Every culture that eats meat makes meatballs, and keftedes, 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.
Some people use lots of bread in meatballs to make them fluffy. Some 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. I make my keftedes with venison, but pork, lamb, beef or really any ground meat will work fine.
What makes these Greek? I 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? Use breadcrumbs.
Traditionally these Greek meatballs are walnut-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 accompanies 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! You can also serve Greek meatballs with a tzatziki sauce.
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.
Outstanding! I honestly was a little worried about what adding the cinnamon sticks might do to the flavor of the sauce. As it turns out, it imparted an incredible, yet subtle layer of flavor that I would have never thought to add to a meatball sauce.
Is the recipe supposed to say 1-1/2 venison and 1-1/2 other ground meat? Or is it just a duplicate of “1 1/2 pounds”?
Sharie Lewis says
I used ground antelope & used 1/2 the crushed tomatoes because I served the meatballs without pasta to 4th graders at a feast. They loved them! I didn’t advertise the anchovies as an ingredient as I wanted everyone to at least try them. They couldn’t get enough. Thank you for the super recipe. It will be my new go to for meatballs. I loved the texture the bulgar wheat added too them.
Chuck Slack says
This looks great! Just came home from Nebraska with 15# of ground venison.
We have Greek friends in Chicago, can’t wait to make this for them!
Hank: I made the meatballs last night for an appetizer for a dinner party and used ground Mountain caribou from my hunt in BC, Canada. I didn’t have any bulgar but used red quinoa that I had on hand. They were fantastic! I left my meat mixture in the fridge overnight to ensure the quinoa would not be cruchy. I have used anchovies in my red sauces for years and no one can believe they are in there. The cinnamon stick adds beautiful background warmth. Great recipe, thanks! Can’t wait for your cookbook to come out. My copy is on pre-order with Amazon.
Hank Shaw says
Mike: Nope, it’s not cooked. You need to let the meat mixture sit for a while to let the juices in the meat soften the bulgur. It works great if you let it rest. If you skip this step, you have crunchy meatballs. :-/
Mike Richardson says
Love the sounds of this recipe, is the the bulgar cooked before mixing with the meat?
Andrea Mynard says
These look wonderful, great comfort food for the grey February days we’re having. I make meatballs with half venison/half pork mince often (just because I still have lots of meat from our Berkshire piggies in the freezer) and really like the idea of the addition of bulgur wheat and Greek herbs and spices.