
Preheat the oven to 350 and line a baking sheet with foil. Put a rack into the baking sheet and set it aside.
In a large bowl, combine the ground meat, vegetables, egg, salt, and spices and mix to combine well. Use your hands to gently incorporate all ingredients – don’t squeeze or mash. Doing that will force a lot of meat together into one area and you’ll end up with meatballs that are more ‘burger’ than ‘meatball’ in texture. It helps to keep your hands open and your fingers spread. Then mix the ingredients by bringing what’s on the bottom to the top and giving it a twirl around the bowl with an open hand. Repeat that until the ingredients are well mixed.
To form the meatballs take whatever size of meat you want and gently form it into a ball between two hands. Again, be gentle and don’t press or you’ll end up with something tough. Put the finished meatballs on the rack in the baking sheet. Bake the meatballs for 30 minutes or until they’re lightly browned.
If you have leftovers or you make these ahead, you can reheat them in a 200F oven for about 20 minutes without drying them out. They’ll last up to a week in the fridge or a few months in the freezer so go ahead and make a double batch.
*This is the size I like best since it’s small enough to eat in one (large-ish) bite but also big enough to put on a meatball sub without looking silly. But, at least in this case, size doesn’t matter.