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It's an endlessly customizable template. Also it's tasty af.
Don’t you hate it when you go to read a recipe and you have to scroll through a novel-length tome about someone’s husband and unsolicited photos of their kids frolicking in some Midwestern field before finding the actual recipe?? LOL ME TOO
So… please forgive me for this, I’ll keep it short :)
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I seriously stan meatballs.
Why? They feed a crowd. They keep well (for 3-5 days in the fridge). They freeze great. The flavors get BETTER with time in fact, making them a fantastic meal prep option. If made well, they can achieve a wonderful melt-in-your-mouth texture. There are endless variations on the meatball theme, as they appear in so many world cuisines. Oh and THEY’RE DELICIOUS.
Another plus: meatballs contain “hidden” vegetables, which is great for getting some veg into veg-averse kids and grown-ups. Not that I endorse tricking folks into eating foods they wouldn’t otherwise, but we need to remember that we don’t need to eat actual broccoli florets or handfuls of kale to get our veggies. Diet culture has successfully branded so many different foods “unhealthy” based on this principle: if they’re not bright green and either taking up the majority of your plate or blended into a low-cal smoothie, are you even getting your vegetables?
Quick segue: one of my favorite diet culture myths is about various entire cuisines- for example, Mexican- being “unhealthy”, because 1) it’s rice and corn heavy (cArBs), and 2) the bulk of the common visible vegetables on a plate of American Mexican food are tomatoes, onions and peppers. No leafy greens in sight! Well, newsflash y’all: all of those things are packed with nutrients. Fresh herbs like cilantro and oregano are highly nutritious, garlic and onions are full of fiber and vitamins, and nixtamalized corn masa (used to make tortillas) has gone through an alkalizing process that makes the nutrients in corn more bioavailable.
In reality, Mexican cooking is an incredibly complex and sophisticated cuisine with a ton of regional variation, featuring tons of nutritious plants that many white Americans wouldn’t even recognize, let alone know the nutritional profile of- epazote, nopales, huitlacoche, to name a few. In addition, one of the pillars of Mexican and related cuisines is the sofrito, a cooked mixture of nutritious whole aromatics and veg that blends seamlessly into the final dish. So just because you can’t see each individual vegetable, doesn’t mean the plant-based nutrition isn’t there. And contrary to what diet culture would have you think, it doesn’t have to be kale to be good for you. (If you want more on this, one of my favorite content creators @your.latina.nutritionist talks about this very topic at length. I love her, definitely check her out!)
ANYWAY, meatballs contain an Italian sofrito and so are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber along with tons of protein. Plus they go great with pasta, which is (in my expert opinion) an essential nutrient for human survival.
Is this recipe kind of long and involved? Yes. Is it the easiest meatball recipe you’ll ever find? No. Is it worth the time and trouble? GOOD GOD YES. The yield is quite large, enough to feed a crowd or to have several days of leftovers. You can make all the meatballs and freeze some, or even make half and freeze the rest of the mixture. It’s a great recipe to make frequently and have in your back pocket, and pretty soon you’ll have it more or less memorized and making it will become like second nature. I know this from experience :)
This is sort of my base template for meatballs. At the bottom of the recipe I’ve included some of my favorite variations so you can spice up your game and keep it fresh *sunglass guy emoji*
Chef Kayla’s basic meatball template
makes 6-8 servings depending on how hungry you are and what else you’re serving :)
materials: stovetop, oven, large flat-bottomed skillet, large baking dish, food processor (optional but helps)
I give myself about two hours total to make these. You might need more time until you’re familiar with the recipe.
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork or veal
1 c panko breadcrumbs
approx. 1c whole milk or whole milk ricotta
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp fennel seed (don’t leave this out!! Thank me later)
1/2 a small white or yellow onion, finely chopped*
2-4 garlic cloves, minced*
1/2 a medium fennel bulb, finely chopped*
2 medium carrots, peeled and finely chopped*
2-3 celery sticks, finely chopped*
8 oz mushrooms of choice, finely chopped*
*these can be pulsed all together in a food processor, which cuts down on prep time by a lot!
2 tbsp dried italian seasoning
2 tbsp fresh thyme, rosemary, parsley, basil and sage, finely chopped (optional but incredible)
3/4 cup or more shredded or grated parmesan
Enough butter or olive oil for frying
Plenty of salt and pepper
A few cups of your favorite tomato sauce
Extra chopped parsley or basil for garnish
Preheat your oven to 350. Heat a large flat-bottomed skillet over low-medium heat and add fennel seeds. Toast gently, shaking the pan or stirring occasionally. When fragrant and beginning to lightly brown, add olive oil or butter to pan and swirl to distribute evenly. Adjust head to medium. Add onion, fennel, garlic, carrot, celery, mushrooms and fresh herbs if using. Season with salt, pepper and dried italian seasoning. Let cook on the stove until soft and thoroughly cooked. Turn the heat off and let cool somewhat.
