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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Meatballs in tomato sauce get a little lighter



By MELISSA CLARK


Meatballs in tomato sauce are a comforting thing, a ruddy, garlicky Italian American classic meant to be nestled on a pile of spaghetti and showered in cheese.


This dish is not that.


True, it has meatballs, assertively flavored with garlic and browned in hot oil. And yes, they finish cooking in a savory, brick-red tomato sauce. But that’s where the similarities end. Because these are summer meatballs.


The traditional dish, to my mind, is an ideal winter companion. A cozy mix of canned tomatoes and olive oil bubbling leisurely on the stove, it’s perfect to sit close by when it’s chilly out, as warming as a woolly turtleneck.


Think of this version as meatballs all decked out in their resort wear. Made from fresh summer tomatoes that are only briefly cooked, the sauce stays juicy and bright — and making it won’t heat up your kitchen. What the dish loses in long-cooked marinara richness, it more than makes up for in sweetness, tang and a fragrant touch of spice.


The sweetness comes from seasonal tomatoes so ripe they threaten to burst in your bag on the way home from the market. But you could just as easily use those overripe tomatoes weeping discreetly on your countertop. Because the sauce is cooked so quickly, thin-skinned beefsteaks and heirlooms work better than dense grape and plum tomatoes, which take longer to break down. If you can get a mix of yellow, red and purple tomatoes, your sauce will be pretty, too.


There’s garlic in the meatballs, but not in the sauce, where I substitute grated ginger for a sharper pungency. There’s also cumin, cilantro and lime juice, taking this far out of Italian American territory. No one will mistake this zesty, light dish for the heartier traditional version.

Meatballs are flexible by definition, and these are no exception. You can use any kind of ground meat here: pork, turkey, beef, chicken, lamb, vegan meat. Just try not to roll the balls too tightly. Leaving some air in the mix is one key to a buoyant texture. The other is using panko breadcrumbs, which have a light, feathery texture that contributes to their delicacy.


I love these meatballs served over rice or with crusty bread to catch the zippy sauce. But, then again, a little spaghetti never did a plate of meatballs any harm.


Gingery meatballs in tomato sauce


Most meatballs in tomato sauce rely on canned tomatoes for the kind of heady, garlicky recipe that’s typically spooned over spaghetti. But this recipe is made from briefly cooked fresh tomatoes for something lighter and brighter, seasoned with ginger, cilantro, lime juice and a dusting of cumin. It’s a perfect place to use up those overripe summer tomatoes, and it works well with just-ripe tomatoes, too. Feel free to use any kind of ground meat here: pork, beef, turkey, chicken, lamb or vegan meat. Then, serve it with crusty bread or rice to catch all of the zippy, fragrant sauce.


Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 tablespoons finely grated or minced fresh ginger

3 garlic cloves, finely grated or minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin, more for serving

1 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, more as needed

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 pound ground pork (or turkey, chicken, beef, lamb or vegan meat)

1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs (or use plain)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, more for serving

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups diced fresh ripe or overripe tomatoes

1 teaspoon fish sauce or soy sauce

4 scallions, thinly sliced

1 lime, halved

Preparation


1. In a large bowl, mix together 1 tablespoon ginger, the garlic, cumin, salt and coriander. Add pork, panko and cilantro. Using your hands, gently mix everything together, making sure not to overwork the mixture. (Otherwise, the meatballs get tough.) Form into 1 1/4-inch balls.


2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high, then add the oil and let it heat up until it thins out. Add meatballs in one layer. Cook, turning and shaking the pan, until meatballs are browned all over, 5 to 7 minutes.


3. Move meatballs to one side of the pan, scraping up any browned bits. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon ginger to the empty side of the pan and sauté for 1 minute. Add tomatoes, fish sauce and a pinch of salt to the empty side of the pan. When tomatoes are simmering, cover the pan, lower the heat to medium, and let cook until the meatballs are no longer pink at the center, about 5 to 8 minutes longer.


4. Uncover the pan. Mix the scallions into the sauce. Squeeze lime juice all over everything, then stir together. Taste, and add salt and lime juice as needed. Serve the meatballs sprinkled with more cumin and topped with cilantro.

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