One of my first food loves, courtesy of a vacation I took back when the drachma still existed and I was totally at one with drinking straight ouzo, was Greek cuisine. I claim absolutely no special claim to fame when it comes to the intricacies and nuances of regional Greek food, but I do know what I like, and on that trip… it was everything I put in my face. Including the ouzo.
These Baked Greek Meatballs are my nightshade free take on the classic dish soutzoukakia, gloriously spiced meatballs simmered in a thick, rich and hearty tomato sauce. In this case, I’ve made my classic nightshade free nomato sauce, except studded it with fragrant oregano, cinnamon and mace in lieu of the more traditional cumin based seasoning.
Now, you can totally fry the meatballs up to get a glorious crust and that is totally delicious and wondrous and worth doing if you have the time and don’t mind making a bit more mess. But these are called Baked Greek Meatballs because after going to the effort of making my nomato sauce with a Hellenic twist, I just totally didn’t wanna bust out a frying pan, too.
Instead, I gently dropped the rolled meatballs straight into the sauce and, well, oven baked them to perfection. These Baked Greek Meatballs turn out rich but not-too-dense and their oven-sauce-bath helps all of the flavors of the sauce and meaty balls meld together deliciously.
Now, if you do care about the color being more tomato-like, there are a few things you can do, but they will affect the overall flavor. Personally, I’d choose flavor over color any day, but I also understand that the visual impact of faux tomato dishes can be a decisive factor in their success at the family dinner table!
The first option is to fry or bake the meatballs completely through, but separate from, the sauce, then add them at the last minute to warm through and for the flavors to meld. That will yield a redder overall dish because the sauce won’t be diluted down by extra liquid and fat that the Baked Greek Meatballs release as they cook. The downside of this is that you’re missing out on that extra flavor from the meatballs hanging out in the sauce.
The other option would be to increase the base color of the sauce by adding additional reserved beet liquid from the can, a little at a time, until the color is richer and deeper. Be aware that the more beet juice you add, the more beet juice will come through in the overall flavor!
Looking for more meatballs? Try my:Print
Baked Greek Meatballs
- Prep Time: 5 mins
- Cook Time: 1 hour 20 mins
- Total Time: 1 hour 25 mins
- Yield: 16 meatballs 1x
For the sauce:
- 1 tbsp / 15 ml extra virgin olive oil
- ½ a medium red onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- ½ lb / 225 g carrots
- ½ cup / 120 ml red wine
- 1 ½ cups / 360 ml chicken or beef broth, divided
- 3/4 tsp fine sea salt
- ½ cup / 120 g butternut squash puree
- 4 oz / 115 g drained canned sliced beets (reserve the beet juice)
- 5 or 6 pitted kalamata olives
- 2 tbsp / 30 ml red wine vinegar
- 2 tbsp / 30 ml fresh lemon juice
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/8 tsp ground mace
- 1 bay leaf
- Optional, for color: additional reserved beet juice from the can (see notes)
For the meatballs:
- 1/2 medium red onion
- 1 lb / 454 g ground lamb or beef
- 2 tbsp / 30 g butternut squash puree, optional
- 1 tbsp / 15 ml avocado or extra virgin olive oil, if your meat is less than 20% fat
- 1 tsp / 1 g dried mint
- 1 tsp / 1 g dried oregano
- 1 tsp / 1 g dried parsley
- 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- CARAMELIZE: Add the oil or fat of choice to a heavy bottomed dutch oven or oven safe skillet on the stove top over low-medium heat. While the oil is heating up, peel and dice the onion finely. Smash the garlic cloves with the back of a heavy knife and discard the skin. Add the sliced onions and garlic cloves to the hot oil. Cook, stirring often, until the onions begin to take on a light golden color, about 10 minutes or so.
- SOFTEN: Coarsely grate the carrots. Add them to the pan, along with the red wine, 1 cups / 240 ml of the broth and the salt. Bring the wine and broth mixture to a simmer, then partly cover the pan with a lid, leaving space for steam to escape. Cook the carrots until they soften, about 15 minutes or so.
- BLEND: Carefully transfer the cooked vegetables and cooking liquid to a blender, along with the last 1/2 cup / 120 ml of the broth, butternut squash puree, sliced beets, kalamata olives, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, oregano, cinnamon and mace. (Make sure to reserve the beet juice when you’re draining the beets). Blend – making sure to leave space for steam to escape the pitcher – until completely smooth.
- SIMMER: Return the blended liquid to the dutch oven, over low heat. Add the bay leaf. Bring to a gentle simmer, enough to keep warm but not high enough for the sauce to thicken or evaporate too much, stirring often while the flavors develop, about 15 – 20 minutes. Taste and add additional seasoning if you like. Remove and discard the bay leaf and take the dutch oven off the heat. If the sauce has thickened too much, you can thin with additional broth: you’ll need about 3 cups / 720 ml of finished sauce in total. If you like, you can add additional beet juice for color.
- ROLL: Make the meatballs while the sauce is simmering. Preheat the oven to 350 F / 175 C. Peel and coarsely grate the red onion, then add it to a mixing bowl. Add the ground meat, butternut squash puree (if using), oil (if using), mint, oregano, parsley, salt and cinnamon. Use your hands to mix all the ingredients evenly throughout the meat. Roll the meat mixture into approximately 16 2 tbsp / 30 g meatballs, tapering them into the traditional oval shape if you like.
- BAKE: Drop the meatballs into the sauce in the dutch oven you used earlier or an oven safe skillet, spreading them out evenly. Bake for 15 minutes, then use tongs to flip the meatballs over onto their other side before returning them to the oven and baking for another 15 minutes. Let the meatballs rest for a few minutes before serving.
The sauce will look marinara-like after simmering on the stove, but will lighten up to a browner color once the meatballs are baked in it. If you’d like a redder sauce that looks closer to the traditional tomato sauce, you can add extra beet juice (reserved from the can) a little at a time until the color is deeper. Please note that the more beet juice you add, the stronger the beet flavor will become. Personally, I prefer a less pretty color with less of the beet flavor, but the choice is yours!
You can also fry or bake the meatballs completely through, but separate from the sauce, then add them at the last minute to warm through and for the flavors to meld. That will yield a redder overall dish because the sauce won’t be diluted down by the extra liquid and fat that the Greek Baked Meatballs release as they cook.