A Shared Tradition: Meatballs

March 9, 2012

In her biweekly column, A Shared TraditionCIA grad and amateur food historian Molly Siegler cruises around the world (and into the depths of her pantry) to explore the versatility of a single food item. 

This week: Molly corrals meatball recipes from around the globe.

Kefta-Style Meatballs with Grilled Grapes and Yogurt Sauce
Kefta-Style Meatballs with Grilled Grapes and Yogurt Sauce (photo by Melanie Einzig)


During the most recent season of Top Chef, head judge Tom Colicchio reasoned with one contestant that her food was up against more interesting and exciting options, and the cheftestant sarcastically interjected, "Like a meatball?" Though I giggled at the time (Tom was chastised!), I have to admit I’m completely on Tom’s side.

Meatballs are surprisingly exciting, as is evidenced by an ultra-cool mini restaurant chain in New York City, which everyone is lining up to try. Nearly every country in the world offers some meatball interpretation, and their sizes, stuffings, and accompaniments vary from region to region, cook to cook. What spherically shaped savories have you come to love?

Versions of this soft and fragrant meatball can be found all around Scandinavia.

  • A panade gives these meatballs their pillowy texture.
  • Allspice lends nuanced warmth to the dish.
  • A rich sour cream-spiked pan gravy gently stews the browned meatballs.
  • Soak up the gravy with boiled potatoes or hefty chunks of dark rye bread.
  • Bursting with color and tartness, lingonberry jam is an essential condiment for this dish.

Keftedes are often part of the crowd of treats on a meze platter.

  • Lamb, subtly gamey, distinguishes these bite-sized meatballs, but beef and pork can also be used.
  • Dried mint and oregano are herbs traditionally used in this Mediterranean preparation. 
  • Added judiciously, cinnamon provides a hint of intrigue.
  • A yogurt dipping sauce acts as a cool, creamy counterpoint.

Southern Italian
Maybe Italian polpette seem a little obvious, but this southern Italian combination feels fresh.

  • Grass-fed beef typically has less fat than corn-fed beef, so add an onion-laden panade to ensure deliciously plump and moist orbs.
  • Sharp, pleasantly dry caciocavallo cheese nods to this preparation’s Sicilian roots.
  • Currants saturated in red wine add a floral, fruity element. Don’t add the wine to the meatball mixture; save it to enhance an accompanying tomato sauce.
  • Toasted pine nuts provide an unexpected crunch.

Thai cuisine has its fair share of fragrant ground meat preparations, but this rendition is especially punchy.

  • A combination of ground pork and shrimp balance one another nicely. Chop the shrimp separately to create more texture.
  • Lemongrass can be beat up (literally) and added to the skillet while the meatballs cook or thinly sliced and balled up with the rest of the ingredients.
  • Thai, or bird's eye, chiles are a beautiful bright red and don't skimp on the heat.
  • Sugarcane is the best type of skewer. Not only does the cane impart subtle, clean sweetness to the mixture, but it can (and should!) be chewed on once the meatball has disappeared.

Polpette di Vitello, Tonnato Style Hungarian Meatballs
Polpette di Vitello, Tonnato Style and Hungarian Meatballs (photos by Sarah Shatz)

These are just a few of the ways I like to travel by way of meatballs. What other regionally inspired flavors would you use to make these easily portioned packages your own? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

Do you love a good food theme as much as I do? Tell me what food items or themes you'd like to see featured in this column and your idea could be the subject of an upcoming post!

Like this post? See Molly's previous topic: Peanut Butter.

Molly is a chef and food educator living and cooking in northern Wisconsin. When she's not dreaming up themed menus, she's dishing out other delicious content as the editorial assistant for the Whole Foods Market Cooking program.

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9 Comments Add a Comment
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    alexandracooks says: I love the idea of sugar cane skewers, too! It's always nice to add these festive touches. You're going to laugh, but I've been on a meatball kick inspired by a recent trip to IKEA, which led me to buy Swedish meatballs for Ella, who loves them. The IKEA meatballs aren't bad, but they share a striking resemblance with hotdogs, which is why Ella loves them. Anywho, I have been making my grandmother's keftedes, and I had forgotten how much I adored meatballs! We always sprinkle them with a little vinegar right out of the oven — maybe it's a Greek thing? Have you heard of this?

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
  • Molly1bw

    molly's kitchen says: The comparison of IKEA meatballs to hotdogs is so perfect! They do seem extra emulsified and smooth. I love the idea of sprinkling vinegar on the meatballs as they emerge from the oven. I have never heard of that, but I'm a vinegar nut, so it's right up my alley! Could you pass your grandmother's recipe along? Thanks so much for commenting!

    over 2 years ago
  • Profile

    alexandracooks says: Would love to! 1 lb. ground lamb (she always bought a hunk of lamb — not sure what cut — and ground it herself) salt and freshly ground pepper 1 red onion, finely minced 2 tablespoons mint, chopped 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley 2 tablespoons olive oil juice of 1 lemon 2 slices of white bread, crusts removed (she used Pepperidge Farms toasting white) 2 tablespoons red wine 2 eggs, lightly beaten red wine vinegar for sprinkling 1. Put the ground lamb in a large bowl and spread out to create a thin layer. Season all over with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the onion over the meat. Sprinkle the herbs, the olive oil and the lemon juice over the meat. 2. Meanwhile, toast the bread so it's just dried out. (If you plan ahead, you can leave a few slices of bread out for a few hours.) Crumble it into a separate bowl. Moisten with the wine. When it is soft, add it to the meat bowl. Add the eggs to the meat bowl and then gently mix all of the ingredients together being careful not to overmix. At this point, you'll have to use your judgment on the consistency of the meatballs. If you can shape them into balls, start doing so. If they don't hold together, toast a few more slices of bread, soak in a little more wine, and add them to the mixture. 3. Shape into meatballs. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler. Once all of the meatballs are formed, place the balls on a pan (my mother places them on a rack placed inside a pie plate) and broil for about 10 minutes. When the meatballs are done, remove from the oven and sprinkle with vinegar. Note: When I make these, I always fry up one or two in a pan before I shape all of the meatballs to test for seasoning. It's easy to add more salt and pepper (or herbs or whatever) when you've only shaped one or two balls.

    over 2 years ago
  • Profile

    alexandracooks says: Whoa! I hope you can read that! Obviously, I didn't write the recipe like that! I think you'll be able to figure it out, or I can send it to you in an attachment?

    over 2 years ago
  • Maddy-macau-robuchon

    Maddy is the senior editor of Whole Foods Market Cooking.

    Maddy, Editor says: Hi alexandracooks -- Thanks for sharing! You can also feel free to upload the recipe to the Recipes page. :)

    over 2 years ago
  • Profile

    alexandracooks says: Got it. Thanks!

    over 2 years ago
  • Molly1bw

    molly's kitchen says: It's such a fun touch! And the skewers come in packages of 10 or 20, so you can use any extras for cocktail swizzle sticks. Please let me know if you try your hand at the Thai meatballs -- yum!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »
  • Missing_avatar

    Hired Lens says: So do you cook the meatballs with the skewer in it to get that extra little sugar taste or just serve them using the skewers?

    over 2 years ago
  • Molly1bw

    molly's kitchen says: The raw meatballs should be wrapped around the skewer then baked (or grilled). They will be more oblong, than round -- but they still count!

    over 2 years ago
  • Missing_avatar

    Hired Lens says: I love the idea of sugar cane skewers!

    over 2 years ago Reply to this »

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