Wine & Food Killers: Spiced Lamb Meatballs with Saffron-Tomato Sauce and Couscous and Cantina Giardino Re Rosso 2019

Weekends right now are strange. For me, they’ve become long, often empty blocks of time, flattened without the normal pace of pubs, get-togethers with pals and general hubbub.

Now, instead of seeing friends, I cook. And to keep myself entertained, I’ve started gravitating towards the recipes that feel a little more involved, that can occupy me for an hour or two. All the better if the end results fall in the broad “bowl food” category – soups, stews, braises, cheesy pasta bakes – that I can wrap myself around on the sofa.

This recipe, dug up from the New York Times Cooking archives, is just what I’m after right now. Inspired by North African flavours, these meatballs are made from lamb (though if you wanted to use a vegetarian mince equivalent, I say go for it) and packed with spices and herbs, stewed in a boldly saffron-scented tomato sauce and ladled onto fluffy couscous at the end.

This is weekend-project cooking, it’s-snowing-and-I-want-to-stand-by-my-stove cooking, repetitive-gesture-is-the-ultimate-comfort cooking. The frenetic pace of the week starts to melt when I spend 30 minutes turning a wooden spoon around a pan of simmering sauce, and another 30 rolling perfectly spherical meatballs between my palms. This is engaging-every-sense cooking that yields
the most hearty, satisfying and absorbing of meals.
I think it’s very much worth your time.

Also worth your time is this blue-black bottle of Cantina Giardino’s Re Rosso 2019. Made with Aglianco – that brooding, swarthy grape, native to southern Italy – this wine is just as suited to harsh winter days as a bowl of saucy meatballs. The old, simplistic stereotype of Italian reds – many of which are high in acidity and high in tannins – is that they’re best with food. True, this one finds a bit of smoothness alongside the meatballs (red meats and tomato sauces are a tried-and-true pairing for Aglianico), but is lovely to behold on its own.

Aglianico is often likened to Nebbiolo, its wines called “the Barolos of the South”, and I can see some similarities between the two: Even with burly tannins and deep, savoury flavours, the wine has a puckish lightness about it, a hint of violet flowers and bright fruits. Such lightness and darkness mixed is captivating, and – going “wisdom” aside – I’d recommend having a glass by itself, before getting the food involved. It’s worth making this wine’s acquaintance in its own right.

Spiced Lamb Meatballs with Saffron-Tomato Sauce and Couscous
Adapted from the New York Times
Serves 4

For the tomato sauce:
 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Fine sea salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 tablespoons tomato purée (tomato paste)
700ml chicken or vegetable stock
1 cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
Large pinch saffron

For the meatballs:
1 small bread roll, preferably day-old, cut into ½-inch cubes
125 ml whole milk
500g lamb mince
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground
black pepper
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
Large handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped, plus additional to garnish
Large handful coriander leaves, finely chopped, plus additional
to garnish
3 spring onions
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil

For the couscous:
50g pine nuts
250g couscous
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon freshly ground
black pepper
50g sultanas
30g (2 tablespoons) butter
 350ml just-boiled chicken or vegetable stock
Fine sea salt, to taste

1. First, make the tomato sauce. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, add the olive oil and place over medium heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook for approximately five minutes, stirring frequently, or until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes more, or until it has lost its raw smell. Season with a good pinch of salt and pepper, and then add the tomato purée. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently, or until it has darkened to a brick-red colour.

2. Add the chicken or vegetable stock and turn heat to high. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and add the cinnamon stick and bay leaves. Using a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron to a powder and add 2 tablespoons of just-boiled water. Leave to steep for a few minutes, then add to the sauce. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

3. Keep the sauce on a very low simmer, pausing to stir occasionally. Meanwhile, make your meatballs. In a small bowl, add your bread cubes and pour over the milk; mix with a spoon or your hands until the bread has mostly absorbed the milk. Leave for five minutes.

4. In a large bowl, add the lamb mince, egg, salt, pepper, garlic and all the spices. Mix roughly, then add the milk-soaked bread (which should be completely softened), as well as the parsley, coriander and spring onions. Knead for 1-2 minutes or until the mixture is evenly combined.

5. To make your meatballs, line a large baking tray with foil and coat lightly with the vegetable oil to prevent sticking. Take a small part of the meat mixture and roll between your palms into an even sphere. These are relatively small meatballs (no more than 20g each), roughly the size of a large marble. Continue with the rest of the meat mixture.

6. Turn your oven's grill to high and add the meatballs. Cook for 3-5 minutes on the first side, or until the meatballs are starting to turn golden-brown on top. Remove from the oven and, using a pair of tongs, gently flip the meatballs. Cook for 2-3 minutes more, or until golden brown on the reverse.

7. Gently transfer the meatballs to the simmering sauce. They should all nestle in the sauce with just the tops peeking through, but if the sauce has reduced too much, top up with a bit more water or stock. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the meatballs are fully tender and the sauce has reached a nice, thickened consistency. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

8. While the meatballs simmer, make the couscous. In a small frying pan, add the pine nuts and place over medium-low heat. Toast, tossing frequently, for 3-5 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from the heat and set aside. In a large bowl, add the dried couscous and spices, and mix to combine. Add the pine nuts and sultanas and stir through. Roughly slice the butter and scatter on top of the couscous before pouring over the just-boiled stock. Cover with a lid, foil or cling-film, and leave to absorb for 10-15 minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork and to ensure it is evenly mixed. Season with additional salt if necessary.

9. To serve, divide the couscous between plates or bowls, and top with the meatballs and sauce. Garnish with the remaining parsley and coriander leaves.

Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer and wine hound and an all-around lover of tasty things. Our first book with Claire, The Beer Lover’s Table: Seasonal Recipes and Modern Beer Pairings, is out now and available in all good book stores (and at HB&B). Follow her on Twitter at @clairembullen. Don’t miss out on Claire’s wine and food pairings, which go out every month in our Natural Wine Killers subscription boxes.