Updated: May 22, 2019
Meatballs are generally underrated, and they just so happen to be one of my favorite foods. In fact, meatballs show up at my dinner table at least once a week, saucy and served over peppery greens or doused in tzatziki and rolled up in a pita. Seriously, MEATBALLS ARE AWESOME. Let’s take a minute to think about meatballs…
What is a meatball? In essence, the formula is simple: ground meat + something to bind it + something to make it taste good. Meatballs can be made from pork, beef, lamb, veal, chicken, turkey, or even non-meat items like chickpeas, tofu, or fish, if you feel inclined to go against the name itself. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. It’s like therapy. Just don’t overmix. Fry up a tiny one to taste for seasoning before rolling out the whole batch. (Trust me.) That’s really about it. So simple.
The thing that I love most about meatballs – which I find to be true of most of my favorite foods – is that they have a place in the cuisine of virtually all cultures around the globe. In fact, no single culture can really lay claim to the meatball. Despite what most of us learned growing up, the Italian-American red sauce variety is most definitely not the original.
Meatballs likely first made a splash in Qin Dynasty-China (200-ish BC), or at least that’s what Wikipedia says. I suppose I don’t really care who did it first, what interests me is the versatility of the meatball. With an inexpensive bundle of ground meat and some pantry staples, dinner can quickly take me anywhere from Southeast Asia to the Iberian Peninsula to Latin America. It’s a pretty convenient way to travel on a Tuesday night.
Meatballs also happen to be the perfect party food. Even our pescatarian Sales Manager, Natalie, puts a meatball on most of her event menus. While she may not eat them herself, this lady knows her way around a successful party menu…and she knows that people just love meatballs.
One of my favorite meatball varieties is indeed the classic “cocktail meatball.” Think 1950s, think your grandma, think grape jelly. Sticky-sweet-savory, bite-sized, toothpicked. Our Lingonberry-Ginger BBQ version is a little more “now” but still feels very much like something June Cleaver could’ve served at a PTA fundraiser. And yes, we do bamboo pick them.
Spain gives us Albondigas, served with a perfectly simple garlic tomato sauce. I learned (again, thanks, Wikipedia!) that the word Albondigas comes from the Arabic al-bundiq, or hazelnut. A little ball. (The more you know!)
We go what I like to refer to as “general North African” with our lamb meatballs. Authentic, no. Delicious, YES. Lamb + Toasty Spices + Soft Herbs + Yogurt Sauce is always a recipe for success in my book.
And, of course, you can’t mention meatballs in Minnesota without going Swedish. A dash of white pepper and allspice make these bland-looking balls actually quite interesting. The gravy, lingonberry jam, and little pickles that accompany don’t hurt either. We tend to put these up as a menu special for the holidays because, no joke, nothing says cozy quite like a Swedish meatball…it’s the gravy, I think.
I’m also pretty proud of our red-sauce meatball, one we call Sicilian due to the abundance of currants and pine nuts in the mix. Authentic? Maybe. They are just so very good, it really doesn’t matter. We make ‘em tiny for cocktail hour, gently tossed in a perfect, simple tomato-basil sauce, a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano on top. For dinners, Chef Sugey and I have been playing with a Fontina-stuffed version. It’s basically a big Jucy Lucy-style meatball, and let me tell you, there is nothing wrong with that. These Fontina-Stuffed Meatballs are a perfect buffet food, and we’re even putting them on our “fancy” plated meal menu over creamy cacio-e-pepe style polenta and Tuscan kale because we *do* think that a meatball merits a place at a wedding celebration!
Here’s my really cheesy pitch: Looking for dinner inspiration tonight? Just roll with it!