Only a few more months… only a few more months… this has been my mantra as we bear the brunt of one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent years. The punishing wind chills and large snowfalls make everything just that more difficult as we go about our daily lives. On the bright side, the days are getting longer and the sun is getting hotter.
Keeping the winter blues away is a tough task, but it is made much easier with a warm kitchen. Spending a cold day brainstorming hot, healthy, and interesting meal options is a great way to distract from frozen batteries and frostbite.
In preparation for this column, I considered the flavours and textures I wanted to showcase. I wanted the soul food appeal of roasted meat with the bright fresh flavours of spring. So I branched off of a dish my mother cooked a few months back that I really enjoyed and found that it is one of those ideas that has numerous applications.
My mom made burgers… not something I get excited about — but as most people know, you don’t complain about a free meal. Well, with my nose turned in the air as she set the plate on the table, I was instantly intrigued at the bright green in these burgers. She had found a very healthy recipe for spinach and feta burgers and here’s the kicker… they were DELICIOUS!
So as I pondered these burgers, I thought about all the cool ways you could present this healthy combination — grilled, roasted, or pan-fried they make awesome burgers. But rethinking presentation, I considered the play on greek flavours and pondered presenting it as a meatloaf with an oregano olive tapenade, or layered in an eggplant or zucchini lasagne.
In the end, I chose to showcase the fresh flavours in a smaller format to allow for more exposure to the sauce. Meat balls are a great meal to make ahead or to double-up and freeze. Handy and convenient if you freeze them individually on a sheet pan and bag them once they are frozen; this allows you to take them out one-by-one to use as you need.
The main reason I chose meat balls is versatility; perfect for a family meal, and if you make them small enough, they are also perfect for entertaining. You could roast or bbq them with a bamboo stick for dipping, it’s about as easy as entertaining gets. A premade sauce or homemade tzatziki would be killer with these meaty bites.
In my preparation, I chose to roast the meat balls because my barbecue doesn’t operate in -49 C weather. Roast them on a broil pan to allow the excess moisture to drip off. This is why grilling would be great, in addition to the rich smoky flavour. The liberal use of the spinach is an easy way to incorporate fresh flavour, nutrition and color; it’s high moisture content keeps the meat juicy even if they are slightly overcooked. The feta cheese does a few things — it adds seasoning, acidity and a contrasting white color. Combined with the herbal notes and mouthfeel of the olive oil, this is a great basic recipe that will substitute into many different dishes to increase the health quotient and flavour profile.
I constructed a chutney with red onions and honey to finish the meat balls. A tangy sticky sauce that is simple and will pair easily with most side dishes, yet carry enough flavour to bring the whole dish together. So while I don’t have the liberty of going to the Mediterranean during this most frigid of seasons, I can heat my kitchen up and use fresh ingredients in homage to a place that knows nothing of frostbite and frozen batteries.
Spinach and feta Meatballs with Red Onion Chutney
3 lbs of lean ground beef
2 cups of chopped fresh spinach, lightly packed
1/2 cup tomato, chopped fine
1 bunch of green onions, sliced fine
1-1/2 cup of feta cheese, crumbled
5-8 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tbsp of freshly ground pepper
4 tbsp of olive oil
1-1/2 tsp of kosher salt (Do a test of the mixture to adjust seasoning before you form the entire batch into meatballs. Just cook a tbsp of the mixture in a hot frying pan, taste and adjust seasoning as needed.)
NOTE: Prepare all the ingredients ahead, then pull the meat out of the fridge. Because this is a lot of handling for ground meat, it is safer to minimize its exposure to room temperature.
Add all the ingredients into a mixing bowl, add meat, Mix until just evenly combined.
Do a seasoning test: as per instructions above, then adjust the large batch as needed.
Pre-heat oven or grill to 425’F. Because of the high moisture content of the spinach and tomatoes, I used the convection feature on my oven to help eliminate some of the added moisture and ensure that the meat browns and doesn’t just steam.
Using a scoop to ensure even sizing, place meat balls on a baking tray, stone, or broil pan. Leave sufficient room between each item to allow for extra exposure to ensure a good roast.
Roast until browned on the outside and cooked through. Cooking times will vary depending on size.
Sweet Red Onion Chutney
1 tbsp of olive oil
1 large yellow onion minced fine
1/2 red onion, diced small
2 cloves of garlic, minced fine
2/3 cup of white balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup of Renee’s Greek Vinaigrette
1 cup of chicken or beef stock
1/2 tbsp of freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp of dried whole oregano
Kosher salt to taste
4-5 tbsp of honey.
In a large skillet on medium-high heat, add olive oil. Once hot, add onion and garlic and quickly sauté. Stirring often, once the onion has cooked for about 3 minutes add the vinegar and vinaigrette. Cook until reduced by half. Add the oregano, pepper, salt, and chicken stock. Cook for 5 minutes. Add honey and allow the mixture to reduce until it is syrupy. Add the red onion cook for one more minute and remove from heat. Pour over fully cooked meatballs and enjoy!