When people first think about meatballs, rich tomato sauce and spaghetti spring to mind. But meatballs are so much more than that.
As usual, with many types of food, countries all over the world are claiming possession for inventing the not-so-humble meatball. Not only that, when is a meatball not a meatball? Natives of the Middle East claim that they developed the idea of savoury mince when they invented shish kebabs! Perhaps they are technically right…
To me a ball is a ball, meat or otherwise. I must confess, I am not a great fan of them, perhaps it’s the texture, who knows, or maybe I have never eaten a ‘decent’ meatball in my life. I thought of all the eateries I have worked in during my career and I have never even cooked meatballs!
Enough about that now- let’s look at how you can use meatballs in a variety of ways. Firstly though, remember you can make them by using a combination of meats, it doesn’t just need to be minced beef. A lot of people choose to mix meats such as pork and bacon together or make chicken meatballs with bacon. You can also change the level by using veal – it’s a very popular ingredients for meatballs. There is no set rule, it’s still a meatball. Finely chopped onions, celery or other vegetables can be added, and indeed, the best varieties always contain lots of herbs or spices. In countries such as Greece, Lebanon, Egypt and close vicinity, they would normally use heavily spiced lamb, just as they do in kebabs.
Different ways of cooking meatballs
Frying is probably the most common, just in a pan with some olive oil, browning them on the outside, then putting them in the oven to cook all the way through.
Looking for inspiration for meatball soups? Try this Lion’s Head soup recipe.
Braising is also popular. The Italians are fond of ‘slow-braising’ their meatballs in red wine and stock as this develops the flavour but keeps the meat moist and tasty. Initially they are fried, before the braising method is used.
Baking is an alternative method to use, before placing meatballs in a sauce. With baking, you can cook all the way through, without using the frying method first. Baking though, may toughen up the texture of the meat, as it is on a consistent warm/hot temperature throughout the cooking process.
Grilling is somewhat labour fuelled, in that you have to keep looking into the grill to see that they aren’t burning, and you have to turn them round a few times. You also must ensure that the meat in the middle is cooked through.
Steaming is popular in China of course. More than likely they use pork, and the soup is made with noodles and vegetables. The Chinese believe that soup is one of the healthiest meals to eat (they are probably right!). However, Tom Yum Soup, which can be made with chicken, is more than likely to be made with minced fish or prawns, shaped into balls. Fishballs anyone?
Cooking meatballs for soup
Becoming more popular now, meatball soup is something the Italians have been doing for a long time. Their meatball soup will often contain pieces of broken spaghetti or similar, so you don’t get completely away from pasta! Vegetables of course feature heavily in an Italian Meatball Soup, but the good thing is, if you have vegetarians on board, is that you can serve the veggie soup part without the meatballs first, then pop the meat in after frying or baking, to heat through into the soup. This method is often known as Italian Wedding Soup, which originated in the Calabria region.
Mistakes often made when making meatballs
- I would say that texture can be an issue. If the meatball is too wet, it will disintegrate when cooking, particularly in soups. If it is too dry, it will lose its flavour and potentially break off into pieces. Make sure you use the right amount of liquid or eggs for the mix to keep them moist, but equally so, enough breadcrumbs or flour to bind them adequately.
- Remember, you can never get enough seasoning, so don’t be gentle with it, and use spices and herbs with more or less gay abandon!
- Always use good quality meat – just because it’s a meatball, that doesn’t mean you can’t show it respect!
- Mix with your hands (if you don’t want to feel the meat, use gloves). Any other method just doesn’t crack it.
- Try to be adventurous – different accompaniments will go down well. Not just tomato sauce and pasta, you can serve them with any grain, such as couscous, rice bulghur wheat, or for veggies, spiralized carrots or courgettes (with vegballs!). A good old side salad doesn’t go amiss if serving on their own and think of making dips to go with them (I make a dip with yoghurt, lemon, pomegranate and chopped herbs).
Some other ways with meatballs include something like ‘bahn mi’ – a meatball torpedo roll, often served at Vietnamese street food stalls. Or you can thread the meatballs onto skewers, interspersed with onions, spring onions, lemongrass etc. Just give it a go, but don’t forget your soup!
Try this vegetarian Italian Wedding soup recipe.