Nine years ago, I posted a blog entry about turkey-spinach meatballs in a marinara sauce adapted from a recipe in Bon Appétit. Although my husband and I were both surprised by how good they were, I hadn’t made them again until last week. And, once again, we weren’t disappointed. So yesterday, when I was thinking about my next installment for my series on meatballs, I decided to do a variation on them using beef instead of turkey.
Well, I’m happy to report that this departure from the original recipe yielded an even more delicious dish. Whereas most of the turkey meatballs’ flavor came from the spinach, cheese, and fennel seeds, as well as from the spicy sauce, the beef version’s savor was more balanced with the meat contributing as much smack as the other ingredients. The robust, slightly acidic flavor of the spinach complemented the rich and savory essence of the beef, while the notes from the other seasonings and even the sauce were more muted.
In addition, because these meatballs are broiled, they are less fatty yet still tender and succulent.
Although I followed the original recipe rather closely, I made a few changes. Rather than mixing all the ingredients for the meatballs at once, I added the beef only after the others were combined. Because my initial mixture seemed a bit dry, I added two tablespoons of milk, before gently working it gently into the beef. I also modified the broiling of the meatballs. Instead of placing the balls directly on the lined sheet pan, I inserted a wire rack in the pan so that they wouldn’t sit in the fat as they cooked. And whereas the recipe for the turkey meatballs called for turning them frequently while they broiled for 15 to 18 minutes, I turned them two or three times as they broiled for closer to 30 minutes to avoid breaking them. I also chose to slowly simmer the broiled meatballs in the marinara sauce covered for around 30 to 35 minutes.
I served the meatballs over pasta although they would have been equally enjoyable accompanied by thick slices of crusty bread. When we were finished, my better half quipped: “Popeye approved!”
Beef and Spinach Meatballs (adapted from “Turkey-Spinach Meatballs” by Jenny Rosentrach and Andy Ward in the March 2014 issue of Bon Appétit)
For the Marinara Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
½ small onion, chopped
1 garlic finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 28-oz. can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
For the Meatballs
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 large egg, beaten to blend
¼ small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic finely chopped
1 10-oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, drained, and squeezed in a dish towel to remove excess moisture
½ cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup plain dried breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons whole milk
1½ pound ground beef, preferably 80/20
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil for brushing
For the Marinara
1. Heat oil in a medium (3 to 4 quart) saucepan over medium heat. Cook onion, stirring often, until soft but not brown, about 5 minutes.
2. Add garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes; season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Add tomato paste and 1 Tbsp. water and cook, stirring, until tomato paste coats onion and begins to darken, about 3 minutes.
4. Add tomatoes to saucepan, crushing with your hands as you add them. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and gently simmer until slightly thickened, 20–25 minutes; season with salt and pepper.
For the Meatballs
1. Preheat broiler. Cover a rimmed sheet pan with foil and coat with nonstick spray. Insert a wire rack over the foil.
2. Using a fork, gently mix egg, onion, garlic, spinach, cheese, breadcrumbs, parsley, fennel seeds, lemon zest, salt, and milk in a large bowl, then add the beef and, with moistened hands, gently work in the beef just until combined.
3. Scoop out mixture by the ¼-cupful and form into balls (you should have about 20). Place on the wire rack in the prepared sheet pan, spacing 1” or 2” apart; brush with the olive oil.
4. Broil meatballs, turning carefully to avoid breaking 2 or 3 times, until browned all over and cooked through, approximately 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, bring the marinara sauce to a simmer.
6. When the meatballs are done, transfer to the marinara sauce, being careful not to break them, and cook covered at a gentle simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Serve in warmed plates over pasta or accompanied by thick slices of crusty bread.
Wine Pairing: Chianti, Cabernet Sauvignon