When I was growing up, the only time meatballs ever showed up on the table was at Christmas, when one of my aunts would make several pans worth of Swedish meatballs in their creamy, slightly sweet gravy. I got it into my head that making meatballs must be labor-intensive, because why else would these little balls of heaven that everyone loves only be made once a year?
I never really questioned this assumption until I watched a Russian acquaintance in Moscow make meatballs for her family’s weeknight dinner. She threw together the ground meats and an egg, tossed in some salt and a couple of spices, rolled out the balls while we chatted, and fried them up. The whole process took maybe 40 minutes, including the time it took her to grind the meat herself in a grinder she clamped on to her counter.
Years later in Georgia, I discovered abkhazura, meatballs from the mountainous region of Abkhazia spiced with tart barberries, red chili pepper, ground coriander, and other herbs. I created this recipe with those zingy flavors in mind, adding panko breadcrumbs for extra tenderness and a pomegranate gravy as a culturally appropriate nod to the saucy meatballs I loved as a child.
I love to ladle these meatballs over cheesy grits, a common side dish in western Georgia, but they go just as well over rice or noodles. They’re easy to take to work and reheat in the microwave, too. Serve them with garlicky roasted kale or a peppery arugula salad.
Spiced Meatballs with Pomegranate Gravy
Makes approximately 25 meatballs, enough to serve 5-8 people
1 lb. ground beef (ideally 85% lean)
1 lb. ground pork
½ cup panko bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
1 egg, beaten
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground sumac
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp. ground fenugreek
½ tsp. dried summer savory (or thyme or marjoram)
½ tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter or oil, divided
1 Tbsp. flour
1 cup pomegranate juice
Make the meatballs:
- Combine the meats, bread crumbs, garlic, onion, egg, and spices in large bowl and mix thoroughly. (Using your hands for this step is the best way to get everything evenly incorporated.)
- Roll small handfuls of the mixture into golf-ball-sized meatballs, about 1 ½ in. in diameter.
- Heat the butter or oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. (I use a cast iron pan. Nonstick pans are not ideal because they prevent the meat from browning properly.) Add the meatballs in batches, turning to brown all sides, about 6-8 minutes. (The key here is not to crowd the meatballs: if they’re too crowded, the meat will steam rather than sear.) Transfer the meatballs to a plate lined with paper towels.
Make the sauce: Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter or oil in the same pan. Sprinkle in a tablespoon of flour and let it cook for one minute, stirring often. Add ¼ cup of the pomegranate juice. Scrape the browned meat bits off the bottom of the pan with a spatula and mix them into the juice. Gradually add the rest of the juice, whisking to make sure no flour lumps remain.
Finish cooking: Reduce the heat to low and add the meatballs back into the gravy. Cover and cook another 12-15 minutes, turning the meatballs once at the halfway point, until they are cooked through.
Serve: Serve the meatballs hot over Smoked Cheese Grits, noodles, or rice. Garnish with thin sliced red onion, scallions, fresh cilantro, and/or pomegranate seeds if you like.
Make ahead: Meatballs can be made in advance and reheated. Store them in the fridge for up to one week and in the freezer for up to 6 months.
How to use leftover meatballs:
- Slice and layer them inside a pita sandwich with spinach, roasted beets, and mint-yogurt sauce
- Reheat and serve them atop of a mound of linguini tossed with pesto and roasted cherry tomatoes
- Quarter them and mix with couscous, raisins or dried cherries, feta cheese, and plenty of chopped herbs, served hot or cold