Blathering about Bouillabaisse Balls

Fish is the main ingredient in these meatballs. But where, oh where, is the sauce?

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.

Still wondering where the sauce is...

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.

Ah, finally a sauce it so richly deserves.

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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  • Those look amazing! A fantastic idea.



  • I don’t think I’ve ever had any type of meatballs without sauce! It’s just wrong! I remember growing up eating fish balls in hot pot the Chinese way and I can’t wait to try these!

  • You have to hope that when its printed in a book, the recipe has been tested multiple times. And photographed as it comes out. But that doesn’t always happen. Thanks for retesting and re-doing to create a better version. Good thing cooking is an adaptive process.

  • We love meatballs at our house. Do you recommend purchasing this book?

  • It’s a good thing you know how to improvise or else this dish would have gone straight to the trash.

  • Great post. I can’t tell you how many times I have had recipes not work from great looking cookbooks. Really not work. Too bad. You did a great job bouncing back! :))

  • I’ve never had meatballs made from fish but if they’re anything like Bouillabaisse with that sauce, I’m there!

  • Thanks for the tips. In the first 2 photos, the fish balls look fantastic too. Can’t tell they are lack of flavor all all. But then, I LOVE your version with the tomato sauce much better! 😉 Thanks for sharing the recipe.

  • I love meat ball shop!!!

    Great to know that the recipe was missing something. Yours looks great and flavorful!

  • I read about this book recently and thought it would be a great one to pick up especially since my husband loves meatballs. This version with fish or as you made it with tilapia sounds wonderful. Did you have them alone or on pasta? I will definitely have to pick this book up. I like this lighter fish version. Thanks for sharing. Looks like you did a nice job on your fishballs.

  • Cookie: I think I’d need to try another recipe or two before I can render a full verdict on whether the book is worth buying. Certainly, the recipes and photos look enticing. And if you don’t mind improvising like I did when need be, then it would probably be a fine book to have.

  • Oh I’ve heard of this cookbook, so many different kind of meatballs! these Bouillabaisse balls sound incredible!

  • Your version looks fantastic. Have you tried other recipes from the book, and how were they?

  • How frustrating! I’ve had a spate of cookbooks where the item pictured is definitely not the item in the recipe. It is so disappointing! But you saved it girl!

  • Waw! These balls are like smaller fish burgers, spiced up a bit! And to add this tomato sauce is a great way to serve them or make large fish burgers out of them to enjoy with baked fries & a salad! I am so going to make them as larger fish patties!

  • Good recipe. It’s just wrong when photographers use food elements – the sauce, in this case – that aren’t even mentioned in the recipe. Yeah it makes a better picture, but it’s misleading. Anyway, your revised version looks fantastic – thanks.

  • Pingback: Friday Food Foto – Bakesale Betty Egg Salad

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