TEXT BY BRYN MOOTH
PHOTO BY JULIE KRAMER
RECIPES BY JULIE FRANCIS
Chef Julie Francis of Nectar Personal Chef teaches the art of forming delicious ingredients into balls.
Pretty much every global cuisine does it: Mix a main ingredient with a starch (perhaps breadcrumbs or rice) and a binder (usually egg), shape the mixture into balls, and then cook in oil or sauce. We thought the humble meatball (or, as the case may be, the vegetable ball, which doesn’t really roll off the tongue in the same way) is a subject worth exploring. We asked chef Julie Francis to show us the way. Following her summer trip to the South of France where she studied Persian cooking, Francis brought a delightfully unexpected flavor profile to our project.
“Who doesn’t love meatballs?” asks chef Julie Francis. It’s a great question. Meatballs and their vegetarian cousins are natural people pleasers, beloved by kids and grownups, easy to make in quantity to serve for a party.
THE BASIC TECHNIQUE
Whether you’re using ground meat or minced vegetables, meatballs-and we’ll use ‘meatballs’ here as a generic term for both variations-there’s a basic formula, Francis says. It includes the main ingredient plus the binding ingredients in a ratio of 4 to 1. So for a pound of meal (or equal quantity of vegetables), you’ll want 3 ounces (about 1/4 cup) of cooked rice or breadcrumbs, and 1 large egg. Then you” need aromatics, typically finely minced onion and/or garlic, and seasonings. “You can go crazy with the seasonings,” Francis says. “Meatballs are a blank canvas.”
When mixing and shaping your meatball ingredients, it’s best to gather everything into a large bowl as shown at right. and use a fairly light hand, particularly if you’re using ground meat, to keep the results tender. Francis’s Persian Herby Vegetable Meatball recipe here takes a bit more kneading to get the rice and lentils to stick together.
SAUCING & SERVING
No matter how flavorful your meatballs, they’ll want some kind of sauce lo bring the dish to life. Around the world, meatballs are typically simmered in some kind of tomato sauce, although Middle Eastern meatballs like falafel and kibbeh are often dressed with tahini and/or plain yogurt.
These sauces are typically highly flavored with lots of garlic and spices: dried oregano and basil for Italian-style meatballs, curry for Indian kofte, turmeric and pomegranate molasses for Francis’s Persian variation. (Find the recipe for her Sweet & Sour Tomato Sauce online at EdibleOhioValley.com.)
Meat-based balls need to be seared in a bit of oil before finishing in the sauce: just sear on two sides, and don’t move them around much so they keep their shape. Vegetable balls can cook right in the sauce. Keep your sauce at a gentle simmer, not a boil, so meatballs don’t completely fall apart.
For serving, a scattering of freshly chopped herbs, a spoonful of yogurt, or a pile of grated cheese 1s always appropriate, depending on the flavor and cultural profile you’re aiming for.
PERSIAN CUISINE: A FEW NOTES
Persians are one ethnic group that makes up the cultural fiber of modern Iran, and they had a major influence on the country’s cuisine. The main components of Persian cooking are meat, rice, vegetables, and nuts. Francis says there’s a strong sweet-sour element to Persian cooking, with the sweet notes coming from dried fruits like prunes, apricots, and raisins and the sour notes from dried lime. Pomegranate, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, saffron, and fresh parsley and cilantro are also key ingredients.
At the invitation of former Nectar patron, Arash Babaoff, Francis traveled with a small group to Southern France in 2018 to take cooking classes with his mother, Azam Babaoff. The classes were held at Le Petit Conservatoire des Saveurs, in St. Clement, France. That experience inspired Francis to incorporate Persian flavors into her cooking, including the recipes she shares here. Find specialty ingredients like dried limes, barberries, and pomegranate molasses at Jungle Jim’s and Dean’s Mediterranean Market.
PERSIAN FLAVORED MEATBALLS
Find the recipe for Sweet & Sour Tomato Sauce on EdibleOhioValley.com.
Makes about 24 meatballs
1 lb. ground beef or lamb
1 cup cooked basmati rice
1 large egg, lightly beaten
½ cup finely chopped fresh dill
¼ cup minced red onion
1 Tbsp. ground turmeric
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground black pepper
½ tsp. crushed saffron threads
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
1 recipe Sweet & Sour Tomato Sauce
Plain yogurt. mint. and cilantro for garnish
Gently mix together all ingredients except sauce; refrigerate 30 minutes to combine flavors. With wet hands, portion walnut-size pieces and roll into balls. In a large skillet. heat a splash of canola oil until shimmering; working in batches, add meatballs and sear 5 minutes, then turn over and sear 5 minutes more. Bring Sweet & Sour Tomato Sauce to a boil; reduce heat. add meatballs, and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, about 20 minutes. Serve meatballs in sauce with garnishes.
PERSIAN HERBY VEGETABLE MEATBALLS
With the sticky arborio rice, you’ll want to work the mixture a bit more firmly than other meatballs.
Makes about 24 meatballs
¾ cup arborio rice, soaked 2 hours in cold water
½ cup small yellow lentils
¼ cup chopped walnuts
3 Tbsp. whole barberries
1 Tbsp. each chopped cilantro, parsley, dill, and chives 1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. crushed saffron threads
¼ tsp. black pepper
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 recipe Sweet & Sour Tomato Sauce
Orange zest and fresh mint for garnish
Put lentils in a saucepan with water to cover. Cook until al dente, about 45 minutes. Rinse and drain Place rice in a saucepan and cover with ½ inch of water. Cook over medium heat until water is absorbed and rice is tender, about 6 minutes. In a bowl, combine lentils, rice, barberries, walnuts, herbs, spices, and eggs. Knead with a spatula until the mixture holds together. Use wet hands to form balls. Bring Sweet & Sour Tomato Sauce to a boil; reduce heat. add veggie balls, and gently simmer until balls are cooked but intact, about 20 minutes. Serve meatballs in sauce with garnishes.