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    Modern Meatballs 101

    Find new favorite recipes with leaner ingredients and a world of flavor

    Middle-Eastern Kofta Meatballs are one example of the modern meatball craze.

    Middle-Eastern Kofta Meatballs are one example of the modern meatball craze. — Photo by Philippe Desenrck/Getty Images

    Meatballs are one of the ultimate comfort foods. Inexpensive and easy to make, less filling than a burger, meatballs are great in sandwiches, on pasta, in soups and as appetizers.  For those of us who grew up in the 1950s, meatballs most often meant the Italian-style beef, pork and cheese variety, piled high atop a steaming plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce. Every family had a favorite recipe.

    See also: Join AARP's Online Community to learn and share more delicious recipes.

    Today, meatball mania is sweeping the country with meatball restaurants, food trucks and cookbooks dedicated to this popular and versatile dish. But modern meatball incarnations have forged ahead to embrace a broader global approach to flavor, like fragrant Middle-Eastern Kofta Meatballs or Asian-style Fortune Noodle Meatball Soup.  For those watching saturated fat and calories, lower fat versions made with chicken, turkey, tuna and salmon are popular options.

    Ingredients
    For the juiciest meatball every time, it’s important to carefully choose the ingredients. A moderate amount of fat content in ground meat and poultry is important to keep meatballs from becoming too dry.

    • Beef — A 20 percent fat content is ideal. Too much more and the meatball will taste greasy and shrink during cooking.
    • Chicken — Use a mix of dark and light meat for better results. Some cooks prefer using thigh meat only for the juiciest meatballs. Avoid breast meat alone.
    • Turkey — Use a standard ground turkey that is 7 percent fat, and 93 percent lean. 
    • Fish and shellfish — Raw is preferable to canned or pre-cooked and easily chopped in a food processor.

    Preparation
    Thoroughly combine ingredients but do not handle excessively, to prevent rubbery meatballs. Put mixture back in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes before shaping for easier handling. This step will also be useful if a recipe feels too soggy – resist the urge to add more binder such as bread or cracker crumbs, or the meatballs might end up too dry after cooking.

    Cooking

    • Pan frying or oven roasting are the methods most often used to cook meatballs. The oven is great for cooking large amounts for entertaining or freezing (without sauce). 
    • Grilling — If you want to infuse a wonderful smoky flavor into your homemade meatballs, try one of the ingenious meatball grilling baskets with perforated wells available at cookware stores.
      Charcoal — medium-hot fire
      Gas grill — medium-high
    • Steaming — a technique used most often for Asian-style meatballs.
    • Braising — a traditional Italian method of putting raw meatballs directly into simmering sauce.

    Sauce
    Estimate about 1/4 cup of sauce per meatball. Feel free to mix and match meatball types and sauces. For instance, if your preference is chicken or veggie meatballs, but you see an intriguing beef or pork recipe with a tamarind or peanut sauce, by all means substitute your meatball of choice. Mild-flavored meatballs are surprisingly versatile.

    Next: The Meatball Shop’s Veggie Balls. »

    The Meatball Shop’s Veggie Balls
    Yield: About 2 dozen 1 1/2-inch meatballs

    Try these lentil veggie balls topped with pesto or your favorite sauce.

    • 2 cups lentils
    • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 large onion, chopped
    • 2 carrots, chopped
    • 2 celery stalks, chopped
    • 1 garlic clove, minced
    • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
    • 2 teaspoons salt
    • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 8 oz sliced mushrooms
    • 3 large eggs
    • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    • 1/2 cup bread crumbs
    • 1/2 cup chopped parsley
    • 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts

    Combine the lentils and 2 quarts water in a medium stockpot and boil over high heat. Reduce to low and simmer until the lentils are soft (but not falling apart), about 25 minutes. Drain the lentils and allow to cool.

    Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil to a large frying pan and sauté onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and just beginning to brown. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 more minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and cool to room temperature. When cool, add the lentils to the vegetable mixture.

    Add the eggs, Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, and walnuts to the cooled vegetable mixture and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated. Place in the refrigerator for 25 minutes.

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

    Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil into a 9x13-inch baking dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.

    Roll the mixture into round, golf-ball-size meatballs (about 1 inches), making sure to pack the vegetable mixture firmly. Place the balls in the prepared dish, allowing 1/4-inch of space between the balls and place them in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid.

    Roast for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through.

    Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before serving.

    Adapted from The Meatball Shop Cookbook, by Daniel Holzman & Michael Chernow, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2011.

    Next: Mini Buffalo Chicken Balls. »

    Mini Buffalo Chicken Balls
    Makes about 40 3/4-inch balls

    Here is the best of hot wings without the bones and the mess. Adjust the amount of hot sauce in the recipe to suit your taste.  Serve with your favorite blue cheese dressing for dipping.

    • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
    • 1/3 cup Frank’s Red Hot sauce or any other favorite sauce
    • 1 pound ground chicken, preferably thigh meat
    • 1 large egg
    • 1/2 celery stalk, minced
    • 3/4 cup bread crumbs
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • Blue cheese dressing (for serving)

    Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle the vegetable oil into a 9x13-inch baking dish and use your hand to entirely coat the surface. Set aside.

    Combine the butter and the hot sauce in a small saucepan, and cook over low heat, whisking until the butter is melted and fully incorporated. Remove from the heat and allow mixture to cool for 10 minutes.

    Combine the hot sauce mixture, ground chicken, egg, celery, bread crumbs and salt in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

    Roll the mixture into round, 3/4-inch balls, making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish, being careful to line them up snugly and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. The meatballs should be touching one another.

    Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. A meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 165 degrees.

    Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before serving.

    Adapted from The Meatball Shop Cookbook, by Daniel Holzman & Michael Chernow, Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2011

    Next: Grilled Salmon Meatballs With Iceberg Wedges and Green Goddess Sauce. »

    Grilled Salmon Meatballs With Iceberg Wedges and Green Goddess Sauce
    Makes 4 Servings

    This dish is ideal for brunch, lunch or supper

    Green Goddess Sauce

    • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
    • 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste
    • 1 cup mayonnaise
    • 1 scallion, minced
    • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
    • 2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon
    • freshly ground black pepper

    Salmon Meatballs

    • 1 pound salmon fillets cut into 1-inch chunks
    • 1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
    • 1 scallion, minced
    • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
    • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
    • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
    • 1 small head iceberg lettuce, cored and cut into 4 wedges
    • 2 cups cherry tomato halves
    • Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

    To make the sauce, whisk the lemon juice and anchovy paste in a bowl and dissolve the anchovy paste. Add the mayonnaise, scallion, parsley and tarragon and whisk to combine. Season with pepper. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 2 days before serving.

    To make the meatballs, pulse the salmon in a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade until finely chopped. Add the panko, scallion and mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper and pulse until combined. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to 2 hours.

    Prepare medium-hot fire in an outdoor grill. Using hands rinsed under cold water, shape the salmon mixture into 12 equal meatballs.

    To grill the meatballs with a basket, lightly oil the molds (pump sprayer works best). Place the meatballs in the basket and close it. Place the basket on the cooking grate and cover. Grill the meatballs until the undersides are slightly browned, about 3 minutes more. Remove the meatballs from the basket. Transfer to a platter.

    (To grill meatballs without a basket, lightly oil the cooking grate. Place the meatballs on the grill and cover. Grill until the undersides are lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Flip the meatballs and grill until the other sides are lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a platter).

    To serve, divide the iceberg wedges and tomatoes among 4 dinner plates. Add 3 salmon meatballs to each and drizzle generously with the sauce. Sprinkle with parsley and serve at once.

    Adapted from I Love Meatballs! By Rick Rogers, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, MO, 2011

    Next: Turkey Meatball Subs With Cranberry-Chipotle-Mayonnaise. »

    Turkey Meatball Subs With Cranberry-Chipotle-Mayonnaise
    Makes 4 sandwiches

    Cookbook author Rick Rogers advises using regular ground turkey with about 7 percent fat content. Lean ground turkey breast makes dry meatballs.

    Cranberry-Chipotle Mayonnaise

    • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon canned jellied cranberry sauce
    • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
    • 1 teaspoon adobo sauce from canned chipotle chilies

    Turkey and Sage Meatballs

    • 1 1/4 pounds ground turkey
    • 1/2 cup dried plain bread crumbs
    • 2 scallions, finely chopped
    • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg white, beaten
    • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    • 4 whole-wheat submarine rolls, split lengthwise
    • 4 green-leaf lettuce leaves, for serving

    To make mayonnaise, mix the cranberry sauce, mayonnaise and adobo in a small bowl.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

    To make the meatballs, mix the turkey, bread crumbs, scallions, egg and egg white, salt, sage and pepper in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes or up to 4 hours.

    Position oven racks in the center and top third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a large rimmed baking sheet. Place the rolls, cut side up, on a second baking sheet (no need to grease this sheet).

    Using your wet hands rinsed under cold water, shape the turkey mixture into 16 equal meatballs. Place on the oiled baking sheet. Bake on the center rack for 20 minutes. Place the baking sheet with the rolls on the top rack and continue baking until the meatballs are lightly browned and cooked through and the rolls are heated, about 5 minutes more.

    For each sandwich, spread about 2 1/2 tablespoons of the cranberry-chipotle mayonnaise inside a roll, then add 4 meatballs and a lettuce leaf. Close the roll and serve.

    Adapted from I Love Meatballs! By Rick Rogers, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City, MO, 2011.

    Also of interest: Beef stroganoff and noodle soup.

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