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How did meatballs come about?

No one is sure where the meatball originated and early recipes are difficult to find. It’s easy to ascertain though, that meatballs, as we know them, made with ground meat, were not possible until meat grinders were invented. Early meatballs would have been made from leftovers and hand-shredded. Or pounded with a heavy object and minced with primitive tools.

The type of meat prepared as meatballs was varied and influenced by geography. In China, for example, the mainstay was the pig, so their meatballs were likely made from pork. Similarly, in North Africa, the Berber, were shepherds of wild sheep, goats and camels and these animals were a source of the shephards’ subsistence.

These Caddo women are grinding up dried food in a wooden container—called a mortar—using heavy poles called pestles- to pound dried meat—deer or buffalo—to make into pemmican.

Whatever the meat, whatever the region, many recipes indicate some form of meatballs across the globe. Food history tells us, though, that meat was rare in most countries and was enjoyed mostly by the rich. Since meat was not easy to come by, it can be assumed that it was never wasted, and no parts of a cut of meat would have been thrown away. Simply put, meatballs were created as a way to utilize leftover meat and squeeze another day’s meal from it.

According to Mathistorisk Uppslagsbok (a reference on ancient cuisine) by Jan-Ojvind Swahn, the Swedish word for meatball (k”ttbulle) first appeared in (Swedish) print was in Cajsa Warg’s, 1754 cookbook. Swahn points out that the meatball could not have been a common food, at least not for common people, until the meat grinder made the preparation simple.

The invention of the meat grinder,also, made it possible to use fresh ground meat instead of cooked meat for meatballs.  A U.S. Patent was issued in 1829 for a crude grinder. A better grinder was recorded in 1845, using rotating cutting blades and a spiral feed. This allowed, for the first time, an ordinary person to purchase fresh ground meat.

Swedish meatballs, smaller in size than those from other countries, are traditionally served with a cream gravy and lingonberry preserves. In northern Scandinavian countries beef was considered a luxury item, which meant meatballs were highly prized. Meatballs are traditionally served at Swedish smorgasbords and other festive occasions.

Swedish meatballs were brought to the United States by Scandinavian immigrants; many of whom settled in America’s northern midwestern states. Other Northern European countries also have meatball/gravy recipes. Regional variations are often a reflection of taste and ingredient availability. In America, Swedish meatballs became very popular in the beginning of the 20th century, and again in the 1950s-1960s.

Some early recipes:

In 1944, an English version of an Italian cookbook by Pellegrino Artusi appeared in print titled, simply, “Italian Cook Book”.  It recommended “meatballs made with boiled meat,” but noted that “if raw meat is preferred, less ingredients for seasoning should be used.”

Here’s the recipe for his Italian meatballs !  Note: it may be a bit difficult to follow.

Chop the boiled meat in a mortar. Chop a sliced ham separately. Add the ham to the meat and season everything with Parmesan, salt, pepper, and some flavor of spice. Add some raisins, pine seeds and two spoonfuls of bread, boiled either in soup or milk. Bind this compound with an egg or two, according to the quantity. Make meat balls as large as one egg, flatten them at both ends, cover them with grated bread and fry them in oil or lard. Make a fricassee with a little garlic and parsley, place it in a flat pan together with the fat left in the pan where the meatballs were fried, and add the meatballs. Sprinkle on egg-lemon sauce and let it take on flavor. If the garlic-parsley fricassee is objectionable, place the meatballs in the flat pan with a piece of butter only.”

This recipe just might not fit with the common American concept of an “Italian meatball.”

Pellegrino Artusi and units of Italy

Pellegrino Artusi

A book by Robin Howe, published in Great Britain in 1954, also bears an unassuming title: “Italian Cooking.” The recipe for “Meat Balls, Florentine Style” (“Polpettine Alla Fiorentina”) calls for forming a ball of pre-cooked meat.
Ten ounces of beef are minced along with two ounces of bacon and an onion; the mixture is fried in butter or oil for five minutes, then two or three ladles of stock are added, and the ingredients are simmered. Once this combination has cooled, a beaten egg, two ounces of grated cheese, and three tablespoons of breadcrumbs, along with salt, pepper and nutmeg, are mixed in, forming a paste.

Balls are formed, then rolled in flour.
A chopped carrot and a chopped stick of celery are browned in oil, then the balls are added, stock is poured in, almost covering the balls, and everything is simmered for a half hour. Then the meatballs are put on plates and the juice is poured over, through a sieve.

A ball formed from cooked beef does not sound very appetizing. It sounds like something to be made from leftovers and, in Italy, often is. But there’s also a recipe in “Italian Cooking” for “spiedini,” a meatball that starts with a pound of raw beef. The meat is minced and combined with two tablespoons of chopped parsley, two ounces of grated cheese, four ounces of breadcrumbs, a chopped clove of garlic, and salt and pepper. Balls are formed which are either deep-fried in oil, and served on skewer with risotto, or brushed with olive oil and grilled.

