I don’t remember the first time I had lamb. I suspect it was a special occasion – probably Easter – and I suspect I had it in the company of a generous scoop of that emerald green mint jelly that still, in my memory, is the perfect accompaniment for the slight gaminess of a well-seared chop or slim carved slice.
To bring lamb into the meatball fold (too much? I couldn’t resist), I went back to the mint pairing with a few fresh sprigs, but decided to dress up the seasonings a bit more, pushing these meatballs in a Mediterranean direction. Oregano joined the mint, along with green onions, pine nuts, a small handful of coarsely chopped golden raisins, a tiny touch of cayenne pepper to keep things interesting. Fresh breadcrumbs soaked in cream keep the meat mixture springy and moist, and after a sear and a simmer in beef broth, they are fragrant and herbaceous, tugging toward both the savory and the sweet.
In dreaming these up, I knew I wanted to play with the sweetness of the traditional mint jelly, but push it in a more grown-up direction. Lamb and chutneys are also a common pairing, since lamb goes so nicely with fruit, and in searching for that agradolce flavor – the Italian sweet/tart/sour answer to a gastrique, I hit upon a thick, puckering drizzle of pomegranate juice and balsamic vinegar, reduced down into a glossy syrup, that would be as delectable over vanilla ice cream as it is here over meat. To finish, according to my notes, all is needed is lemon zest and a “sparing crumble of feta.”
Just like this – a meatball drizzled in syrup, sprinkled with briny cheese and a touch of bitter citrus rind, these make perfect appetizers. They require only a toothpick, and since they are even better at room temperature than they are steaming from the pan (time to cool gives the herbs a chance to assert their flavors), they are ideal for a party. If you’re looking for an entrée application, though, I also opted for a basmati pilaf, all nutty and fluffy and toasted, spiked with currants and nuts and a little fresh parsley to finish, that these meatballs can be happily snuggled into.
These are, without question, my favorites of the meatball project thus far. When it’s done right, the play of savory and sweet is one of my favorite taste combinations. And I must, for the sake of your stomachs, eschew modesty and admit: here, it is done right.
Lamb meatballs with basmati pilaf and pomegranate balsamic drizzle
Serves 4-5 (with 18-20 1-½ tablespoon meatballs)
45 minutes if you’re quite efficient, 60-90 minutes if you’re not
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
½ cup milk or cream
1 lb. ground lamb
¼ cup finely sliced green onions, dark and light green parts only (save the bulbs for another night)
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
¼ cup roughly chopped golden raisins
¼ cup pine nuts
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 cups beef broth
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons roughly chopped pistachios
3 tablespoons sliced almonds
¼ cup minced red onion
¾ cup basmati or other long-grain rice
¼ cup orzo (small rice-shaped pasta)
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons currants
¾ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt (but taste your chicken broth first – you may need more or less salt)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup roughly chopped parsley, to finish
½ cup finely crumbled feta cheese
zest from one lemon
- Combine the balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice in a small pot and set it over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to just simmering and let it go for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has become a thick, glossy syrup the consistency of molasses. When that happens, remove from heat immediately and set aside.
- In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, combine the fresh breadcrumbs and the milk or cream and let sit for about 10 minutes to soak. While they suck up the moisture, chop and prep your remaining meatball ingredients (and the pilaf ingredients, if you have time).
- Add the ground lamb, the green onions, the oregano, the mint, the golden raisins, the pine nuts, the ½ teaspoon of salt, and ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper to a medium mixing bowl. Using a fork or your fingers, lift the bread crumbs out of the milk or cream, let any excess liquid drip off briefly, and add them to the other meatball ingredients. Use your fingertips to combine the meatball ingredients, mixing lightly but thoroughly to distribute the wet bread and the sticky meat evenly.
- In a large skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add about a teaspoon of the meat mixture and fry for about a minute on each side until cooked through. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and cayenne pepper quantities as desired. It’s okay to leave them slightly undersalted, though, as the feta you’ll crumble over at the end is so salty.
- With moistened hands, scoop up 1-½ tablespoon quantities of the meat mixture and roll them into spheres. This should net you 18-20 meatballs. Place as many meatballs as will fit in a single layer without touching one another in the preheated skillet, and brown on all sides over medium heat – about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a clean plate. Repeat until all meatballs are browned on the outsides.
- Wipe out the meatball skillet with a paper towel to remove the excess fat, then add the 1-2 cups beef broth and bring to a simmer. When it is bubbling, carefully add the meatballs back into the skillet – you want enough liquid that it comes approximately halfway up the sides of the meatballs. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and let simmer 15-20 minutes, turning all meatballs once.
- The moment the meatballs hit their simmer, make the rice. Heat the 3 tablespoons butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the pistachios and almonds and toast, stirring frequently, until lightly browned. Add the ¼ cup minced red onion and sauté until onion is translucent and tender – 3-5 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure the nuts do not burn.
- Add the rice and the orzo to the onion and nuts and stir to coat evenly with the melted butter. Toast over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, just until the rice gains some opacity. Add the black pepper, the salt, the bay leaf, the currents, and the chicken broth. Stir well and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
- Bring the rice mixture to a boil, stir once more, and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer 15 minutes, or until rice is tender and has absorbed all the broth. Stir in the parsley and fluff with a fork before serving.
- To serve, nestle 4-5 meatballs per diner on a bed of the fluffy pilaf. Drizzle a few teaspoons of the thick, glossy pomegranate syrup over the meatballs, crumble on some feta and lemon zest, and serve warm or at room temperature.
- Alternatively, for appetizers, make a decorative drizzle of the pomegranate glaze on an attractive platter (I prefer white, for the contrast), spear the meatballs and place them atop the glaze layer, and then dust the whole thing lightly with feta and lemon zest. Serve the rice alongside, or not at all.