Reliable sauces for tasty meatballs
I rarely cook or eat meatballs. I would see them on menus but never really ordered them because I didn’t think it was the sort of thing you would go out to a restaurant to eat. But people do. God, there are entire restaurants dedicated to nothing else.
This recipe was something of a personal challenge, and having tested it several times, I now see what all the fuss is about. What I like about these meatballs is they are a good vehicle for other flavours. I like to use lighter meats – veal and pork or chicken – that act as a foil for more adventurous combinations.
An important part of the process once you have the flavour of the mince right is sealing them. This can be done in the oven, or by pan-frying them in small batches. This caramelises the meat and imparts a flavour. What’s nice is that as they braise the meatball gives flavour to the sauce and the sauce gives flavour to the meatball.
Most countries have their own version of a meatball, whether it uses meat or seafood or both. After living in China, I became quite sold on a meatball known as the lion’s head. The dish is originally from eastern China, and it’s delicious. The meatball is steamed in a chicken or pork broth with a small amount of cabbage. The meatball itself is a little bit smaller than a tennis ball, made from pork mince, with a small amount of rice flour or tapioca flour to bind. It is usually served individually in a small bowl of broth, and can be remarkably delicate.
Meatballs in the West are often served over pasta. For the recipes here, the tomato-based sauce would work on its own or with pasta. The meatball in onion sauce with apples and Calvados and bay, however, would work much better over mashed potatoes.
Spicy pork and fennel meatballs in onion sauce
Makes 30 balls (3-5 per person)
– 3 onions
– 1 tbsp each, grapeseed oil and butter
– 150ml dry apple cider
– 1 cup cream
– 1 bay leaf
– 1kg minced pork belly
– 2 medium free-range eggs
– 6 sage leaves, chopped
– 150g breadcrumbs
– large pinch of dried chilli flakes
– 12g fennel seeds, lightly toasted and ground using a pestle and
– 1 tsp fine salt
– 1 tsp ground black pepper
Slice the onions and gently cook in a saucepan with the grapeseed oil and butter. Cook for 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the cider and cook gently until the cider has completely reduced. Add the cream and bay leaf and bring to the simmer. Set aside until the meatballs are ready to serve.
To make and cook the meatballs, preheat the oven to 220ºC. Put the pork, eggs, sage, breadcrumbs, chilli flakes, ground fennel seeds, salt and pepper into a large mixing bowl and massage thoroughly. Roll into 50-gram balls and place them on a greased baking tray and roast in the preheated oven for 10 minutes, turning once, until they are starting to brown. Remove the meatballs and transfer to the onion sauce. Simmer the meatballs in the onion sauce for 10 minutes before serving.
Serve the meatballs with a pot of mashed vegetables – potato would do, or a mix of swede, parsnip and potato, which are good at this time of the year.
Pork and beef meatballs
Makes 30 balls (3-5 per person)
– 500g minced pork
– 250g minced beef
– 1 medium free-range egg
– 3⁄4 tsp fine salt
– ½ tsp black pepper
– 60g breadcrumbs
– small pinch of dried chilli flakes
– 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
– ½ handful of flat parsley leaves, chopped
Preheat the oven to 220ºC. Combine all the ingredients, massage thoroughly and roll into 45-gram balls. Place the balls on a greased baking tray and roast in the oven for 10 minutes, turning once, until they are starting to brown. Then poach in the tomato sauce (recipe below) in a covered saucepan for 10 minutes.
I like to serve these with pasta. Any leftover meatballs freeze well or make a great toasted jaffle the next day.
– 50ml extra virgin olive oil
– 1 onion, finely sliced
– 1 garlic clove, chopped
– small pinch of chilli flakes
– small pinch sugar
– salt, black pepper
– 250g fresh tomatoes, diced
– 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
– 1 tbsp fresh chopped oregano, or small pinch dried oregano
Heat the oil in a saucepan on a medium-low flame and in it sweat the onion, garlic, chilli, sugar, salt and pepper for 10 minutes. When the onions are transparent, add the fresh tomatoes and cook gently for a further 15 minutes.
Add the tinned tomatoes, bring to a gentle simmer and continue to cook on a very low heat for one hour. Remove from the heat and add the chopped oregano. Transfer to a food blender or use a hand-blender to puree for a few minutes.
2015 Vanguardist MVG grenache, McLaren Vale, SA ($46) – Mark Williamson, wine buyer for Cumulus Inc, Cumulus Up and the Builders Arms Hotel
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 9, 2016 as "Spicy pork and fennel meatballs". Subscribe here.