Jump straight to the Meatball Blueprint recipe. Or to the Meatball Blueprint step by step. Otherwise, stick around for an autobiographical ramble, secure in the knowledge that a recipe DOES appear at the end of this post.
I am just now returning from south South America—Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, to be precise, and mostly Buenos Aires. For most Yanquis, when you think Argentina, you think beef, at least if you are a lot of people. Also probably tango, and….well, maybe not much else.
Well, let’s save tango for another post. But let’s deal with the whole meat thing now. I do not eat beef, and I’ve mostly avoided it throughout my life. (Save for an unfortunate decade that featured a monthly Taco Bell freakout. I would hang my head, but no longer do shame.) From an earlier age, I hated, hated, hated the texture, and wasn’t super thrilled about the flavor, for that matter. Mom used to cook it a lot, because Dad loved it. To this day, the smell of roast beef makes me want to vomit, something I once did at the dinner table when Mom, doing her best Joan Crawford, insisted I eat a slice. Boy, did I get a talking-to for that!
Nonetheless, when people find out that in the course of the past two years I’ve spent over 2 months in The Wonderland of Edible Cows, they get this sort of weird, glazed-over look of bliss on their faces, envying my good fortune being around all those steaks.
Well, I didn’t eat meat while I was in Argentina. Meanwhile, what the hell does this have to do with meatballs?
Why Ground Meat?
Truth is, I didn’t eat meat in Argentina because I still hate the texture of any red meat that isn’t ground up or turned into bacon. But I do like good, spiced-up ground meat, which explains the whole Taco Bell business. And I love a good meatball or meatloaf even more. I genuinely don’t feel right about eating beef, though I’m not going to get all preachy here when there are already so many people who do that much better. Then again, ground turkey and chicken taste like total meh unless you season the hell out of them. Hence, they make a fine go-to for taco filling, as well as being perfectly versatile on the meatball/meatloaf front, open to pretty much whatever flavors you want to throw in.
Whatever protein you choose, meatballs and meatloaf are super simple to make, and you can vary them endlessly—which is why I call this a meatball blueprint rather than a recipe, which implies you follow it to the letter.
My approach is specifically designed for poultry, but you can easily swap in what you want. I have yet to find a non-animal meatball that really works, btw, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of vegans from tackling the issue. (Isa Chandra Moskowitz is a favorite spokesperson on this particular front; here’s a recipe of hers for lentil meatballs that sound pretty darn good.)
Here’s how you do it.
- The meat. As noted, mine is ground chicken or turkey thigh, because the thighs are fattier, which means: more flavor. Many people mix meat here, using some beef and some pork, and if you do mammals, go ahead. Honestly, birds are just fine with me.
- Crumbs. Along with the egg, the addition of bread is what makes a meatball/loaf a meatball/loaf. The two substances work to bind the mix of meat into one coherent thing. According to Jane and Michael Stern in their marvelous Square Meals, “Extenders give the loaf that distinctive pulpy texture that soaks up gravy so well.” Extrapolate that to whatever sauce your meatballs are soaking in. Stale bread is classic, but panko, smashed crackers, rolled oats, or some cooked leftover rice or quinoa also work beautifully.
- If you do choose a dry crumb option, be absolutely sure to soak the crumbs in a little liquid first. Milk—unsweetened plant milk is fine—is as classic as stale bread, but also consider broth or a mix of broth with a little sherry, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or whatever you want to flavor your meatloaf. If you have leftover soup or some salsa, they work pretty great. And even if you use a pre-cooked grain, which doesn’t need to soak, a 1/4 cup or so of a thicker soup or tomato sauce add flavor and moisture.
- Onion and herbs: Yes. You need to finely chop some kind of onion, whether it’s green, red, or yellow, to add to your mix. Also whatever herbs you have on hand, as long as they fit the flavor profile. Parsley goes with everything. Dill, surprisingly, works beautifully in combination with soy sauce, especially if you mix it with cilantro (it’s the fennel/anise undertone). Basil, sage, tarragon: all will work, in pretty much any mix.
- Optional but very excellent chopped vegetables: You can make your meatballs/loaf even healthier by chopping any greens you have lying around very fine and adding them to the mix as well. Note the cabbage in the above pic, as well as the egg.
- Egg: For binding.
- Salt: Essential, especially with poultry, which is super bland.
- Seasonings: yes, the spices that fit with your sauce, but also any thicker sauce, like gochujang or good ol’ ketchup. You only need a spoonful of either of the latter, but man, do they add a nice flavor hit.
Meatball Blueprint: The Steps
- Assemble your ingredients (see the list above).
- Chop the veggies.
- Mix everything together.
- Form into meatballs, or push into a loaf pan or crock pot.
- For meatballs, cook about 15-20 minutes at 400º. If you’re going to add the meatballs to a sauce that you’ll simmer for any length of time, you can go a little short, because they will cook more in the sauce. For meatloaf, about 50 minutes for a pound of meat (before the add-ins) at 375º. In a crockpot, about 2 hours on medium does the trick.
- Enjoy! I’ll be adding this recipe in a quick minute; it’s chicken meatballs with zoodles, carrot spirals, and chopped cabbage in a sesame sauce. But you can put these babies in anything.