I have been on a meatball kick lately. Before six months ago, I had never really made meatballs and was intimidated by them– what if they came out tough? What if they were flavorless? What if they fell apart in the pan? Now, those fears seem silly, knowing that meatballs are one of the most versatile, easy things to make. The trick is to season them with strong flavors– spices, garlic, herbs– and take care not to overwork them when mixing in your flavors. My husband loves meatballs and encourages me to experiment with different seasonings, so we’ve had traditional Italian meatballs cooked in marinara; pork meatballs flavored with ginger, soy sauce and scallions; lamb meatballs with harissa and mint. All of those variations were tasty, but this recipe is my absolute favorite. I call them Mediterranean-style because they are flavored with spinach, loosely-crumbled feta cheese, preserved lemon, oregano and mint. I most often serve them with barley or couscous, and they are killer in a pita or wrap accompanied by the creamy feta sauce and fresh tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce.
For these meatballs, I prefer to use ground pork, but beef, lamb or a combination of meats would work equally well. You can use what you’re comfortable with, what you prefer. The base of the feta sauce can be either Greek yogurt or sour cream, and you can dial up the heat or make it mild. I bake instead of pan-cooking meatballs, primarily for these three reasons: I don’t worry about them crumbling and sticking to the pan, I don’t have to use any added oil and they still come out brown and crispy from the oven. Less fuss, less muss. The recipe as written serves three as an entree (two of us for dinner with some left over) and can be easily multiplied.
Slightly salty from the feta, with the fresh taste of spinach and mint, the bright flavor of preserved lemon and a nice garlicky bite, I adore the flavor of these meatballs and hope you will give the recipe a try. Make them smaller for a fun appetizer, or try them in place of traditional meatballs next time you make pasta. The feta sauce is also wonderful with falafel, roast chicken or lamb. If this meatball kick keeps up, I’ll have more recipes for you soon, but for now I can’t seem to stop making these!
Baked Mediterranean-Style Meatballs with Feta Sauce (makes 12)
For the meatballs:
- 2 packed c. fresh spinach
- 1/2 lb. ground pork
- 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp. dried mint
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1 T. preserved lemon, minced very finely (optional)
- 1 – 2 cloves of garlic, minced very finely
- 1 egg, slightly beaten
- 2 T. feta, crumbled
- 1/4 c. bread crumbs (I use these, but any plain or panko work well)
For the sauce:
- 2 T. sour cream or Greek yogurt (plain)
- 1/4 c. feta, crumbled
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- liberal amount of black pepper, preferably freshly ground
- 1/4 tsp. harissa (optional)
- 1 T. milk (optional)
Start by wilting your spinach. I use a dry pan to do so, but use 1 tsp. or so of canola or grapeseed oil if you think it will be necessary. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-low heat and add the spinach. Stir occasionally until all leaves have been exposed to the hot pan and cook until the spinach is soft and wilted, about 5 mins. Remove to a cutting board and allow to cool slightly. If the spinach looks at all wet or is releasing liquid, drain off the liquid or blot gently with a paper towel. Chop the spinach roughly.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with tin foil or parchment paper and place a baking rack on top. This set up allows the meatballs to cook without sitting in the fat they will inevitably release. If you don’t have a rack, you can cook the meatballs right on the foil (spray lightly with cooking spray) or parchment.
Put the ground pork into a large bowl and use a fork (or your hands) to break it into smaller pieces. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl, including the chopped spinach once it has cooled to close to room temperature. If using preserved lemon, make sure it is very finely minced, almost to a paste-like consistency, as chunks in your final meatballs are overwhelming. Use your hands or a fork to gently combine all the ingredients, mixing just until the spices and spinach are evenly distributed. Try not to pulverize the feta, if you can help it.
If you have a 2 T. cookie scoop, use that to form the meatballs. If not, you can do it with your hands or a tablespoon. The key is to make them all the same size, so they cook evenly. Place your meatballs in rows with space between them. Bake for 25 mins. (smaller ones will take less time), until golden brown. If you did not use a rack, remove the meatballs from the pan to a paper towel-lined plate to blot some of the excess fat. Serve immediately with cooked couscous, rice, barley or similar; cooked pasta; or in a sandwich. Though delicious plain, as pictured below, they are extra-special served with the creamy feta sauce.
While the meatballs cook, make your feta sauce: mix the sour cream or yogurt with the feta, garlic, pepper and harissa, if using. Use the milk to thin out the sauce so it’s easier to drizzle, if you like. This recipe makes enough sauce for 12 meatballs but can easily be multiplied.