Meanwhile, combine breadcrumbs and milk or ricotta in a large mixing bowl. Let sit, hydrating, until breadcrumbs are soft and have completely absorbed moisture. Add ground meat, beaten eggs and parmesan.
When veggie and spice mixture are cooked and cooled somewhat, add to the meat mixture. Using your hands (the most effective!) or a very sturdy spoon, mix thoroughly until fully combined. Cover mixture and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
*Note: you CAN skip the following step, skillet browning, and roll your meatballs straight into the baking dish. They’ll still be delicious and you’ll save time. BUT!! Browning, while a bit labor- and time-intensive, imparts SUCH A WONDERFUL flavor to the final product, not to mention an appealing appearance, and your kitchen will smell incredible. Use your best judgment!*
Lightly wipe out the skillet with a dry paper towel. Without heating or greasing the skillet, begin forming each meatball to your desired size (mine are usually large, about 2.5 ” in diameter) and placing them in the cold skillet. Take care not to pack the meatballs too close together- we want enough space between them to be able to turn them easily (work in batches if not all your meatballs fit in the skillet at one time) . When skillet is loaded, turn the heat on medium. Let those babies brown and sizzle. Turn each one every few minutes, ideally so that each meatball has some browning on all sides, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Meanwhile, grab a large baking dish and rub all the sides with olive oil.
When meatballs are browned, place each one in the greased baking dish. At this point it’s ok if they overlap/are piled on top of each other a little. Spread your tomato sauce over the meatballs- it’s OK if not all of them are covered/touched by sauce, it will distribute more evenly in the oven. Put baking dish in the oven uncovered and bake for about 15-20 minutes, or until sauce is bubbly and meatballs register 165 degrees.
Plate, garnish, serve and enjoy!!!
A few of my favorite variations:
-Turkey meatballs, chicken meatballs, lamb meatballs: for kosher/halaal and red meat-averse folks, these meats work great too. I personally prefer a blend of meats because it lends a gentle complexity to the final product. I’ve never personally attempted to make these vegetarian with TVP, Impossible or Beyond meat etc., and I am not personally a fan of those products for many reasons (but that’s another blog post!). If you wanna try it, please do and let me know how it turns out!
-Feta-mint meatballs: replace parmesan with feta, replace dry italian seasoning with ras el hanout or a shawarma-type seasoning (make your own blend with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, oregano, garlic powder, paprika, turmeric, cardamom). Add chopped fresh mint and fresh oregano.
-Gluten-free, dairy free: YUP! You can absolutely use GF breadcrumbs and any plain milk alternative. I’ve done it with oat milk many times and it’s delish. Just make sure the breadcrumbs are NOT MADE FROM POTATO STARCH. When they hydrate the texture becomes gummy and mushy, and it’s not really the vibe. My fave gf breadcrumb brand is Aleia, and you can totally make your own breadcrumbs with the gf bread of your choice.
-Albondigas: replace parmesan with manchego. Add some Spanish spices like oregano, smoked paprika, a pinch of saffron. Green chiles go great in here too, like jalapeno or serrano. You can forego the tomato sauce and serve with an aioli, or use a plain tomato passata to eliminate the Italian flavors that accompany most jarred tomato sauce.
-Lion’s mane meatballs: I loooove using lions mane mushrooms here. If you’re not familiar with them, they are large fuzzy white balls and they are often used as a vegan substitute for things like crab and lobster due to their mild creamy flavor and texture. You can read up on the details of lions mane (including the health benefits) here.
-Fennel meatballs: this recipe is already fairly fennel heavy, but if you want even more of that fresh licorice flavor, there’s no reason you can’t double the amount of fennel bulb called for. You can chop up some of the long green stalks as well to include. You can also save the fennel fronds, roughly chop ‘em, and throw ‘em in the mixture as well. You can also garnish with the lacy green frond, which is gorgeous and lends a fresh herby zing to this rich and hearty comfort food.
-Meatballs in soup: you could still brown them in a skillet if you really want, but you can literally just drop those bad boys in simmering/boiling soup! Make sure they cook thoroughly to 165 degrees :)
Happy meatballing! If you make any variation of these, drop me a line and lmk how it goes <3
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