Spiced meatballs — with aubergine for good measure — in sweet-sour sauce
You might call them albondigas, almondegas, boulettes, keftedes, klopse, kofta, or polpette, but they're all pretty much the same thing: minced meat, something to extend the mixture, seasoning, and a binding agent. Yep, they're meatballs. Across the globe and through time the meatball has graced dinner tables in baked, fried, grilled, or simmered format. Simple, inexpensive, and with the advantage of being able to disguise all manner of vegetables from vegetablephobic eaters, it's hardly surprising that they have formed part of the cuisine of just about any culture you care to name.
There's a recipe for meatballs spiced with juniper in Apicius' Roman Cookery and for the average Roman without access to cooking facilities, meatballs were readily available from cauponae. Medieval cookbooks have recipes for spiced Levantine style meatballs. Legend has it that during the Spanish Inquisition pork meatballs were used to determine true Conversos from Marranos; the thinking being that anyone secretly practising Judaism would spit out the mouthful when told it was actually from a pig. During the 1950s when there was a drive to encourage Americans to eat more red meat, spaghetti and meatballs became popular. And I'd not be surprised if it transpired that some Hanoverian monarch's favourite dish was meatballs.
For me, meatballs are always lamb. Lamb is my favourite of the readily-available meats, but laying your hands on good quality, relatively inexpensive kosher lamb is not far off having the Crown Jewels in your own private viewing vault. So mostly I make do with cheaper cuts: minced meat, or breast. It's not just that I can vaguely afford to make a meal out of them, but also that it's easier to make a good dish out of them. The meat is more of a component, rather than a focus. The spicing and the flavours of this dish, therefore, lend themselves most readily to lamb. If you'd rather use another meat, I'd be inclined to alter the spices: something stronger for beef, lighter for chicken or turkey. I shan't profess to be able to offer a suggestion for pork!
This isn't the fastest meatball dish to make, but neither will it take you hours, and it certainly isn't fiddily. If you can keep yourself from scoffing it down the second the juices are running clear out of the meat, it tastes better the next day. I serve this with rice, whichever vegetables are to hand, and the inevitable glass of red wine. When it comes to wine, you won't be wanting anything too weighty as it'll just drown out the spicing. Similarly, too light a wine will be swamped by the meat. Perhaps something mediterranean to marry with the flavours? I state fig vinegar in the recipe: I happen to have some. But please, don't go scouring your local specialist food store for it. Red wine vinegar would work just fine.
What you'll be needing for three or four:
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 can chopped tomatoes
- 2 generous tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon fig vinegar
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 generous teaspoon mustard (grain or Dijon)
- Salt and pepper (again)
- Splash of oil
What to do with it all
Begin with the aubergine. Pre-heat the oven to 200°C and toss in the aubergine. Leave it there until soft to the touch, which'll take between 20 and 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the rest of the meat mixture. Throw all the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Use your hands, don't be afraid. (But do remove any rings you might be wearing. You neither want to have to fish the rings out of the mixture nor the mixture out of the rings.) If you want to make your mixture go a bit further, now is the time to add a handful of rice, a tablespoon or two of polenta, some monster meal, or a slice of soaked, shredded bread. I don't, but that's me. Mixture thoroughly mixed? Fabulous!
The aubergine should still be cooking, so start to prepare your sauce. Heat the oil in a large, flameproof casserole and fry the onions and garlic for three or four minutes until glassy. Tip in the tomatoes, add the flavourings, and stir well. Set to a very gentle simmer — you don't want it boiling away — and go pay some attention to your aubergine.
You should be able to peel the aubergine with no effort at all. Do so, and then finely dice the flesh. There'll be quite a lot of liquid produced by this. Don't worry too much, but avoid getting it in the meat mixture — you don't want it going sloppy. Add the aubergine to the meat mixture, and if you can, leave it to rest for 30 minutes.
Check on the tomato sauce. Not burning? Excellent! Not boiling away? Brilliant! (The sugar content of this sauce is quite high, meaning that its burnability is, too. If you're worried that it will catch or boil away, you can either add some stock or water, or turn out the flame until you're ready to add the meatballs.)
When you're ready to make your meatballs, grab a chunk of mixture and roll it between your palms. If the mixture is on the sticky side, wet your hands. Place on a non-stick baking sheet. When you've made all your meatballs — between 15 and 20, depending on size — blast them in a hot oven for ten minutes. You don't have to do this, but I've found it helps them to keep their shape. As soon as they've suffered that, drop them into the oh-so-gently simmering sauce and allow them to finish cooking. This should take about twenty minutes. That's it. Done. Yum!