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Blathering about Bouillabaisse Balls

This is a case of: Do as I say; don’t do as I do.

What I mean by that is if you make this recipe for “Bouillabaisse Balls” found in “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” (Ballantine Books) exactly as printed — as I did — you may find it lacking. Just as I did.

First, it looks nothing like the photo in the book by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow, founders of New York City’s The Meatball Shop, of which I received a review copy. The photo in the book shows a frying pan filled to the brim with meatballs bobbing in a thick tomato sauce. Only problem? The meatballs in the recipe are cooked in a rectangular baking dish, not a frying pan. And there’s no sauce anywhere to be found in the recipe. Uh, hello?

OK, fine, I thought. I’ll just try making the recipe as is, thinking the fish balls, seasoned to mimic the famous Provencal seafood stew, will be flavorful enough all on their own.

Not quite.

Made with tilapia or any other firm white fish that you grind in the food processor, then mixed with onions, celery, garlic, cayenne, saffron, Pernod and tomato paste, the fish balls turn the color of salmon after baking. They’re fairly mild tasting, though. Not only that, the fish proteins tend to coagulate in the pan, leaving the fish balls with an unpleasant white film around them. Hmm, no wonder they decided to photograph the balls in a pan full of sauce — all the better to hide all that white goo.

The first night, my husband and I ate them as is, with rice pilaf. The bouillabaisse balls were tender, but a sauce was definitely warranted.

So, the next night, I concocted my own version of one, which I’ve included as part of this recipe. The base for it was canned tomato sauce, which makes for a fairly thick pasta-like sauce. If you want a more brothy version, use canned chopped tomatoes instead.

With the addition of the sauce, the fish balls actually did taste more like actual bouillabaisse. They were a rousing success this way and made for a nice change pf pace from the usual meaty meatballs.

So, if you make them, remember: Do as I say — make a sauce, too, right from the start, and you won’t be disappointed.

Bouillabaisse Balls

(Makes about 2 dozen 1 1/2-inch meatballs)

For meatballs:

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely diced

2 celery stalks, finely diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of saffron threads

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons Pernod

2 pounds white fish, such as tilapia or perch, ground or finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 large eggs

1 cup bread crumbs

For sauce:

2 (15 1/2-ounce) cans tomato sauce or canned chopped tomatoes

Splash of Pernod

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

To make meatballs: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the olive oil into a 9-by-13-inch dish and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.

Heat remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium frying pan over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery, garlic, red pepper flakes, cayenne (if using), saffron, and salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste, lower the heat to medium, and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes, taking care that the paste does not burn and cooks evenly. Add Pernod, stir to incorporate, and transfer the mixture to a bowl. Place in the refrigerator to cool.

When the vegetables have cooled completely, combine them with the fish, parsley, eggs and bread crumbs in a large mixing bowl and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated.

Roll mixture into round, golf-ball-size meatballs (about 1 1/2 inches), making sure to pack the meat firmly. Place balls in the prepared baking dish, being careful to line them up snugly and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. The meatballs should be touching one another.

Roast for 20 minutes, or until meatballs are firm and cooked through. A meat thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball should read 155 degrees.

Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the dish before serving.

Meantime, make the sauce: Add both cans of tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes and their juices into a medium saucepan. Add a splash of Pernod and allow to cook at a simmer on medium heat for about five minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in chopped tarragon.

Carefully pour sauce into the baking pan. Stir meatballs until well coated.

Serve meatballs with rice pilaf or risotto.

Adapted from “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” by Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow


More Meatballs to Make: Kokkari’s Spiced Meatballs with Green Olive and Tomato Sauce

And: A16’s Monday Meatballs

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