Saturday, March 3, 2012

Healthy meatballs recipe

From Spanish albondigas and Lebanese minced-lamb kekabs to Moroccan lamb or beef kofta or Greek keftedes, meatballs are a mainstay of Mediterranean cuisine. Traditionally -- before the advent of cheap, mass-produced meat -- they were an economical way of using up less-noble off-cuts of beef, pork or lamb and extending these with ingredients like vegetables, nuts, rice and herbs.

The meatballs featured here are nearly 50% vegetables, which makes them a great way to get veggie-phobes (say, picky toddlers) to eat their greens while simultaneously persuading meat-phobes (rebellious teenagers, for instance) to eat a bit of meat.

Meatballs work well as a sandwich or wrap filling, lunchbox fillers or finger food for kids, on picnics or long journeys (transported in a cooler) and as a sausage-substitute alongside weekend breakfast eggs. I usually make a big batch of these (tripling the recipe below), freeze them and defrost a few as needed. Occasionally I dump a handful into a pot of tomato sauce for a speedy dinner of spaghetti and meatballs.

You can vary flavors by using different combinations of spices: for hints of Greece, add oregano, mint, garlic and a pinch of lemon zest; or head to Spain by adding garlic, ground almonds, paprika powder, ground cumin and chopped parsley; or go Lebanese with pine nuts and a pinch of cumin, coriander and cinnamon and chopped fresh cilantro, served with a light garlic dressing (ground lamb works great for all the above).

What makes these healthy? Start with top-quality grass-fed meat, whose praises I have already sung here. These meatballs are baked in a moderate oven rather than fried, grilled or barbecued, further reducing potentially damaging chemicals. Lastly, this is a great way to boost your intake of plant phytochemicals, because nearly half of these "meatballs" is actually not meat (and not breadcrumbs either), but fresh vegetables and herbs.

Recipe (makes about 25-30 meatballs):

1 onion
1/2 to 1/3 (depending on size) celeriac root, peeled
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 large or 2 small leeks, partially sliced lengthwise and carefully rinsed under running water to wash out any grit stuck between the leaves
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 handfuls fresh parsley
1 tbsp dried herbes de Provence
2 tbsp olive oil
2 free-range, organic eggs
About 1 lb / 500g freshly ground beef (organic grass-finished, preferably)
Start by coarsely chopping carrots, celeriac, leek and parsley and placing them in a food processor equipped with an S-shaped blade. Chop until the vegetables are finely diced (but not mushy). Add crushed garlic and pulse again very briefly to combine.

Pre-heat oven to 350°F/180°C.
In a large frying pan on moderate heat, warm 2 tbsp olive oil and tip in all the chopped vegetables and herbes de Provence; salt and pepper lightly and cook for 6-7 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning. (You can skip this stage, but as vegetables do contain quite a lot of moisture, there’s a risk that if you add them to the meat raw, your meatballs will end up becoming waterlogged…). Remove pan from heat.
Place ground beef and the vegetable mixture into a large bowl and crack two raw eggs on top. Using an electric whisk (kneading attachments), a wooden spoon or your hands, knead all the ingredients thoroughly to combine. 

Using your hands, shape meatballs roughly the size of a ping pong ball and place them on a lightly oiled baking tray. Slide into the oven and bake for about 20 minutes; the meatballs will render a little moisture but hopefully not too much.

Remove tray from the oven and allow meatballs to cool. Transfer to a container with a tightly fitted lid and chill, then freeze.

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