It has been a long old trail to this recipe, if I'm honest.
I now have a reputation (in the family - not globally, you understand), for being a master meatball maker. This is something of a turnaround from the days when I would suggest meatballs for dinner and be greeted with lukewarm interest and the remark "well, you're not very good at meatballs". Let me tell you, though, that there have been many meatballs passed under the bridge between then and now.
I'm pretty sure that I told you in another meatball post how I really wanted to create a tapas-style meatball, able to be eaten on its own - tapas style - with a glass of wine and maybe some bread as accompaniments.
Well, with tonight's "I really must make something with that lamb mince and that fennel, before they both go off" dinner, I think I achieved it.
I used lamb mince for its superb flavour, but I'm sure it would work as well with pork mince. Beef might be a tad too flavoursome for the fennel, but I imagine that turkey would work, although you'd lose some of the savouriness of the flavour. Anyway, give it a go with whatever you've got - and let me know!
I recently made some lamb meatballs that involved fresh mint and grated carrot. Now I was a bit dubious about the grated carrot, but I liked the idea of the sweetness it would bring, plus the added moistness. One of the big problems with meatballs, is keeping them moist and juicy. Nobody likes a dry, pasty meatball.
So when I was contemplating what to do with this lamb mince in conjunction with the fennel, I remembered the carrot meatballs and how successful they were. Carrot was a definite, but I pondered on adding some of the fennel to the meatball mix. Maybe if I grate some of the tougher, woody stems? No - they probably wouldn't cook quickly enough even with being grated. It needed something smaller and more tender. The bulb I was definitely going to slice and put in the sauce - which left the green, ferny, frondy bits that taste so good in a much milder way and are more of a herb than the bulb. If I chopped them finely, they would be perfect in the meatballs! Sorted.
The recipe I used for the meatballs with carrot, also rolled them in seasoned flour which when browned gave the meatballs a lovely tasty coating that then dissolved a little in the sauce, thickening it as it went. This solves the problem of "do I reduce the sauce further, or do I serve it thinner than I wanted, or shall I thicken it somehow?", so that method was a definite here too.
The sauce couldn't be any easier. It gave me an excuse to use two cloves of garlic (we could use some garlic about the place, as we have cold and sore throat germs floating around!) and use up a long lost rasher of bacon. Incidentally, the bacon - because it is cut into such fine strips - just melts away into the sauce lending it a special kind of saltiness and smokiness that you can't get any other way. Yummy.
Now, a cook's tip is to watch the amount of salt you use in the seasoning of the flour and the meatballs. Because you're using the bacon and if you're using a stock powder or cube that isn't reduced salt, you need to rein your salt sprinkling back. This is why I recommend to taste before serving and adjust then if necessary. You can't take it out if there's too much there to begin with! I used the beautiful Essential Cuisine Lamb Stock powder which is naturally low in salt and saves any need for worrying. Check out their website, as the fabulous stock powders really aren't expensive and last for absolutely ages - well, apart from the chicken version which disappeared at the rate of knots!
Son and heir was out on a sleepover and missed this one. He's going to be very cross about that when he finds out, as this was his perfect kind of dinner. Hubby thoroughly enjoyed his, even though he is poorly at the moment (see earlier comment about sore throat germs) and ate the lot, which he was seriously dubious about doing before he tasted it. As for me, well I was busy congratulating myself over - finally - making the elusive tapas style meatballs, but I did pause to note that it tasted as good as I wanted it to - if not better.
TAPAS MEATBALLS IN TOMATO & FENNEL SAUCE (serves 3-4)
600g lamb mince
1 medium carrot, top & tailed and grated
sea salt & black pepper
1 onion, chopped fine
1 rasher of smoked bacon, cut into fine strips
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 bulb of fennel, sliced finely and
1 tbsp fennel frondy tops, chopped finely
2 tbsp seasoned plain flour
1 tbsp rapeseed oil
500ml good quality tomato passata
1 tbsp tomato ketchup
1 tsp of powder or half a cube of lamb stock
100ml cold water.
1. It is very worthwhile making sure you have all the vegetables prepared before you roll the meatballs in flour, to avoid the meatballs sticking catastrophically to their plate.
2. In a large bowl, add the lamb mince, the grated carrot and the frondy parts of the fennel. Season with a little sea salt and a lot of black pepper and mix with your hands, making sure the component parts are all well combined.
3. Place the seasoned flour onto a large plate and begin to roll your meatballs. Larger meatballs will feed less people, smaller ones more people, so it is up to you what size you make them. Place each meatball onto the plate, roll in the flour and continue until you have run out of meatball mix.
4. Heat the rapeseed oil in a deep frying pan and add enough meatballs so that you aren't overcrowding the pan. You want the heat to stay moderately high so as to cook the outside of the meatballs, without burning and without stewing in their own juice. Cook the meatballs in batches, if necessary. It is not necessary to cook them all the way through at this stage, so remove to a clean plate as they are done.
5. Without wiping out the pan (you don't want to lose all that flavour), add the onion and bacon and cook on a moderate heat until the onion is transparent. This should take 3-4 minutes.
6. Add the garlic and cook, stirring well, for a minute.
7. Add the fennel slices and stir to combine. Cook until the fennel is beginning to demonstrate some softening.
8. Add the tomato passata, tomato ketchup, water and stock powder or cube. Stir well to combine, then put a lid on so as to allow some steam to escape but keep the heat in (half cocked, I call it!) and allow to simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
9. Your sauce should have reduced a little and thickened a little. Try the fennel to see whether it is soft and cook on for a little longer if not. Taste for seasoning and adjust as necessary.
10. Serve into warmed bowls, with bread for dipping and a side salad if you wish.