Meatballs are one of my mom’s favorite foods. In her world, they are always Italian and on top of spaghetti. (Cue the camp song, “On top of Spaghetti, all covered with cheese …”) I love Italian-style meatballs too, especially when they’re made with a combination of ground beef, pork, and veal.
But when I can get ground lamb, I take my meatball inspiration from elsewhere – the Middle East, Turkey, Greece, and beyond. (Keftedes, kefta, or kofta as they are sometimes called) lamb meatballs, are popular throughout North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, and even in Central Asia.) With tzatziki for dipping and rice with spinach as a side, these little delights are a great make-ahead meal.
Although flavorful and herb/spice-scented, my lamb meatballs aren’t spicy hot. If you want to take them up a notch, add a dash of harissa or another hot sauce, a dash of cayenne pepper, or some crushed red pepper flakes.
Many lamb meatball recipes use straight meat with only an egg for “glue;” I prefer to add bread soaked in liquid. I don’t consider the bread filler; if you use good stuff, it lightens the meatballs and gives them a better consistency than if they are almost solid meat. (No Wonderbread here please!) As long as you don’t pack the ingredients with a heavy hand, these two bite morsels open easily with a fork.
The 3 Keys to Making Lamb Meatballs (and All Other Meatballs):
- Don’t over-mix because it toughens the meatballs. Once the ingredients are combined together, stop. Avoid the temptation to roll the delightfully squishy mixture over and over as you form the meatballs.
- Use a light touch to form the meatballs in the palm of your hands. (Think of forming snowballs – don’t crush them!)
- As you’re cooking, leave the meatballs undisturbed for the first few minutes and be gentle when you turn them. If you attack them with a spatula like they were burgers, you’ll end up with pieces of spiced, chopped lamb – still delicious, but not the look that we’re aiming for.
Servings – 24-28 meatballs serving 4 as a main course with sides Cost – $10-12
- 1 cup of small pieces of good bread (preferably slightly stale) with the crust cut off
- ½ cup liquid for soaking bread (I use milk – broth or even water works too)
- 1 pound ground lamb
- ¼ diced shallot or onion
- 1 clove garlic, crushed or finely diced/minced
- ¼ cup flat leaf parsley and/or fresh mint, finely diced or minced
- 1 egg
- 1½ teaspoons ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- Cutting board
- Measuring cups
- Measuring spoons
- 2 bowls or 1 large measuring cup and 1 medium-large bowl
- Large spoon
- Large fork
- 2 plates
- 2 spoons
- Heavy pan (preferably cast iron or similar), 10-inches in diameter (or larger) works best
- Tear up the bread and soak it in the liquid for 15 minutes. At the end, press out the liquid gently (about ⅓ cup), leaving the bread quite moist but with no additional liquid in the bowl or cup.
- Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in the pan. Sauté the diced shallot or onion for 3-5 minutes in the oil until the shallot/onion becomes tender (and transparent in the case of onion.) Add the garlic and continue cooking for 45 seconds – 1 minute. Add the spices and combine, then set the mixture aside.
- Mix together the soaked bread, egg, salt and pepper, and the mixture of shallot/onion, garlic and spices. In the other bowl, gently break up the lamb with a fork, so that it is in small size chunks.
- Add all the other ingredients to the meat and gently form balls about 1 – 1¼ inches in diameter. You can do the initial mixing with a fork, but to form the balls you need to use your (clean) hands. Think of it as grown-up playtime – messy, but fun.
- As you make the lamb meatballs, put them on one plate. If they seem too soft to move easily, refrigerate them covered in plastic wrap for 30 minutes – 1 hour. You can also refrigerate them overnight at this point, and cook them the next day.
- Wipe out the pan with a paper towel and heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil under medium high light until the oil shimmers, but before it begins to smoke. Cook the meatballs in 2 or even 3 batches, depending on the size of your pan. (I did 2 batches in a 10-inch pan.) Gently place the meatballs in the pan, leaving them undisturbed for about 2 -3 minutes so that they can brown. Then turn them every few minutes with a spoon, cooking them on all sides. Not all will retain a perfectly round shape, but they are lovely and delicious even when they are slightly askew. When they are fully cooked, use the second (clean) spoon to gently remove them to the clean plate. (By using a clean spoon and a clean plate, you avoid touching the cooked meat with the utensil and plate that touched raw meat.
- If you want to keep the first batch warm while you make the second, cover the plate of cooked meatballs. The cooking process takes 8-10 minutes per batch.
These meatballs get bonus points for being easy to reheat too, and I can attest that the meatballs tastes as good the second day as they did on the first. To reheat, simply heat a film of olive oil in a pan, add the meatballs, and cover the pan for a few minutes to let them heat at least part way through. Then remove the cover, shake the pan so the meatballs move around, and cover it again for another minute or two. Because they are small, even cold from the refrigerator they reheat in 5-10 minutes.