Meatballs in wine sauce, albóndigas en salsa, are a classic Spanish dish. Growing up, they were a favorite, and I think it’s safe to say children and adults alike love them. At home, and at most homes in Spain, they are accompanied by potatoes, that marry so well with the sauce they’re cooked in. My mom made them with cubed French fries, and to this day, it’s still a favorite dish of all of us at home. That is the way I make them. The sauce has some tomato in it, but it’s mostly flavored by the sautéed onion and garlic, the herbs, and the wine, so it’s flavor is not very tomato-y. The main herb in albóndigas en salsa is pebrella (Thymus piperella), a herb indigenous to the North of the province of Alicante and the South of the province of Valencia, where Onteniente is located. Its flavor is a combination of thyme, oregano and savory, and it is used mostly in meat dishes, sprinkled on salads, and also to marinate olives and cheese. The closest herb I have found to its flavor in North America is German thyme, which I grow. If you want to use pebrella, you can find it dry at www.thespanishtable.com, and fresh here.
Albóndigas have been in the Spanish gastronomy for centuries. There are formulas of it in the documents of Andalusí Spain (centuries XII and XIII), called back then albúnduqa, which refer to small balls of ground meat and spices fried in olive oil. The recipe evolved during the years, and Princess Mary of Portugal’s cookbook (XVI century) includes a recipe for a similar dish, of ground pork or beef with beaten egg and some flour, fried in fat (manteca) and served with a spicy, thick sauce. The Jesuits, at the beginning of the XIX century, include in the menu of their convents a recipe even more similar to the one cooked at most Spanish homes today, which includes breadcrumbs, parsley, and ground peppers.
These days, albóndigas, meatballs, are, in one form or another, cooked in most countries. Here in the United States I see them served in a tomato sauce, accompanying spaghetti, and even in sandwiches! (I don’t think my mouth can open wide enough for it!). Sweden is famous for their meatballs, served mostly without a sauce, and with some side dishes that might include mashed potatoes, vegetables, and a gravy.
My mom’s recipe is my favorite, and here it is.
MEATBALLS IN WINE SAUCE
Albóndigas en salsa
1 lb lean ground beef
1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 cup flour
1 medium onion
2 tsp German thyme (pebrella)
1 large can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
3 Tbs olive oil, plus more for frying
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
Chop the onion and mince the garlic finely. In a large mixing bowl, add the beef, breadcrumbs and buttermilk, and mix using your hands. Add half of the garlic, the parsley, about 2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper, and incorporate with your hands until mixture looks homogenous.
In a large sauté pan, heat 3 Tbs olive oil over medium heat, add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, about 1 minute. Add the tomato, season with 1 tsp salt and cook, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, about 10 more minutes.
Form the meatballs, about 2 inches in diameter (I like to use an ice cream scoop, so the balls are similar in size). Place the flour in a medium bowl. One by one, roll the meatballs in the flour, shake them lightly to release any extra flour, and lay them on a cookie sheet.
In a frying pan, add enough oil to cover the bottom third of the meatballs. Working in batches, brown the meatballs on all sides, about 8 minutes total, making sure they’re not crowded in the pan. Transfer the meatballs to a plate lined with paper towels.
Uncover the sauce, add the wine and the finely chopped German thyme and stir to mix. Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, turning the meatballs a couple of times (the sauce should cover at least two thirds of the meatballs, add a bit of water if necessary).
Sprinkle with a pinch of minced parsley. Serve with mini steamed potatoes tossed in olive oil, or with cubed French fries.