Have you heard? We love meatballs, every which way. They’re the ultimate big-batch, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food to tuck into on a cold winter’s night. And they’re usually super-quick, making them perfect weeknight-dinner fodder.
Though you can’t go wrong by sticking with the classics, there’s a lot you can do to make meatballs your own—whether it’s spicing them up, veggie-fying them, or shrinking them into these teeny-tiny little cuties.
Or! Maybe you want to go wild, mixing and matching flavors, letting your fridge and pantry dictate what whirligigs you toss into your meatballs. And with the help of Cook in the Blank—our fill-in-the-blank guide to the speediest, most riffable weeknight dinners—you can do just that. No matter what, you'll come out with a quick and comforting meal at the end.
To prove it, we asked four pros (and busy bees) in the food world to take their meatballs for a spin on a hectic weeknight: Hana Asbrink, our senior lifestyle editor and busy working mom; Tyler Kord, busy working dad and chef-owner of No. 7 Restaurant in Brooklyn; food writer, recipe developer, and three-time cookbook author, Sarah Copeland, whose kids (and meatball connoisseurs) love to work in the kitchen with her; and Josh Cohen, our test kitchen director and advice-giver extraordinaire, who’s got his hands preeeeetty full at the office this time of year.
Each of these folks went their own way with their meatball recipe, adding ingredients they had on hand and mixing flavors they love best. Some of them even changed up the cooking method in the recipe template to make things quicker, simpler, or more efficient for their working style. (PS: Using this recipe as a guideline, you can, too!)
First up, Hana’s Korean Bulgogi-ish Meatballs, made with ground beef and crumbled strained tofu as a protein-power couple, and chopped zucchini and grated apple to keep them nice and juicy. Because of the savory-sweet soy sauce and garlic flavors she adds to the meat mixture before cooking, Hana says “nah” to the suggested sauce on top, and opts to serve the balls over a bed of warm rice. She then tosses on some zingy chopped scallions and digs in.
Next up, Tyler’s Triumphant Meatballs with ground pork and smoked tofu, which gives them a hearty, bacon-y kind of vibe. For added heft and a touch of nuttiness, Tyler throws in a bit of flaxseed and bread crumbs to the mixture. And for zip, Tyler adds fried shallots (or fried onions), pecorino, garlic, and basil. Last, in goes a glug of maple syrup, for mellow sweetness, and some ground cardamom for warming spice.
Tyler skips the sear on the meatballs and goes straight for the oven bake, to keep things even quicker and simpler. To serve, he sticks a few cooked meatballs atop a small mountain of buttery boiled potatoes, and douses it all in creamy, rich vodka sauce.
With the time he saved on cooking, he even had a minute to do a little doodling.
While making her Spicy Harissa Meatballs, Sarah reaches for 100% grassfed ground beef, for the flavor and health benefits. Sarah says that though this meat isn't always tender, being ground helps out. She also adds some pancetta to replicate the moist, slightly fattier meatballs that use a mixture of ground beef and pork. Sarah then uses panko to bind, as it keeps things light and airy. She says this is important because her family doesn't eat meat very often (her husband is a vegetarian), so every time they do needs to be a slam dunk (and not immediately put everyone to bed).
Next, Sarah sweats some yellow onions (her family's favorite kind) and adds them into the meatballs, along with leftover cooked quinoa. She also adds in a sprinkling of her secret ingredient, grated Manchego—a slightly unconventional choice—which gives a salty and still quite creamy bite that Parmesan can't always achieve in a quick-cooking meatball.
Sarah's daughter just picked the last of the sage and rosemary from the winter garden, and Sarah chopped it up to preserve in some oil, so she pulls that out and throws a bit in, along with dried rose harissa and cracked black pepper. The rose harissa provides a slightly sweet heat, and the black pepper a bit deeper and more savory spice.
Last, Sarah tops the meatballs in a velvety sauce of San Marzano tomatoes simmered in olive oil with sea salt, crushed but still a bit chunky. The saucy meatballs go beautifully spooned over some cheesy grits—which she and her husband have long loved, and her kids are just getting into. For Sarah, it's a bit of a decadent call, but on a cold night when salad or even a brothy soup won’t do, it’s just the thing.
Last but not least, Test Kitchen Director Josh Cohen embraces simplicity in his recipe for Lamb Meatballs and Orzo. Here, he mixes together ground lamb and panko as a base. He complements the slight gaminess of the meat with jammy caramelized leeks, sharp grated pecorino, earthy fresh oregano, bright lemon juice, and punchy, slightly fruity Aleppo pepper. Though it's a relatively short list of ingredients, each flavoring agent really steps up to the plate with a big presence.
Josh also swears by one important rule (which, thankfully for all of us, he's shared here): Before committing to cooking the whole batch of meatballs, cook off a tiny pinch of the mixture in the pan or Dutch oven you'll eventually use for all the meatballs. After it cooks through, taste the super-mini meatball and make sure the seasonings are right. Need to add more salt? Phew! You can do that now. Too much salt? If you have extra ground meat, add a little bit more of it to the mix and you'll end up with a few more perfectly seasoned meatballs than you expected (a win-win).
To serve, Josh pairs the meatballs with some cooked orzo, and slathers them both in garlic butter sauce (literally, melted butter and minced garlic). But you can serve it however, and with whatever, you want.
As Josh said to me, "This approach to cooking should feel very natural. You see the ingredients you have on hand and apply a technique to it—and that’s how the best kind of cooking is done.”
How do you like to riff on your meatballs? Let us know in the comments! And if you're looking for more weeknight dinner ideas, check out Cook in the Blank, out now!