We’ve all heard the saying that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, and there’s nothing better than when someone you love recreates your favorite childhood comfort food. After serving her now husband a complicated and almost inedible moussaka (“we are married now because he ate that then”) Helen Ellis learned to keep things simple and chose one of her husband’s grandmother’s easier Greek recipes to perfect: keftedakia. She tells the story in her essay collection Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge and graciously shared the recipe with us. We recommend frying up some of these meatballs for the love of your life or your next book club gathering!
From “Matters of the Heart” by Helen Ellis
I’ve learned that, like a great marriage, a great recipe doesn’t have to be a lot of work.
My specialty, keftedakia, are small Greek meatballs, garnished with lemon wedges and eaten without sauce. They are a far cry from what I grew up with: meatballs on top of Ragú on top of spaghetti, or the Swedish variety, simmered with a can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. Both are delicious by the way, but Greek meatballs are light and fluffy and include dill, oregano, and mint—which is basically a salad.
Olive oil is part of the Mediterranean diet, discovered by scientists in the 1950s and promoted by the American Medical Association because it reduces cholesterol and your chances of stroke. My husband’s yiayia is proof: she lived to eighty-six. And Mama still can’t get over how much more beautifully olive oil is packaged in comparison to butter. Plus, it does wonders for my cuticles. And as my husband reminds me, it’s good for our hearts.
Nowadays, there is always an open bottle of olive oil in my kitchen because olive oil greased the gateway to my adventurous cooking (although my husband thinks I was always adventurous: until he met me, he’d never heard of ambrosia, which is sour cream mixed with marshmallows, shredded coconut, and pineapple tidbits). My husband says my keftedakia are better than his yiayia’s, and this makes me very proud of myself. I use her recipe from a worn stapled paperback Krinos Foods cookbook. But I’ll admit that when I fry the little meatballs in olive oil, I throw in a pat of butter.
Excerpt from Kiss Me in the Coral Lounge (pp. 51-52)
Yiayia’s Keftedakia (Greek Spiced Meatballs) with a Southern Lady’s twist
This recipe is derived from Georgia Lyras’s recipe in Krinos Greek Gourmet Cookbook
4 slices firm bread – I use one or two palmfuls of plain Progresso breadcrumbs
1 lb. lean ground beef – I use ground chuck that’s full of fat (aka flavor)
1 onion, grated – I chop it finely
¼ cup dry wine (I use Chardonnay because I drink Chardonnay)
1 clove garlic, minced (the bigger the clove, the better)
3 tablespoons minced parsley (I use a tablespoon of McCormick’s dry)
3 tablespoons minced fresh mint (I use a tablespoon of McCormick’s dry)
1 tablespoon grated Krinos Kefalotyri cheese (I use ½ cup of good feta, Greek or French)
½ teaspoon Krinos oregano (I use a tablespoon McCormick’s dry)
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon McCormick’s dill
1 tablespoon McCormick’s lemon and dill blend
Salt and pepper to taste (for me, this means a teaspoon or 2 of salt and 8 turns of a pepper grinder)
1. Get a big mixing bowl.
2. Crack the egg into the bowl.
3. Add all the onion, garlic, wine, dry ingredients, cheese, and lemon, and mix all that loosely together with a fork.
4. Add the meat and mix it with the mess you just made.
5. Add the breadcrumbs, a palmful at a time until you get a thick consistency.
6. Cover the brain-looking ball with Saran wrap and put it in the fridge to chill for an hour or more.
7. Get the big brain-looking ball out of the fridge and dump it onto wax paper or a cutting board, laid out on your kitchen counter.
8. Flatten it like fat square pancake.
9. Take a big knife and make a grid of one inch meat squares.
10. Pinch those squares off and roll into balls.
11. Get out another mixing bowl and fill it with two cups of flour.
12. Get a big skillet and put it on high heat on your stove.
13, Add enough olive oil to barely coat the bottom of the pan.
14. Throw in a chunk of butter just because.
15. Take a small meatball and dump in in the flour. Roll it around until it looks like one of these powdered sugar snowball cookies.
16. Put the floured ball in the hot, oily, buttery skillet.
17. Repeat until there are many balls in the skillet, but none of them are touching.
18. Take two spoons and turn the balls every minute or so until all sides of the balls are crispy and brown.
19. Remove each ball once it’s done and drain on paper towels.
20. Add oil and butter to the pan when the pan gets dry or starts to smoke. Wine also helps.
21. Add balls until all balls are done.
22. Douse all balls with half a lemon’s juice.
23. Watch how they glisten!
24. Place drained glistening balls on a platter and serve with extra feta and wedges.
Lemon potatoes go with this nicely. As does Mythos beer or the remainder of the Chardonnay.