Lamb Meatballs with Spiced Tomato Sauce

This dish is the second in a series this week on throwing a birthday dinner. See the Kabocha and Fennel Soup post for the full menu. I’ll post the Tarte Tatin recipe this Saturday.

Cooking is an art and I want to challenge myself and grow. But I also want to take everything in stride and enjoy the challenge with a light and egoless touch. Not beat myself up when things aren’t perfect. I want that for all parts of my life. To that end, I’ve always been attracted to women who live comfortably in their own skin and study them intently for inspiration on how to do the same. The most inspiring thing about the ease they inhabit is that it is infectious and provides refuge for those around them.

A perfect example of this egoless grace is a woman called Maria Corrales from the last season of Naked and Afraid. She went into the Australian outback with nothing but a machete and a man she never met before. They emerged 21 days later and she rocked it. The contrast between Maria and her partner on the ego front was huge. Her partner was deeply attached to the idea that his value was solely based on being the provider and making the big kill. It was all or nothing and it mostly seemed to be about self-definition rather than survival. Maria, on the other hand, saw small possibilities all around them and spent a couple of days quietly WEAVING A FISH NET OUT OF STRANDS OF HER HAIR to catch small minnows. She’s hard core.

But she’s not a hard ass. The most amazing thing about Maria is that she wasn’t judgmental about her partner. While he was trapped in a competitive spiral about who caught what, she wasn’t keeping track. She was kind and gracious and remained open. She was connected to her environment, saw all the possibilities and shared her successes. Here’s a link to Maria’s episode of Naked and Afraid. 

So, what the fuck does this all have to do with lamb meatballs? Well, I served them to the executive producer of the show, Joe Boyle last weekend as part of a birthday dinner for his wife, Carolina. Thanks to Joe, we have a show we watch as a family that sparks conversation about how to be a decent human being under any conditions. Key lessons so far include, slow and steady can win the race, don’t be a dick, and remember that shitty times eventually end, so really, don’t be a dick.

When the impending earthquake strikes LA and shit gets real, this family will all be channeling our inner Maria.

Enjoy your meal.

This dish does take a little work so instead of sweating until the last minute on the day of, make it a day ahead. Reheat at 350 for 30 minutes until the sauce bubbles and the meatballs are heated through. Once again, this is from the genius mind of Suzanne Goin.

Lamb Meatballs with Spiced Tomato Sauce (from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

For the meatballs

1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced

¼ cup heavy cream

2 egg yolks, extra-large

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cumin

Pinch red-pepper flakes

Pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste

2 pounds ground lamb

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup bread crumbs

¼ cup chopped parsley

For the sauce

1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes

½ teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground or 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small sprig rosemary

1 chile de árbol, crumbled

1 teaspoon aleppo pepper or crushed red pepper flakes

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

Pinch ground cinnamon

Pinch cayenne pepper

1 bay leaf

½ teaspoon white sugar

¼ cup orange juice

1 3-inch strip of orange peel, pith removed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To finish

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

2 tablespoons thinly sliced mint leaves

To make the sauce, pour the tomatoes into a bowl and blend with a hand blender until pureed or use a food processor. This is the kind of kitchen task that is perfect for a stick hand blender because it does the job and is a lot less clean up. I use mine all the time and they are not expensive.

Put the cumin seeds in a small frying pan and heat for a few minutes over medium until they smell toasted and are lightly browned. Grind with a mortar and pestle or spice mill. To make life easier, you can definitely use ground cumin but the flavor of roasted cumin is well worth it so if you have the time, go for it. I also do large batches of roasted cumin to have on hand for lots of other dishes so you could do a big batch while you’re at it.

Heat a saucepan over medium-high heat for a minute, then add olive oil, rosemary and aleppo or red pepper flakes and shake to combine. Cook for another minute, then add onion, thyme, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne and bay leaf and sauté until the onions are translucent, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Add tomatoes, sugar, orange juice and peel, along with salt and pepper. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes over medium-low heat, until reduced by a third. Adjust seasoning and set aside to make the meatballs.

Preheat the oven to 400.

In a large bowl, mix together the onion, cream, egg yolks, cinnamon, cumin, aleppo or red pepper and cayenne. Put the lamb in the bowl, and season it with 2 teaspoons of salt and lots of pepper. Add the bread crumbs and parsley, and combine the mixture well. If you have a kitchen scale, the easiest way to make even meatballs is to scoop out a heaping spoonful and weigh each scoop to about 1 1/2 ounces.  Or if you are good at eyeballing it, they are a little larger than a golf ball.

Heat two large saute pans over high heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to each pan. Fry the meatballs until well browned on all sides. Sam Sifton makes this step easier by greasing a baking pan with olive oil, broiling the meatballs on the baking pan turning once or twice, until the meatballs are well browned, approximately 5 to 7 minutes and then setting aside to make the sauce. I prefer frying but if pressed for time would definitely broil instead.

Place the meatballs in a baking dish that you can bring to the table. Space them about 1 inch apart and pour the tomato sauce over them.  Bake for 15 or 20 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the meatballs are cooked through.

Top with crumbled feta and scattered mint.