Lamb Meatballs with Sweet Tomato Ragu

Lamb is one of my favorite red meats–especially the shoulder or shank.  These cuts generally get braised in an aromatic combination of broth, wine, stock and tomatoes.  There might be herbs, bay leaves, celery, carrots, onions and garlic.  The meat gets browned then braised for 3 to 4 hours in the braising liquid.  These cuts are better-tasting the day after they’re made–something about the muscles relaxing and the meat becoming more tender, as well as the flavors melding overnight.

If you are fortunate enough to have a butcher who regularly sells freshly ground lamb, you can achieve that long-simmered lamb flavor without the time-consuming braising (not that there’s anything wrong with that) by making meatballs.

All my meatballs are made using a similar technique.  Bread cubes are soaked with broth, then pureed into a mush.  The mush is combined with the ground meat or poultry plus herbs, seasoned bread crumbs and cheese.  Because I’m using lamb today, I’ve added a handful of freshly chopped mint leaves–a natural complement to lamb.  Eggs are added to bind, then all is kneaded into a cohesive mass.  Meatballs are formed, then browned in olive oil, then added to a simmering tomato sauce for about 15 minutes.

The sauce can be a simple tomato sauce, made with some sauteed onions, then pureed tomato (either canned whole peeled or fresh plum).  But today,  for my lamb balls, I wanted a sauce with a bit more complexity and sweetness, so I’ve begun with an aromatic paste (commonly known as a pestata in Italian cooking) of carrots, celery and shallots, sauteed in oil, along with a couple of bay leaves.  Pureed tomatoes are added, plus broth and tomato paste.  The sauce is allowed to simmer for one hour prior to adding the meatballs.  This pestata adds a layer of complexity to the basic tomato sauce and complements the rich gaminess of the lamb.

The sauce was used to (lightly) dress some fettucine as a first course to the meatballs.

Along with the lamb meatballs, I made some freshly picked local spinach, sauteed with garlic and bread cubes, the way mom always made it (the bread cubes were designed to entice us kids to eat the spinach–and it worked).

Lamb Meatballs

Serves 4 – 6

1 1/2 lbs ground lamb

1 1/2 c fresh bread cubes

1 c chicken broth

1/2 c seasoned bread crumbs

1/2 c grated pecorino romano

2 large eggs

2 tbls fresh chopped parsley

1/2 c chopped fresh mint leaves

2 tbls chopped fresh chives

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/4 c olive oil

Cut bread into 1″ cubes and soak with broth.  Puree in food processor to a pale mush.

In a mixing bowl, combine remaining ingredients and mix with hands to combine.  Form into balls 1 1/2″ in diameter.

In a nonstick skillet, brown on all sides.

 Add to ragu and simmer for 15 minutes.


Sweet Tomato Ragu

1 carrot

1 rib celery

2 shallots

2 bay leaves

2 tbls olive oil

1 qt tomato puree (either canned or fresh)

1 c chicken broth

2 tbls tomato paste

salt and pepper to taste

Cut the celery, carrots and shallots into 1″ chunks.  Puree in the food processor until a coarse paste forms.

In a heavy-bottomed dutch oven, saute the paste in oil, along with bay leaves on low heat for about 10 minutes, until the water evaporates from the vegetables.

Add tomatoes, broth and paste and simmer on low heat, partially covered for 1 hour.

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