Meatballs are one of our most versatile of foods. They can be small, large, cocktail or flat, can be made of chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, veal or other meats and often include onions, flour, herbs and spices or even dried fruits. They can also be cooked by frying, baking, steaming, barbecuing or braised in soups.
Like so many popular recipes, they have a long and colourful history, dating way back to Roman times when they were made using peacock meat. Peasants rolled the meat with fruits, grains and nuts to make it go further but also to improve its shelf life. Now, meatballs are an almost global food, with virtually every nationality having a version.
For example, in Norway, meatballs are made with minced beef and served with boiled potatoes, gravy and loganberry jam, peas and caramelised onions.
In Korea, they cook their meatballs with chilli, soya sauce, garlic, lemongrass, ginger and spring onions. They bake them in the oven and pour over an orange sauce.
In India, they call their meatballs koftas and they are seasoned with cumin, turmeric, chilli and coriander and served with a tomato curry sauce.
Greek meatballs are called keftedes. They are flavoured with mint and cinnamon and bound together with bread, potatoes and egg and slightly flattened before they are deep fryed and served with bulgur wheat and Greek salad
In the southern states of America, they make them Tex Mex style with green chillies, chilli powder, onions and serve them with a tomato salsa and corn tortillas.
The famous Italian meatballs are often flavoured with basil or oregano, garlic and combined together with egg and breadcrumbs. They are served with spaghetti and classic tomato sauce.
Finally, Sephardi meatballs tend to be made with spinach and flavoured with the zest of lemon and combined with breadcrumbs or, over Passover, with matzah meal.
Sometimes when I am cooking I consider the nationality that I want to follow, but normally it is a case of opening my fridge and seeing what I have available to flavour my own meatballs. Ingredients like mustard, horseradish sauce, cranberry sauce, tomato ketchup, fresh herbs, ginger and chilli can all be used to add an unusual twist to a family-friendly meal. Serve them with rice, pasta, couscous, lentils or even try adding them to the chicken soup for a change.
Below is one of my favourite meatball recipes: hot and sour meatballs with Chinese noodles.
Hot and sour meatballs with Chinese noodles
Preparation time: 20 minutes.
Cooking time: 30 minutes. Serves 4 – 6 people
● 450g (1lb) minced lamb
● 2 garlic cloves – peeled
● 1 cm (½ inch) fresh root ginger – peeled and roughly chopped
● ½ small red chilli - finely chopped and de-seeded
● 1 teasp dried cumin
● 1 teasp dried coriander
● 1 egg
● 2 tbsp matzah meal or breadcrumbs
● Salt and black pepper
For the tomato sauce
● 2 tbsp olive oil
● 1 large onion – peeled and finely chopped
● 3 spring onions – roughly chopped
● 2 cloves of garlic – roughly chopped
● 750g (1 ½ lb) tomatoes – roughly chopped
● 1 bunch of fresh basil leaves – roughly chopped
● 2 teaspoons – caster sugar
● ½ red chilli – de-seeded and finely chopped
● 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
● 1 tbsp sweet and sour sauce
● 100ml (4 fl oz) red wine
● Salt and black pepper
● 400g (14 oz) Chinese Noodles or similar thick noodles
For the garnish
● Large bunch coriander
● Freshly ground black pepper
● To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil and gently sauté the onion, spring onion and garlic. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 –3 minutes.
● Add the basil, the chilli, cover the pan and cook for a further 10 minutes over a moderate heat.
● Add the sugar, vinegar, wine, sweet and sour sauce and season well. Bring to the boil and simmer for a final 10 minutes.
● Liquidise and then check the seasoning.
● For the meatballs, whizz all the ingredients in a food processor until well combined. Season with salt and pepper.
● Using wet hands, make small meatballs by patting the meat as lightly as possible.
● Heat the olive oil in a large shallow frying pan. Add the balls and cook over a moderate heat until brown on the underside.
● Turn the balls over and continue cooking until browned. Remove to a warmed plate.
● Re-heat the sauce, add the meatballs and cook for a final 10 minutes.
● Cook the noodles according to the instructions.