Herb + Onion All-Meatballs (Grain- + Egg-Free)
Back in the Midwest our supper table saw its fair share of ground beef: sloppy joes and tacos, meatloaf, Hamburger Helper. In the round, however, our exposure was limited to Grandma’s occasional porcupine meatballs — beef and rice balls cooked and served in a seasoned tomato sauce. I want to think the secret ingredient was love, but have a sneaking suspicion it was condensed tomato soup. Regardless, wonderful, and a fun little glimpse into my late 80s and early 90s upbringing.
Then, a ways down the road, palates slightly more mature, came the introduction to Totero’s. It was a veritable step out of southeastern Wisconsin and into southern Italy, with as few frills as possible, in the best way imaginable. Sadly shuttered in 2014 after 75 years, this priceless gem and its family’s infallible, no-nonsense red sauce and cue ball-sized meatballs live on in memory to inspire great recipes.
In contrast with traditional Italian recipes, onions, garlic plus four types of fresh herbs take the place of commonly added egg and breadcrumbs or milk-soaked chunks of bread. Filling the meatballs with these fresh ingredients boosts nutritional value and enhances the flavor of high-quality beef, while keeping the satisfaction level high and providing more flexibility in serving.
Shown here with pan-fried baby bellas and my quick red sauce (olive oil-sauteed garlic and red chilli flakes + chopped canned or fresh tomatoes), these would also be nice plated with crusty bread or naan, on pasta or couscous, brown rice or quinoa, polenta or grains, even in lettuce cups or sidled up to leafy greens or your favorite veg. You could easily swap ground lamb or ground turkey for the beef, and perhaps an herby pesto or lemony yogurt sauce in place of the red!
What’s in it for me?
On average a 3-ounce serving of lean ground beef comes in around 180 calories and 22 g high-quality protein. Roughly 20% of its 10 g total fat is saturated (~4 g); however, the amount of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat is higher (~4.3 g), and the remainder is comprised of healthy omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. Lean ground beef is an excellent source of the B vitamin niacin, antioxidant selenium, zinc, and vitamin B12, and a good source of iron, vitamin B12, choline, and phosphorous.
Onion and garlic are members of the Allium family, and contain natural antimicrobial properties that are linked to decreased risk of certain cancers and improving heart health.
Sage and thyme are among the top fresh herbs highest in antioxidants. The former may improve cognitive functioning in individuals with mild Alzheimer’s and is known for natural bacteria-killing abilities in meat, while the latter is a rich source of iron and vitamin C; both, along with aromatic fresh basil, are good sources of vitamin K. Rosemary is a fair source of vitamin A, and research shows that its anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, rosmarinic and carnosic acids, are standouts when it comes to fighting off dangerous free radicals.
Simple and versatile, the fresh, bold flavors really shine through in these grain-free and egg-free beef meatballs are loaded herbs, garlic and onion. It’s not your Italian grandmother’s recipe, but it’s 100% family-friendly and 100% delicious.
Tell me… What’s your favorite way to eat meatballs?
- 1 small onion, any color, roughly chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 8 large fresh sage leaves
- 8 large fresh basil leaves
- 5 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves stripped
- 1 stem of rosemary, about 5 to 6 inches long, leaves stripped
- 1 pound lean ground beef (or ground turkey)
- 1/2 tsp coarse sea salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- 1 tsp olive oil
- Combine the onion, garlic, and herbs in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until finely chopped. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl along with the ground beef, salt, and pepper. (Alternatively, finely chop the onion, garlic and herbs by hand with a knife, and combine these with the beef and seasoning.) Use your hands to thoroughly combine the ingredients, being careful not to over mix or the meat will become gummy. Pinch off small portions and roll between your palms (or use a small scoop) to yield roughly 16 to 20 golf ball-sized meatballs.
- To cook, heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add the olive oil, and swirl (or use a silicone brush) to coat the bottom of the skillet. Add the meatballs and cover to keep the meatballs from drying out. Cook, flipping after a few minutes on each side, until browned all over, a total of about 10 minutes. Remove the lid, and let cook uncovered for about 5 minutes more to give them a bit of a crisp. Break open or insert a thermometer into the middle of one to test for doneness. Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to cook in batches. (See HGN Notes for oven-baking instructions.)
- Serve hot with or without sauce atop pasta or couscous, brown rice or polenta, quinoa or other grains; with sauce and hunks of warm, crusty bread; in lettuce cups or simply alongside a green salad or mountain of veg.
To make ahead of time: Cook the meatballs (in the skillet or oven), and then cool completely to room temperature. Transfer to an airtight zip-top bags or containers, and store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or freezer up to 3 months.
+ Consider different combinations of fresh herbs you enjoy, such as parsley, cilantro, marjoram, dill, tarragon, oregano, or even tender baby greens like arugula or spinach.
+ As growing season comes to a close, easily swap in dried herbs for fresh: Use 1/3 the amounts called for -- roughly 2/3 to 1 tsp each dried sage, rosemary, thyme and basil.
+ Take the flavors in the direction of a different cuisine with curry powder, harissa paste, chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo, lemongrass or lime leaves, Jerk seasoning, preserved lemon... whatever you can dream up!
+ About halfway through cooking, transfer the browned meatballs (from the skillet or the oven) to a separate skillet of tomato sauce simmering over moderately low heat. Partially cover and continue to cook gently for the remainder of the time, stirring occasionally, to allow the meatballs to cook through and the flavors to meld.
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