Is there a meal more comforting than spaghetti and meatballs? Not in my world. It is my go-to dish when I tire of the trendy or the technically difficult.
I grew up in New Jersey, where spaghetti and meatballs is on someone’s table 365 days a year, and everyone has his own version: Vermicelli instead of spaghetti. Pecorino cheese. No, Parmesan. Lots of bread in the meatball – makes it fluffy. Some people use cooked rice. Red pepper flakes? Loathed or loved. Meat in the sauce? Blasphemy with spaghetti and meatballs. You just don’t eat meat with meat sauce, paisan. Capisce?
Traditionally these meatballs are golfball-sized, more or less. It is a good size, big enough to retain moisture, and you get to cut the ball with your fork, making sure every freshly cut side gets anointed with the tomato sauce that must accompany this dish. Traditional Italian meatballs are also made with a combination of veal, beef and pork.
But these are not traditional Italian meatballs. They are Greek, and there is a difference, as you will soon see. And, since I no longer buy meat, these meatballs are made from venison. Wild boar, bear, chicken or really any ground meat will work fine.
What makes these meatballs Greek? They use bulgur wheat instead of bread. If you’ve ever had tabbouleh, you’ve had bulgur. I like bulgur, its coarse earthiness compliments the venison. Using bulgur changes the texture of the meatballs, making them firmer and a little meatier-tasting than those with bread.
Are they are light as a perfect Italian meatball? No, but they are not supposed to be. These are substantial meatballs, flavored with lots of garlic, parsley and oregano.
Make your traditional tomato sauce more Hellenic by adding sweet wine and cinnamon, and by grating mizithra cheese on it instead of parmesan or pecorino. Kali Orexi!
Venison Meatballs, Greek Style
This is a riff off traditional spaghetti and meatballs, with a Hellenic touch. It jazzes up one of my favorite comfort foods with a bit more garlic, a bit more sweetness and a chewiness from the bulgur wheat. These are not the fluffy meatballs of an old “red sauce” restaurant, nor the dry orbs that most wild game meatballs become. Any meat works here, by the way.
Serve this with spaghetti and grated mizithra cheese, if you can find it. Pecorino or parmesan is just fine, too.
Makes about 24 golfball-sized meatballs.
Prep Time: 2 hours, almost all of it inactive
Cook Time: 35 minutes
- 1 1/2 pounds ground vension or ground lamb
- 1/2 cup bulgur wheat
- 1/2 red onion, minced fine
- 5 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 1/4 cup minced parsley
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- About 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, grated
- Olive oil for frying (about 1 cup)
GREEK TOMATO SAUCE
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 minced onion
- 1 can anchovies in olive oil
- 1/2 cup sweet red wine (Port or Mavrodaphne)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano, crushed
- salt to taste
- Start by getting the meatball mixture ready. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour to let the bulgur absorb moisture. Two hours is better.
- To make the sauce, drain the olive oil from the anchovies into a large saute pan. Over medium-high heat, saute the onions until they are translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add anchovies, mash in the pan and combine with the onions. Add the tomato paste and stir to combine. Cook this until it turns a deep maroon, about 4 minutes.
- Add the wine and stir to combine. Add the cinnamon stick and bring to a boil. Pour in the crushed tomatoes, combine well and add the oregano and salt. Cook this uncovered over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally. If you feel adventurous, run this sauce through a food mill on a medium setting – after you remove the cinnamon stick. Keep warm while you make the meatballs.
- To make the meatballs, take the meat out and knead it until it forms a cohesive mass. Take an ice cream scoop or tablespoon and make your meatballs.
- Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Brown the meatballs well in batches so you don’t crowd the pan. Set each browned meatball in the sauce to simmer as they come ready. When they are all in, cover the sauce and simmer gently over low heat for 15 minutes before serving.