Globetrotting flavors and history: Lamb Meatballs with Saffron, Lavender and Paprika

by Marion on August 1, 2012

Lamb meatballs are seasoned with a global mix of flavors and served over pasta—or made smaller and served as a canapé. Recipe below.

Terry’s comment last week about always liking the flavors of a braise, whatever the weather, had me asking myself how to achieve that depth of flavor without several hours of stoveness. At the same time I happened to be reading Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, about the way Venice was a prime mover in the growth of global trade, “the first virtual city,” “the central cog that meshed two economic systems—Europe and the Orient—shunting goods across hemisphere, facilitating new tastes and notions of choice.” And reading about this adventurous time, when “Venice was the middleman and interpreter of worlds,” started me looking at medieval recipes that involved great wallops of flavors like saffron and combinations that are unfamiliar to us today.

This dish is about travel and the global economy. It is a hat tip to the Venetian merchants of the Middle Ages, when trading could mean being gone for years, at enormous personal risk; when the great empires, so long in isolation, were getting their first little views of each other; and when cooks boldly began mixing together newfound flavors, in part seeking cures and in part because they came to love these daring new tastes. These were the first fusion cooks, picking and choosing flavors from a lush global toybox.

Saffron has been cultivated since the late Bronze Age, for its powerful, almost metallic flavor (and, for a long time, because it was regarded as medicinal—many Venetians would have believed it could cure plague).

Lavender has always been primarily a medicinal and household herb, used in cooking only rarely. That is because it so easily romps in and takes over, leaving you feeling you are eating soap. The typical heavy-handed medieval approach to flavors would have guaranteed that. But parsed out in minute quantities, lavender lends an elegant shadow to braises, roasts and sweets. Coming up this year we will be experimenting with it in other ways, savory and sweet.

By the way, since we first published this, our friend Karin told us that, because she didn’t have straight lavender, she substituted herbes de Provence, the herbal blend that includes a bit of lavender.  That is such a great idea and we thank her for it.

This dish trots the globe in other ways too: lamb, coated with Japanese panko crumbs and lavender, sautéed in olive oil, braised with good sweet paprika and luxurious saffron. It really is a welcome to the world.

Lamb Meatballs with Saffron, Lavender and Paprika
Serves 2 to 3 as a main course

1 pound ground lamb
2 teaspoons minced garlic, divided in half
1 egg, beaten
2 tablespoon panko
1/2 cup panko
1/8 teaspoon fresh lavender buds or a pinch of dried lavender buds (see Kitchen Notes)
1 onion, minced (about 1/2 cup)
3 tablespoon olive oil
1-1/4 cup dry vermouth
2 teaspoon sweet  paprika
a good pinch of saffron in 1/4 cup vermouth

12 ounces dried penne pasta, if using

Whirl the panko in a blender or food processor with the lavender for two or three minutes. Pour it onto a dinner plate.

In a medium bowl, mix together the lamb, beaten egg, half the garlic and ½ teaspoon salt. Using your hands, shape them into meatballs. If these are to serve as an entrée, with egg noodles, then make 12 meatballs. If you are serving these as a canapé or for small plates, make about 20. Once you shape each meatball, roll it in the panko-lavender mix, so that it is lightly coated, then set the shaped meatballs on a flat surface—I used a sheet of parchment paper set on a cookie sheet.

In a skillet, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium flame, then brown the meatballs on all sides, working in batches if necessary. As they brown, remove them from the pan and set on a plate. Once the meatballs are all browned, pour off excess fat from the pan and wipe it out. Put the rest of the olive oil in the pan and heat it over medium-low heat. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 90 seconds; then add the paprika and cook, stirring, about another 90 seconds.

Pour in the vermouth and add the rest of the garlic and the saffron with its vermouth; stir, then gently add in the meatballs, spacing them evenly. Bring to a simmer, cover, adjust the heat to low and cook gently about seven minutes (or five minutes if you are making the tiny size). Keep an eye on it all. If you are serving this as a canapé, you will want only enough sauce left to coat these smoothly. If you are serving as an entrée, with pasta, you will want more sauce, and you may need to adjust accordingly with more vermouth or water. The panko will thicken the sauce. Adjust the salt at the end, once you have tasted the sauce.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions, if using. Serve meatballs and sauce over pasta, with a leafy salad; if you are presenting this as a canapé, serve from a bain marie.

By the way, this improves greatly if made one day ahead and held over in the refrigerator.

Kitchen Notes

Know the source of your lavender. A lot of commercial dried lavender is not organic and has been sprayed with inorganic chemicals. It’s for use (and then cautiously) in homemade crafts, like soaps and potpourris. If you can’t pick lavender from your own yard, or from a source you know, then be sure the lavender you select is specifically labelled for culinary use. If you can’t find this kind of lavender, then you may substitute 1/2 tsp. of herbes de Provence.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

kitty August 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

mmmm this sounds divine, marion!
I love lamb but I know some people aren’t keen on it. I’m always on the search for excuses to eat more of it!

kitchenriffs August 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I’m with Kitty — I’ll eat lamb any day of the week. I’ve never cooked with lavender, although I’ve had dishes with it in restaurants. Sounds interesting in this dish. And this recipe really showcases how to do a quick stove-top braise. Good stuff – thanks.

The Rowdy Chowgirl August 1, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Mmm, this sounds so good, and the history makes it even more enticing. Great post!

Marion August 1, 2012 at 11:20 pm

Thanks Kitty! We too love lamb – I seem to recall that one month we posted a lamb recipe every week before we realized that maybe not everyone goes for it.

Kitchenriffs, thank you. Our experiments with lavender have been few, but we’ve had a pretty good crop in the yard this year so intend to keep at it.

Chowgirl, you may also enjoy the book I mentioned. It’s quite fun to read and I came away understanding a lot of things that had previously crossed my mind in only the vaguest way.

Mimi August 1, 2012 at 11:49 pm

Marion, I love your writing style.

This really looks good. I always enjoy other people’s meat balls. I’ve never had great success with them myself.

And I love the word stoveness.


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