For really quite a long time - ever since seeing them on the t.v. - I have wanted to reproduce those gorgeous Spanish style tapas meatballs that you see being served in small terracotta dishes. They look so yummy with their thick tomato sauce that just the sight of them is enough to set my saliva glands tingling.
Well - and purely by accident - I think I've just achieved it.
I didn't set out to make a tapas-style meatball at all. I'd found a recipe on goodfoodchannel.co.uk probably around a year or more ago, which I'd filed away in my folder of "good ideas" with a view to making some time in the future. It was a Peter Gordon recipe, so immediately I had confidence in it as Peter Gordon always appears to me to be something of a "serious" chef, as opposed to those who are more keen on the t.v. appearances than making good food.
What made me decide to make the recipe now, though, was entirely down to the fact that I had a tin of Sainsbury's butter beans burning a hole in my tin cupboard. I'd had a discussion with a friend on Facebook about how much we liked butter beans and she'd recommended Sainsbury's as being good ones of their type. (Thanks Marj!) I really dislike soggy butter beans that just fall apart when they're cooked - and these ones definitely don't do that. They're tender, but still firm enough to cope with being stirred regularly. Now I really - no, really - like butter beans, so the knowledge that I had a tin of good ones in the cupboard was more than enough enticement.
There was something else about the recipe that tickled my curiosity. In the meatball method, it said to include four tablespoonfuls of cold water into the meatball mixture. I so nearly didn't do this, as it seemed as though - with the grated carrot there too - it stood the chance of making the meatball terribly soggy. However, I decided to place my trust in Peter Gordon's capable hands and complied with the recipe. What a revelation!
Now anyone who has ever made meatballs from scratch, will know that the blasted meatball mix will stick to your fingers and steadfastly refuse to be moulded into a ball. I'd read a little tip which said to run your fingers under cold water whilst rolling the ball, which very definitely helped - in fact, it made the task do-able. However, if you add the water to the meatball mix, you don't need to keep running them under the tap (with accompanying water wasteage and cross-contamination hygiene issues). The meatball mix just rolls up without a squeak of complaint and - what's even better - is the meatball stays moist and delicious throughout the browning process, right the way to being served! As I say - a revelation!
The grated carrot was another departure from the norm - and one which worked brilliantly. The flavours of lamb and mint are traditional and the addition of the grated carrot really brought out the sweetness of the lamb, along with helping to ensure the meatballs stayed moist.
As ever, well you wouldn't expect anything else now, would you? I made a few changes to the original recipe - which I have reflected in the recipe below - both to suit what ingredients I had in the house and to suit our palates. Amongst a few other things, for instance, the original recipe called for 8 cloves of garlic. Now we do like garlic - but 8? Between three of us? I don't think so - especially as all eight go into the sauce! Hence, I trimmed it down to a much more acceptable 2.
The quantity of mince is 800g on the recipe, whereas a supermarket pack of mince is generally 600g. From the 600g, I made 21 meatballs which were a good size - with a bowl of sauce and butterbeans for lunch the following day. (Which coupled with a fresh baked baguette was just such a stellar lunch!). So feel free to increase the size to 800g if you've extra mouths to feed. I found the 600g fed the three of us perfectly.
The recipe also called for 200g of bacon lardons. Well, I have to admit that I've no time for lardons - not when my local butcher is still selling their wonderful smoked back bacon for a fraction of the price of 100g of lardons! It's all bacon, after all. So I swapped those lardons for three large (and I'm talking large) rashers of smoked back bacon, cut into small pieces. It worked. It worked very nicely thank you.
Owing to hubby's sensitivity to tomatoes - the acidity tends to give him rampant indigestion if not cooked out very well indeed - I habitually add a little tomato ketchup. Now you could add a little sugar to do the same job - but tomato ketchup has all those intriguing spices along with the sugar, that add that little je ne sais quoi to a tomato sauce and helps to kill the acidity.
Quite apart from anything else, this recipe is a complete doddle to make. Apart from forming the meatballs (which really doesn't take very long at all), it's a simple matter of chucking everything in order into a deep pan, stirring occasionally and cooking something to help mop up the sauce.
Speaking of which, I decided to cook some Orzo. Now I'd only ever used Orzo once before, in my Greek Lamb & Orzo Bake - which we all really liked. So I knew that I was onto a fairly safe bet there. Son and heir was momentarily befuddled by it, asking what sort of rice it was, but was satisfied when we revealed that it was a tiny pasta instead. He commented that it was "odd" and didn't finish his portion - but for the first go in a very long time, plus the first time of having it as a side dish, I think he did pretty well. He's a conservative ole thing, don'cha know. I added a few frozen peas to the Orzo more with a view to their colour than flavour, but they added a nice sweetness that the Orzo alone couldn't have delivered.
All in all, I was very pleased indeed with this meal. Everyone loved the meatballs and to have found a tapas style meatball in tomato sauce is a very definite bonus, as I have a yen to make a tapas style dinner one night. So, my first dish is tucked firmly behind my ear for later!
LAMB & CARROT MEATBALLS WITH BUTTERBEANS (serves 3)
600g lean minced lamb
1 tbsp fresh mint, shredded
1 carrot, peeled and grated
100g plain flour
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tsp dried rosemary
200g bacon lardons
750ml tomato passata
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp lamb stock powder (or half a lamb stock cube)
400g tin butter beans
fresh parsley, finely chopped.
1. Make sure that all the vegetables are prepped and ready to go, before you make up the meatball mix, or the meatballs will stick to their plate as they wait to be browned.
2. In a large bowl, mix the lamb, mint and carrot together with some seasoning and 4 tbsp cold water. Form the mixture into balls the size of a walnut.
3. Take a large freezer bag and mix the flour together with some seasoning. Roll each meatball in the flour until coated.
4. Heat the oil in a deep frying pan or wok. Once hot enough to sizzle the meatballs, add them gently and without crowding. You may need to brown them in two batches. Brown them all over and remove with a slotted spoon onto a warm plate.
5. Once all the meatballs are browned, drain the majority of the fat from the pan and add the onion. Cook over a moderate heat until softened and turning golden.
6. Add the garlic and rosemary, cooking until the onion is beginning to caramelise and the garlic is softened.
7. Add the bacon and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until all the water has cooked out of the bacon and it is beginning to turn golden.
8. Add the passata, tomato ketchup and the lamb stock powder - (I used Essential Cuisine's superb lamb stock powder) - along with 200ml of water. Stir well, then add the butter beans and bring to a boil, stirring as it heats through.
9. Once up to temperature, return the meatballs to the pan and coat with the tomato sauce. Place a lid on the pan and simmer for 35-45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
10. Serve sprinkled with the chopped parsley.