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A Light Touch for Meatballs

(recipe, Nigel Slater)


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Introduction

Late spring, 2007. Six small beets, round as golf balls and not much bigger, arrive in a thick brown paper bag, its edges sewn together with string. The air of moist Riverford soil and sweet roots wafts up as the bag is torn open, but the day is leaden with damp and cold, and I have rarely felt less like eating a beet salad. Supper is going to be meatballs: fat crumbly patties of ground lamb with garlic, dill, and parsley. It crosses my mind that a handful of grated beets might sweeten the lamb and lighten the texture. What we end up eating on the coldest spring day for years is plump rounds of sweet and spicy meat, crunchy with cracked wheat and crimson with the vivid flesh of finely grated beets. The inclusion of the roots has broken up a solid lump of ground meat and married well with the garlic and clean-tasting herbs. We dip the sizzling patties into a slouch of shredded cucumber, yogurt, and mint, given a snap of piquancy (to balance the beets) with a spoonful of capers.

Ingredients

    Meatballs
    1. ½ cup fine or medium cracked wheat
    2. 9 oz. raw beets
    3. 1 small-to-medium onion
    4. 14 oz. ground lamb
    5. 2 to 3 large garlic cloves, crushed
    6. 2 heaping teaspoons chopped dill
    7. A small handful of chopped parsley
    8. A little peanut oil
    Dressing
    1. About a third of a medium cucumber
    2. Leaves from 4 to 5 sprigs of mint, chopped
    3. 1 Tbsp. capers
    4. ¾ cup yogurt

    Steps

    1. Put the cracked wheat in a bowl, pour over enough boiling water to cover, then set aside to swell.
    2. Peel the beets and onion and grate them coarsely into a large bowl. Add the ground lamb, garlic, dill, parsley, and a generous grinding of salt and black pepper.
    3. Squeeze any water from the cracked wheat with your hands and add to the meat. Mix everything together thoroughly, then squish the mixture into little patties about the size of a flattened golf ball. Cover with plastic wrap (I do this tightly because the chopped garlic will taint everything in the fridge), then chill for at least an hour.
    4. Make the dressing by grating the cucumber coarsely and leaving it in a colander, lightly sprinkled with salt, for half an hour. Squeeze it dry, then mix it with the chopped mint, capers, and yogurt. Season with salt and black pepper.
    5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat a nonstick pan, brush the patties with a little peanut oil, and fry until golden on both sides. Try not to move the meatballs very much when they are cooking; you risk them falling apart. Once they are lightly browned on both sides, carefully lift them into a baking dish and finish in a hot oven for 15 to 20 minutes (incidentally, you can only tell if they are done by tasting one, as the beets give them a rich red color, making it impossible to gauge by sight whether they are cooked).
    6. Drizzle with the cucumber dressing and eat.