Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

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Lettuce in meatballs? I know it sounds weird, but it really works. Tons of chopped lettuce and onion in the meatball mixture gives them an interesting crunchy-crispy texture when freshly cooked. (Picky kids may object to that texture, just because it's different, but give them a try!) After a time, especially if the meatballs are frozen, the texture disappears, but the meatballs remain juicy and succulent. Plus, the vegetables lighten up the meatballs and lowers their per-ball calore count without sacrificing flavor. The meatballs are simmered in a thick, flavorful tomato sauce.

This is a really versatile recipe that can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days, or put into your freezer stash. You can make this for dinner and serve it over hot pasta, and set aside some for your bento the next day. It goes well with pasta or rice, can be a filling for a assemble-at-lunch sandwich, and so on.

Recipe: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

Makes about 25 to 30 meatballs plus sauce

For the meatballs:

  • 450g / 1lb lean ground beef (Lamb or pork will work well too. Turkey may work, though the meatballs may turn out a bit dry.)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions (to equal 1 1/2 cups chopped) finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the crispy rib parts of romaine, cos or iceberg lettuce, chopped (I prefer to use the rib parts of romaine or cos lettuce, using the leaves for salads)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup dry plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dry thyme (optional)
  • olive oil for cooking

For the tomato sauce:

  • 1 medium onion (to equal about 3/4 cups chopped) finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 large or 2 medium cans (about 800g / 28 oz total) crushed tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary or 1 tsp. dried rosemary (optional)

In a large bowl, combine the meatball ingredients with your very clean hands. Combine well - it will seem too crumbly at first due to all the onion and lettuce, but it will all come together. Keep mixing until the mixture sticks together when formed into balls.

Divide into 25 to 30 portions or more. Roll each portion into a round ball. Heat up 1 or 2 large frying pans or skillets with olive oil, and brown the meatballs on all sides. Set aside.

In the meantime, make the tomato sauce. In a heavy-bottomed pan, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until softened. Add the canned tomato and sprig of rosemary. When the sauce is bubbling, drop in the browned meatballs. Simmer the sauce until thickened over medium-low heat. Let cool before storing in the refrigerator or freezer.

This will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for a month.

Variations

  • Instead of the lettuce, try: chopped up bean sprouts, the white stalks of Swiss chard chopped up, chopped up Chinese (napa) cabbage stalks. (In Japan I might use bean sprouts more than lettuce, since they are so cheap there (10-20 yen a bag). Here bean sprouts are rather expensive, so I use lettuce or one of the other alternatives.)
  • Add some chili powder or chopped red chili peppers to the sauce to turn it spicy. You could different spice combinations to give it an Indian, Middle Eastern, etc. twist.