I realize that it may be tantamount to sedition to suggest to most Americans that they consider having meatballs for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is sacred: though there might be ham, there MUST be turkey. Sometimes it is packed full of cornbread or sourdough stuffing; sometimes the stuffing gets baked separately and the turkey cavity is jammed with herbs and a half a lemon (that’s the way it usually goes in our house). There are potatoes of some sort – if you are my sister, they are always these chipotle mashed sweet potatoes, originally from Cooking Light. Gravy is less important to me than to some people – I realize there are secret recipes generations old, and then there’s that sludgy stuff that pours right out of a jar. As long as the turkey is moist, I tend not to fuss about the gravy. Cranberry sauce, however, is a must, and so are vegetables, though variety is much more acceptable here than in other parts of the meal. Later, if you can find a corner of room, there’s pumpkin pie, or perhaps pumpkin cheesecake, and maybe some sort of rum-drenched dessert drink.
Given all that (are you hungry yet?), you might not want meatballs for Thanksgiving. But these are Thanksgiving IN a meatball. Everything – with perhaps the exception of the pumpkin pie – is accounted for: finely whirred onion and celery from the stuffing, soaked bread crumbs, gently sautéed herbs, even the occasional tart-sweet stab of a bit of dried cranberry. They get simmered in gravy that is lightly seasoned with rosemary and a few lemon slices, to keep it bright, and nestled tenderly in a bed of mashed potatoes. It’s all there. Even the eternal quandary that is Thanksgiving veg is factored in: a crisp tumble of fried brussels sprout leaves cascading over the top.
The vegetable component here is inspired by several restaurants we’ve eaten at recently, which offer fried brussels leaves as an appetizer – a kind of alternative to a bowl of french fries or maybe, just maybe, an evolution of the ubiquitous kale chip. At first I was reluctant to pay $8.00 for a paper-lined dish of these crisp little things (oh Los Angeles), but the flavor – a toastiness that almost invokes sesame oil – and the salty goodness that makes me want to finish the whole bowl, usually wins me over. Besides, several experiments to perfect them for this dish have taught me that they are only deceptively pricey – the patience and time it takes to coax off individual leaves without damaging them makes it worth occasionally paying other people to do it.
Still, though, the crispy fried leaves add a really necessary textural component to this whole dish. The mashed potatoes are soft, the meatballs are moist and tender, the gravy is velvety; it needs a crunch. Even though it takes a while to produce enough leaves to be worth it, and even though the frying process itself is terrifying – the leaves have a high water content, so the oil fizzes up tremendously when you first add them – they are the perfect final garnish to the plate.
I’m waxing ridiculous about the brussels sprouts, I know, so let me just say: the meatballs and the gravy they simmer in are delicious too. The vegetables inside keep things moist, and the hints of sweetness from the cranberries are a nice touch. I presume they would be tasty over noodles of some sort, or perhaps on a slider or crostini. But since this is about Thanksgiving, I couldn’t see deviating from the classic mashed potato. I’m not including a potato recipe here; you should make them however you like them. I will say, though, a crumble of goat cheese melted in at the last second is never a bad thing…
Makes 18-20 meatballs (about 2 tablespoons each)
1½ cups fresh bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
¼ cup grated yellow or white onion (about ⅓ of a large onion)
¼ cup grated celery (about 2 stalks of celery)
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh sage
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh thyme
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped dried cranberries
⅛ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound ground turkey, dark meat preferable
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons flour
¼ cup dry white wine, optional
2 cups low-sodium turkey broth
2 inch sprig of fresh rosemary
3-4 thin slices of lemon
1½-2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups brussels sprout leaves
Additional salt and pepper to taste
Mashed potatoes, made your favorite way
- To make the bread crumbs, whir the slices of bread in a food processor into small, fluffy crumbs. Combine these crumbs in a small bowl or 2-cup glass measuring cup with the milk or half and half, and let soak at least 10-15 minutes while you prep and cook the vegetables.
- Add the onion and celery into the food processor (no need to wash it out in between; everything’s going to the same place!), and let run until the vegetables are very finely minced.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat and add the onions and celery. Sweat gently until the onion pieces are translucent and the celery is tender; 5-8 minutes. In the final minute, add the finely minced sage and thyme leaves. Turn off the heat, transfer cooked vegetables and herbs to a medium bowl, and let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Once the vegetables have had a chance to cool a bit, add the parsley, chopped cranberries, pepper, and salt to the bowl. Gently squeeze out the bread crumbs that have been soaking in milk and add them as well; they don’t have to be squeezed dry, but ideally they should be no longer dripping. Add the turkey meat and use your fingertips or a fork to combine and evenly distribute all ingredients.
- In the same skillet you used previously, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-low heat. While it warms, roll the meat mixture into balls about 2 tablespoons each. You should get 18-20 meatballs out of this quantity. As you roll each, place it on a clean plate.
- When all meatballs are rolled, turn the heat under the skillet up to medium and gently add as many meatballs as will fit in a single layer, not touching each other. Brown for 2-3 minutes, then flip over and repeat once or twice more on the other “sides” of the meatball.
- Once meatballs are browned on 2 or 3 sides, remove this first batch to a clean plate and repeat, until all meatballs are browned.
- In the empty skillet, sprinkle the flour over the remaining fat and whisk into a golden bubbling sludge, then let cook 1-2 minutes. Add the dry white wine, if using, whisking immediately and constantly to integrate the flour evenly. When the wine is incorporated, slowly add the turkey broth, again whisking constantly, until no lumps remain.
- Bring the liquid mixture to a simmer, whisking occasionally. Gently add the meatballs back in along with any liquid they have generated, clamp on a lid, and simmer for 15 minutes.
- After 15 minutes, use a spoon or a pair of tongs to gently flip over each meatball. Add the sprig of rosemary and the lemon slices to the liquid in between the meatballs, then replace the lid and cook another 15 minutes.
- During the cooking, prepare your mashed potatoes any way you like them.
- To make the brussels sprouts, heat 1½-2 cups vegetable oil to 350F in a heavy, straight-sided pot. The weight is important because we want it to be stable. When it reaches 350F, carefully add the brussels sprout leaves. The oil will immediately bubble up furiously, so again, be careful.
- Fry the leaves for 2-3 minutes, frequently agitating them with a skimmer or a kitchen spider. When a few tester leaves feel crisp, carefully skim them out onto a double layer of paper towels or a brown paper bag. Immediately sprinkle with salt and reserve until ready to serve. It is best to do these as close to the last minute as possible for heat and crispness.
- To serve the whole dish, place a healthy serving of mashed potatoes into a shallow bowl. Spread them out a bit to form a well in the center. Spoon in a few tablespoons of the meatball gravy, then nestle in the meatballs – I recommend 4-5 per person. Add a bit more gravy over the top if desired, and shower with a crisp handful of fried brussels sprout leaves.