Citrus meatballs

While you probably are aware of the meatball, it is unlikely to hold a particularly lofty place in your thoughts. Alas, the humble meatball rarely finds a place among haute cuisine although it is widely popular. Part of the problem for meatballs is that their name largely tells the story, they are meat and not always the highest standard of meat. Meatball salvation could be on the horizon however, as researchers have found a way of adding healthy ingredients to meatballs without diminishing taste.

We tend to think of meatballs as an Italian food but they are a food that has been adopted and modified by almost every country you can think of. Japan makes a hamburger steak called hanbâgu that is essentially a large, flat meatball. Greek meatballs are fried, and usually include finely diced onion and mint leaf within the meat. Indonesian meatballs are served in a bowl, with noodles, beancurd, eggs, and possibly fried meat to boot. In Albania, meatballs often come as a mixture of feta cheese and meat. Polish meatballs (golabki) are huge, about the size of large oranges, and include rice. In Mexico meatballs are called albóndigas and are commonly served in a soup, including light broth and vegetables. Italian meatballs, known as polpette, are either a main course or part of a soup. While they could have originated elsewhere, as far as the historical record tells us the meatball was first popularised in Italy.

In ancient Rome and meatballs were popular enough to be written about by a celebrity chef of the time Marcus Gavius Apicius (there is no verification for this but seems highly likely that Apicius hosted a show in the Forum called CaesarChef wherein contestants engaged in contests of cooking with the losers being, poetically enough, fed to the lions in the coliseum). Around 2000 years ago Apicius gave this meatball recipe, “Grind chopped meat with the centre of fine white bread that has been soaked in wine. Grind together pepper, garum, and pitted myrtle berries if desired. Form small patties, putting in pine nuts and pepper. Wrap in omentum and cook slowly in caroenum.” In case you are wondering “omentum” is caul fat, a thin membrane of fat covering the intestines of a pig, cow, or sheep. Caul fat is a translucent lace of fat, and it melts when cooked, so it provides moisture and flavour to the final product. Garum was fermented fish sauce and caroenum was a white grape syrup.

Apicius was a true gourmand if this recipe is anything to go by because most meatball recipes these days are less ambitious. Many meatball recipes these days are a combination of minced meat and bread crumbs but a researcher wanted to see if something could be added that might make the meatball healthier without changing the taste.

To test three batches of meatballs were made using different concentrations of citrus powder to replace some of the meat. The test used one per cent, five per cent, and ten per cent citrus powder for the respective groups with the aim being to see whether it could be added without negatively affecting the meatballs’ texture or cooking characteristics.

The results showed that both the one per cent and five per cent the texture and colour of the meatballs remained acceptable to the people who ate them. That’s all well and good but meatball aficionados may well be asking why there is any need to fiddle with their beloved balls at all. The thing of course, is that adding citrus powder makes the meatballs a whole lot healthier.

Citrus powder provides fibre and traditionally meatballs provide no fibre. This is important because fibre helps maintain healthy digestive function, helps balance blood sugar levels, balances cholesterol, slows absorption of food, and makes a person feel fuller faster. There is also the added, although as yet unproven, probability that the antioxidants from citrus powder will offer health benefits.

If you do love your meatballs and would like to make them healthier, even if you don’t fancy using citrus powder, this research does suggest that you might be able to make some healthy additions to your luscious dish and still have a ball eating it.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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