The Secret to Better Meatballs

Credit: Courtesy of Norton

There's a reason I'm going back to this very traditional preparation (the versions in Mexican Everyday and Authentic Mexican have been very popular among my readers). Including it in the small group of go-to, committed-to-memory recipes enables me to explain the big-picture basics that led me to the exact proportions I use to make great meatballs when I walk into the kitchen. Plus, knowing these basics allows me to vary the outcome based on who I'm cooking for, what I have on hand, or what I've found at the farmers' market or grocery.


A basic meatball is typically a combination of ground meat, something to soften the meat's tendency toward firmness, and something else to keep it from falling apart. In Mexico, the meat is typically ground pork, beef, or a combination of the two, though I have made this recipe very successfully with ground lamb, turkey, and chicken thigh. The typical softener in Mexico is cooked rice (fresh bread crumbs work well, too), and an egg helps hold it together. Besides salt, the typical seasoning for the meat in Mexico is chopped fresh mint (other herbs, such as oregano or parsley, are good alternatives); like many Mexican cooks, I like to add garlic, too. Another great addition is chopped fresh bacon.

Browning the meatballs in a large skillet and adding the simple ingredients of a tomato-chipotle sauce turns out one of the most crowd-pleasing dishes I know. I like to serve meatballs with rice or mashed potatoes and a salad.

Chipotle Meatballs from More Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless 

Serves 4

Ingredients 

  • 1 lb ground beef or pork, or a combination of the two
  • 1 egg
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • Salt
  • 2 to 3 tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves (if they are available)
  • ½ cup (packed) cooked, cooled rice OR ¾ cup (packed) fresh bread crumbs, made with a soft, caky bread such as Pepperidge Farm white sandwich bread
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil, olive oil, bacon drippings or freshly rendered pork lard
  • One 15-oz can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted, with juice
  • 1 to 2 canned chipotles en adobo, stemmed and seeded
  • 1 tbsp chipotle canning sauce
  • 1 scant tsp dried oregano, preferably Mexican, or 2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
  • 1/3 cup water, beef broth, chicken broth, beer, or wine

Directions

First mix these in a bowl:

  • 1 lb ground beef or pork, or a combination of the two
  • 1 egg
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 to 3 tbsp chopped fresh mint leaves (if they are available)

And then I add a tenderizing ingredient:

  • ½ cup (packed) cooked, cooled rice (I like to break up the grains by spreading the rice on a cutting board and giving it a rough chop) OR ¾ cup (packed) fresh bread crumbs
  1. Using my fingers or a spoon, I mix everything together, being careful to get an even distribution without beating or compacting the mixture too much (which turns out a dense meatball). Then I form the mixture into 12 meatballs, rolling them gently between my palms without pressing too hard. (Meatballs made with rice will be a little wet at this stage, but they cook up lighter, which is why I prefer them.)
  2. Next, in a very large (12-inch) skillet (I like to work in heavy cast iron or nonstick), I heat over medium the vegetable oil, olive oil, and bacon drippings (or freshly rendered pork lard).
  3. When it’s hot, I add the meatballs in a single uncrowded layer. As they brown on one side, I turn them with tongs or a spatula, continuing until they’re evenly and richly browned all over, 6–8 minutes.
  4. While the meatballs are browning, I combine in a blender the diced tomatoes, canned chipotles en adobo, chipotle canning sauce, oregano (or chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley), and garlic cloves and pulse until coarsely pureed.
  5. When the meatballs are ready, I pour the sauce mixture evenly over the top, making sure to coat the meatballs evenly and loosen any that may be sticking a little. After covering the pan and reducing the heat to medium-low, I let the meatballs cook for about 10 minutes more, until they’re cooked through.
  6. To serve the meatballs, I remove them to four dinner plates, leaving behind as much of the sauce as possible. I raise the temperature under the skillet to medium-high and stir in 1/3 cup water, beef broth, chicken broth, beer, or wine and let the sauce simmer for a minute or two. I season the sauce with salt (it usually takes about 1 tsp) and spoon it over the meatballs, and my albondigas are ready.