Every culture that eats meat makes meatballs, and Greek meatballs are some of the best.
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?
But these are not traditional Italian meatballs. They are Greek meatballs, and there is a difference, as you will soon see. And, since I no longer buy meat, these meatballs are made from venison. Pork, lamb, chicken or really any ground meat will work fine.
What makes these 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 it changes the texture of the meatballs, making them firmer and a little meatier-tasting than those with bread. No bulgur on hand? OK, use bread crumbs.
Traditionally these Greek 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.
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. Mint is an excellent substitution for the oregano if you prefer.
If you want to make your traditional tomato sauce more Hellenic, try adding sweet wine and cinnamon, and grate some mizithra cheese on it instead of parmesan or pecorino. Kali Orexi!
Greek Meatballs with Venison
- 1 1/2 pounds ground vension
- 1/2 cup bulgur wheat
- 1/2 cup red onion, minced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup minced parsley
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano
- 1 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 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.