Can beef meatballs be tender, delicate and almost subtle in taste? Yes they can, made with ricotta and Parmesan and cooked in a divine sauce to an Ottolenghi recipe.
Meaty meatballs a no-no
If you’re making meatballs, you want them meaty. The best quality mince or even meat ground at home, not too fatty, with no cereal added – they are not sausages after all. Right?
Wrong. The above description will deliver product that is dry as a Lutheran sermon, tough like old boots and crumbly like sawdust. For perfect meatballs, less meat is actually much, much more. Completely counterintuitively.
I have always been a staunch opponent of the fake meat products. But considering the above, it makes me wonder whether the manufacturers of the ‘beyond’ and the ‘impossible’ are not onto something.
If, of course, those products were not in fact ultra-processed junk food choc-full of salt and sugar.
But a little meat goes a long way and it delivers taste, without recourse to mountains of salt and weird additives.
Meatballs or breadballs?
I remember my mother’s meatballs always tasted great, even though she was on the whole a lousy cook.
She was an unfulfilled vegetarian which was not a feat you’d try to achieve in the totalitarian regime-ruled Poland, with shortages of everything. Adding said shortages to the equation, she’d usually bung a whole load of breadcrumbs, sometimes half a loaf, into the meatball mix, to an unexpectedly awesome outcome.
I don’t know how it is that meatballs are the tastier, the less meat they actually contain but the fact remains.
Dairy addition works wonders in the meatball mix and I have made tasty meatballs and meatloaves adding lots and lots of Parmesan, Pecorino or a little crème fraiche.
I have not tried adding soft cheese before encountering Ottolenghi’s ricotta meatball recipe. As usual, you can rely on Yotam’s expertise.
Ricotta is a by-product kind of cheese, made from the whey left over from other cheese production process. It’s cooked again – ‘ricotta’ means ‘re-cooked’ – and curdled with an acidic agent. The result is lean cheese that doesn’t melt.
That’s because it’s rennet that creates melty cheeses by wreaking havoc with their protein structure, which also explains why vegan cheese turns into sewage when melting is attempted.
But that characteristics makes ricotta ideal for cooking dishes that rely on it keeping the texture. Like cheesecakes, gnudi or meatballs.
How to make the ricotta meatball mix
I have veered only slightly from the original recipe by replacing fresh breadcrumbs with dried Panko and reducing the amount accordingly. It makes shaping a bit easier as the mix won’t be quite as wet and soft.
The aromatics are wonderful here, and don’t be tempted to reduce the oregano amount. Mix everything with your hands and shape golf ball-sized meatballs with wet hands.
They can be made ahead and sit in the fridge to firm up, which will make frying them easier without the risk of cracking.
The sauce for meatballs
It isn’t strictly a tomato sauce – the amount of carrot and onion makes it more of an all-rounder.
I fully recommend blitzing the onions with carrots and all in a food processor. Firstly, it tames the overpowering onion smell somewhat and secondly, it makes the sauce lovely and smooth in texture.
Starting with the veggie puree, cook it in a large sauté pan, adding the tomatoes, stock and seasoning after a few minutes.
It will thicken within about fifteen minutes and be ready to receive the meatballs browned in a frying pan.
You can skip the browning – the meatballs will cook through in the sauce – but you’ll miss out on the scorched meat flavour, a.k.a. Maillard reaction.
What to serve them with? That’s a silly question: spaghetti, of course!
More meatball recipes
Pork and smoky bacon meatballs with tomato flavoured bulgur wheat, a riff on Swedish, Italian and Moroccan meatball classics.
Pheasant meatloaf wrapped in prosciutto is not only a crowd pleaser: it’s also a good choice for both health and sustainability reasons.
Korean barbecue-style beef meatballs with spring onions, ginger and garlic plus a secret old-school meatball ingredient: crushed Ritz crackers.
More ricotta recipes
Vegetarian version of lasagne with spinach and ricotta is easier to make than beef lasagne, with cooked cream sauce used here instead of bechamel.
Jumbo pasta shells stuffed with ricotta and walnuts, baked in tomato sauce: conchiglioni ripieni al forno.
Keep your New York confections – I’ll go for lemon ricotta cheesecake every time. It’s a very good baked cheesecake, light and not too sweet.