Among several recipe instructions that are guaranteed to make my blood boil is the phrase ‘brown the meatballs on all sides’.
Now, I know a qualification in mathematics is not an essential requirement for the amateur or professional chef, or indeed the humble recipe writer. But it doesn’t take Archimedes to figure out that meatballs are, in fact, spherical. This means that firstly, they do not actually have sides, and, secondly, the act of browning them entirely over their total surface area is logistically impossible.
Particularly when you factor in a ‘non-stick’ pan that isn’t behaving, some hot oil, some fragile globules of protein barely bound together with egg and seasoning, a lot of burnt bits, and a wooden spoon that was clearly not invented for the delicate turning of aforementioned protein globules to allow them to ‘brown evenly’.
Let’s be realistic. With the right Teflon-armoured pan, a good pair of kitchen tongs, some oil and some robust meatballs, you might just be able to get a decent attempt at browning. On six sides, maybe even seven if you’re really dedicated. But after this, I guarantee your meatballs will no longer be balls. They will more likely resemble curiously formed polyhedrons, due to their having been flattened in various places to come into contact with the pan. Still, I’m more than willing to forgive a misnomered meatball for the sake of more delicious crispy edges.
What is it that is so appealing about meatballs? Is it that they bring out the child in us, being a staple of kids’ menus everywhere and able to be served with that childhood favourite, tomato sauce and spaghetti? Is it that delicious contrast between the crispy exterior (if browned properly, of course, on all sides) and the moist, juicy content within? Is it their endless versatility? Every culture seems to have its own variation on meatballs, from the classic Italian polpette to the bakso of South East Asia to the kofte of Turkey.
In the spirit of versatility, here’s a recipe for meatballs that don’t actually involve meat. Instead they’re made with tinned tuna, which can be a bit boring or overpowering, but when mixed up with some parmesan, breadcrumbs, eggs and lemon salt makes the most sublimely moist and rich little morsels. The Italians would cry if they saw this, because seafood with cheese is a big no-no over there, but it works just perfectly, giving a delicious savoury moreishness to the meatballs and ensuring they crisp up deliciously on the outside. The lemon salt lends a welcome bite of freshness, too. These are also very sturdy and hold their shape well during frying, allowing you to edge ever closer to that elusive holy grail: the meatball browned on all sides.
To accompany these delicious creations, a beautiful sauce made with fresh cherry tomatoes. They are simmered with a little sugar and some flavoursome tomato, black olive and basil salt, and underpinned with meltingly tender onion and garlic. The result is a thick, glossy, luxurious sauce with heaps of fresh tomato flavour and the sweet tang that only cherry tomatoes can provide. It works perfectly with the meatballs served over a bed of tagliatelle and garnished with lots of torn fresh basil.
Also, the final icing on the cake, metaphorically speaking, is a drizzle of lemon-infused olive oil. You may have heard me rave about the range of flavoured olive oils from 'Positively Good for You' before - I used their mandarin oil in this dairy-free and gluten-free chocolate cake, and their bergamot oil in this roasted kumquat and salmon recipe. Now I've discovered that a good glug of their lovely zesty lemon oil is just perfect over this dish - it gives a lovely silky texture to the pasta and adds an extra zing to the meaty tuna, and really complements the lemon salt used in the meatballs too.
If you think ‘beef’ when you hear meatballs, please give these a try. Not only are they suitable for those who don’t eat meat, but I actually think they’re far more delicious than any animal-based ball. They’re incredibly moist and rich in savoury flavour, while tasting light and fresh at the same time. They’re also much quicker to make and cook than anything involving raw meat. The sauce is a beautiful thing, perking up your plate of pasta both in terms of flavour and visually.
For a quick dinner that is much more delicious than the preparation time would lead you to believe, you can’t beat this recipe.
Tagliatelle with tuna meatballs and fresh cherry tomato sauce (serves 2):
200g dried tagliatelle
For the sauce:
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- 800g cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 tsp light muscovado sugar
- 1 tsp tomato, black olive and basil salt
- Ground black pepper
- A large bunch of fresh basil
For the meatballs:
- A 200g can of tuna steak in olive oil, drained
- 50g fresh white breadcrumbs
- 25g grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ tsp lemon salt
- Ground black pepper
- 1 spring onion, finely chopped
- 1 medium egg
- Olive oil, for shallow frying
First, make the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan, then add the garlic and onion. Cook over a low heat until softened but not coloured. Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt and some pepper, then simmer for 20-30 minutes until you have a thick sauce. Taste to check the seasoning, then stir in the basil, reserving a few leaves to garnish.
To make the meatballs, put all the ingredients in a small bowl and mash together with your hands to form a smooth paste. Roll into small balls the size of walnuts. Heat a little olive oil in a large, preferably non-stick frying pan, then brown the meatballs in batches, turning frequently to get an even colour.
When ready to serve, cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the packet instructions, until just al dente. Drain, then toss together with the tomato sauce. Divide the meatballs between the plates of pasta, garnish with a little more fresh basil and perhaps a drizzle of olive oil, and serve.