Growing up in an Italian American home, I remember we often ate meatballs and sausage with our spaghetti. Such a memory does not exist, however, for those whose childhoods were spent in Italy. “Polpette” (meatballs) are Italian. So is spaghetti, but the combination isn’t. “Meatballs and spaghetti,” like chop suey, was invented in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century. In Italy, diners customarily eat a pasta course first, then a meat course. So, if an Italian eats meatballs and spaghetti, it will be in separate courses.

In America, “Italian meatballs” can simply be hamburger (ground beef) fashioned into the shape and size of golf balls. But meatballs, as prepared in Italy, contain other ingredients, including grated cheese and bread and, like meatballs from other lands, often contain veal and/or pork in addition to, or instead of, beef.

The Italians brought their recipes for polpette (meatballs) to America, each recipe developed within their families through the centuries. The dish spaghetti and meatballs was created to please Americans, who preferred meat served with their pasta.  I am taking this concept a step further with adding vegetables to the sauce, using whole grain pasta and offering meatballs made from a variety of meats or vegetables.  Take your pick!

For The Spaghetti Sauce:

Veggie Packed Spaghetti Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 rib celery, finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 6 oz. cremini mushrooms, trimmed, finely chopped
  • 1-28 oz. container Pomi chopped tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar or agave syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the next 4 ingredients. Cover and cook 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add tomatoes and remaining sauce ingredients. Stir, cover, and simmer 45 minutes or until it is as thick as you like it.

For The Pasta:

Ingredients:

  • 9 oz. whole wheat spaghetti
  • 6 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Directions:

Prepare pasta per package directions. Drain. Top with meatballs (3 per plate), sauce, and cheese.  

Serves 6 (1 1/2 oz. pasta per person)

Choose Your Meatball:

Turkey Meatballs                                                                                                                                                            


Ingredients:

  • 1 pound lean ground turkey breast
  • 1 large egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute
  • 3 tablespoons Italian seasoned dried bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  •  1 teaspoon dried oregano
  •  1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400°F

Combine all meatball ingredients except oil in large bowl. Gently shape into 18 golf ball-size meatballs.  

Use the 1 teaspoon of oil to grease a baking dish and place meatballs in the dish. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. Turn once during baking time.

A meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 165°F.

Eggplant “Meat” Balls

Makes 15-18 Eggplant Balls

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 cups cubed peeled eggplant (1 large eggplant)
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 -1 1/4 cups dried bread crumbs

Directions:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Pour in olive oil and saute garlic just until lightly browned. Mix in eggplant and water. Reduce heat to low and cover skillet. Allow eggplant to steam until soft, about 20 minutes. Place eggplant in a large bowl and allow to cool slightly. Mash eggplant with a potato masher.

Mix cheese, parsley, eggs, and bread crumbs into eggplant. Stir with a wooden spoon or your hands until ingredients are thoroughly combined and mixture can be rolled into balls. Add more bread crumbs as needed to make mixture workable. Refrigerate mixture for 15 minutes, then roll into balls.

Place eggplant balls on prepared baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes turning once.

Chicken Meatballs

Ingredients: 

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 2 pounds ground chicken
  • 2 large eggs 
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs 
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley 
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine 
  • 1 tablespoon salt 
  • 1 teaspoon ground fennel 
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Drizzle the olive oil into a 9×13-inch baking dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.

Combine the ground chicken, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, white wine, salt, fennel, and pepper in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

Roll the mixture into round, golf ball-size meatballs (about 1 ½ inches), making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish.

Bake for 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. A meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 165°F.

Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before adding sauce and serving.

Veggie “Meat” Balls

Servings: Over 8

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups lentils 
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided 
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped 
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped 
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped 
  • 1 garlic clove, minced 
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme 
  • 2 teaspoons salt 
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste 
  • 8 ounces button mushrooms, wiped clean and finely chopped
  • 3 large eggs 
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese 
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs 
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley 
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts 


Directions:

Combine the lentils and 2 quarts water in a medium stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the lentils are soft (but not falling apart), about 25 minutes. Drain the lentils and allow to cool.

Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil to a large frying pan and sauté the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and just beginning to brown. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 more minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.

When cool, add the lentils to the vegetable mixture along with the eggs, Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, and walnuts to the vegetable mixture and mix by hand until thoroughly combined. Place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Drizzle the remaining 1 tablespoons olive oil into a 9×13-inch baking dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.

Roll the mixture into round, gold ball-size meatballs (about 1 ½ inches), making sure to pack the vegetable mixture firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish and bake for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before serving.

Makes about 2 dozen 1 ½ inch meatballs.

Ricotta Beef Meatballs                                                                                                                                                       

Servings: 6-8

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil 
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef 
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese 
  • 2 large eggs 
  • 1/2 cup bread crumbs 
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley 
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried 
  • 2 teaspoons salt 
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes 
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground flakes 
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel 

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Drizzle the olive oil into a 9×13-inch baking dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.

Combine the ground beef, ricotta, eggs, bread crumbs, parsley, oregano, salt, red pepper flakes, and fennel in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

Roll the mixture into round, golf ball-size meatballs (about 1 ½ inches), making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish and bake for 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through.



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