There are some chefs who have a knack for taking apparently simple dishes, ones you think you know, and making them, well, fussy. There are days when this causes nothing but blustering, snorting, and throwing up of the hands because, what the heck you don’t have time to reduce that then add water then blend part of it then reduce again!!!!!! Pffffffffft. But on those lovely days when you aren’t in a rush, that’s when you discover, or perhaps rediscover for the umpteenth time, that this very fussiness is better described as technique, and while it asks you for more effort, it is in fact in the service of nudging a simple dish toward transcendence.
Two chefs that I think are great in this way are Suzanne Goin and April Bloomfield. I’m awfully partial to those two ladies, at least as far as I can make out from their fantastic cookbooks. And they’re endearingly frank about the fussy aspect, Suzanne Goin joking that the job of a chef is to take something and then ask themselves, “stop. wait. how can I make this more complicated?” while April Bloomfield actually refers to her recipes as “my fussy recipes.” Fussy, but so, so good.
There was actually one week awhile back where I cooked all of our dinners from either Sunday Suppers at Lucques or A Girl and Her Pig. I say awhile back, but now as I think of it I realize that it must have been several years ago! (erp.) It was definitely pre-baby. Back in those days when I didn’t even know what busy or tired really were, ha (busy and tired is sure most days now, hence the quick snaps of leftovers for lunch because it was the only chance I had to photograph these meatballs). Anyway, I guess it’s still fresh in my mind because we truly ate like kings. It was a great week. Not one that’s going to be repeated any time soon, sadly.
BUT! These meatballs. They come from April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig (which is a great cookbook), and while they do take a bit of time commitment, they are really relatively simple. Simple but splendid. I think they’re my favorite lamb meatballs. They’re richly flavored and beautifully balanced, but remarkably the only spice in the meatballs themselves is salt. All these years I’ve been packing my lamb meatballs with cumin and cinnamon and mint and parsley and garlic and who knows what all, and all I really needed to do was use salt! Go figure.
Ms. Bloomfield gives precise instructions on how to shape the meatballs – don’t press too hard! But don’t leave cracks! – as well as a firm admonition to brown them until they have a nice brown crust. And I believe that makes a difference. Then you stew the meatballs in a tomatoey sauce whose flavor is predominantly driven by delicately citrusy and earthy spice of coriander. As with the meatballs themselves, this simplicity somehow turns into something complex, rich, and savory through the magic that happens as the meatballs and sauce simmer together. A splotch of yogurt finishes the dish off with a cool, creamy twang.
Perhaps the best part for me is that Espen loves them too! (The kid is a lamb fanatic. He also loves liverwurst, raspberries, kimchi, pickles, lemon, eggs and dark chocolate. I love him.) They are definitely going to be a mainstay in our kitchen as the weather gets cold.
- 2½ lbs. ground lamb
- 2½ Tbs. flaky sea salt
- about 1½ cups fine bread crumbs
- 1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- ½ tsp. sea salt
- 2 tsp. ground coriander
- 1½ tsp. ground cumin
- 2 spicy red chilies (the recipe calls for Dutch chilies) pierced all over with a knife.
- one 28-oz can of peeled whole tomatoes, drained
- plain whole-milk Greek yogurt for serving
- optional - a fried egg per person for serving
- a handful each of chopped mint and cilantro for garnish (I didn't have these the most recent time I made these meatballs, and it was fine without, but definitely better with)
- Mix together the ground lamb with the 2½ Tbs. salt and the breadcrumbs. To quote Bloomfield: "take a bit of the mixture in your hand, give it a few firm but still rather gentle squeezes and roll it into a ball (a little bigger than a golf ball). Overworking the mixture is bac and leads to tough meatballs, but this warning often makes cooks too timid when they form the balls: the outside of each ball should be smooth with no big cracks or crags." Now you know.
- Add the oil to a large Dutch oven or cast iron pan over high heat. When the oil is hot, cook the meatballs in batches - don't crowd them - turning them occasionally and making sure they get a shiny deep crust on all sides. It should take 12-15 minutes per batch(!). Remove the meatballs to a plate as they're finished and when you're done browning the meat, pour off about half of the fat in the pot.
- Lower the heat to medium-high, add the onion, garlic, and ½ tsp. of salt and cook until the onion is lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the spices and the peppers and cook for another minute. Then, squish the tomatoes in with your hands, breaking them into little pieces. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, add 4 cups of water and bring the sauce to a boil, then turn it down to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes. At this point, take two cups of the sauce, transfer it to a blender and blend it to a smooth sauce, then pour this back into the pot (yeah, this part's a bit fussy).
- Add the meatballs back to the pot along with any juices that have accumulate and give them a gentle stir. Cover and simmer the meatballs gently for about 30 minutes. This is where the flavor will all start to come together.
- To serve, add yogurt in blobs and sprinkle with the mint and cilantro. I like to serve these with either summer or winter squash. A side of couscous is nice too.