I’ve never really felt compelled to make meatballs. Or even order them at a restaurant for that matter. So many times, meatballs are just that: ground meat, with little else mixed in, shaped into balls and plopped in an only slightly more interesting sauce. Before the protestations start, I’m sure that your Italian grandmother makes the best meatballs in the world and they are nothing like what I’m describing, but… I don’t have an Italian grandmother, ok? I get a little jealous when one of my good friends talks about going over to her grandma’s to make Sunday dinner with meatballs and gnocchi and cannolis and all those other magical-sounding things. So, suffice it to say, my experience with meatballs has been limited, and less-than-stellar.
That is, until I met these. They’re made of ground chicken, of all things, which was one of the things that I never gave a second glance to at the grocery store. I’ve tried it with turkey, too, and the results are just as good. The great thing about these meatballs is that they aren’t heavy or dense- they’re packed with flavor, sure, but they don’t sit at the bottom of your stomach like a tomato sauce-covered rock. They’re good served with a side of pasta, but kind of even better, somehow, on their own, with the peperonata. I’ll admit that the first time I made these, I skipped the peperonata. Ok, maybe the first two times I made them. It kind of sounded like it wasn’t really my thing, and the meatballs are so good on their own, I didn’t see the point.
Then I made the peperonata, and of course, now I see the point. Roasting the red peppers makes them unbelievable sweet, and when you throw capers into the mix, it has that sweet-tangy thing going on. It’s good on its own, too, and I could see making it to go with grilled meats or chicken or something like that. But the meatballs and the peperonata together are like
a marriage made in heaven. Ugh, clichés. They’re just really good together, how about that? The savory, pancetta-laced meatballs bring out the sweetness in the peppers and are somehow, I don’t know, lightened, even more by the tanginess of the capers.
Bottom line: Meatball heaven. And since you’re using ground chicken, you could totally pass this off as a healthy weeknight meal. Or if you’re like me, you could make these on a Sunday afternoon, invite a few friends or family members over, and pretend you’re an Italian grandma. Mangia!
Baked Chicken Meatballs with Peperonata
adapted, very little, from Gourmet
3 red bell peppers, cut into strips
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons drained capers
1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
3 slices Italian bread, torn into pieces (1 cup)
1/3 cup milk
3 ounces sliced pancetta (or regular bacon), finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 large egg
1 pound ground chicken
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Preheat oven to 400°F with racks in upper and lower thirds.
Toss sliced peppers with 1 tablespoon oil, then roast in a 4-sided sheet pan in lower third of oven, stirring occasionally, until tender and browned, about 35 minutes.
Stir together capers, vinegar, red pepper flakes, and remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil in a medium bowl and set aside. (You might as well use a big enough bowl so that you can just toss the peppers in later, so you don’t dirty another dish.)
When peppers are done, toss with caper mixture.
Make meatballs while peppers roast:
Soak bread in milk in a small bowl until softened, about 4 minutes.
Cook pancetta (or bacon), onion, and garlic in 1 tablespoon oil with 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat until onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Cool slightly.
Squeeze bread to remove excess milk, then discard milk. Lightly beat the egg in a large bowl, then mix in the ground chicken, pancetta mixture, bread, and parsley. This is most easily achieved using your hands. It ain’t pretty, but it works best! Form 18 meatballs and arrange in another 4-sided sheet pan (or two smaller casserole dishes, as I did).
Stir together tomato paste and remaining tablespoon oil and top the meatballs. Don’t worry about getting an even, pretty layer- it won’t happen. I actually resorted to using my fingers to smoosh the tomato sauce mixture on the top. Then bake in upper third of oven until meatballs are just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve meatballs with peperonata.
*If you time this right, your peppers and meatballs can come out of the oven at the same time. I’m not that pulled together, so I was pulling the peppers out of the oven as the meatballs went in. This was fine by me, but if you want to minimize oven time, start the process of making the meatballs a little bit before putting the peppers in. Your call.