‘I was reading this recipe scarcely a day after I had made my daughter a batch of veal mince (I know it sounds extravagant, but it was left over from making a game terrine). I was worried that such concentrated meatiness might be off-putting at her tender age, so I stirred in some cooked red cabbage. The result was lighter, juicier and a touch sweeter than the original mince. Here, Nigel does something similar, using beetroot and lamb mince. It’s an ingenious way to feed children vegetables and good enough to serve as a starter, light enough to have for lunch and filling enough to be satisfying at supper if accompanied by a little rice. Delicious’

Thomasina Miers

A light touch for meatballs

Extract from Nigel Slater’s
Tender: Volume I
Published by Fourth Estate

Late spring, 2007. Six small beetroots, round as golf balls and not much bigger, arrive in a thick brown paper bag, its edges sewn together with string. The air of moist Riverford soil and sweet roots wafts up as the bag is torn open, but the day is leaden with damp and cold and I have rarely felt less like eating a beetroot salad.

Supper is going to be meatballs: fat, crumbly patties of minced lamb with garlic, dill and parsley. It crosses my mind that a handful of grated beets might sweeten the mince and lighten their texture.

What we end up eating on the coldest spring day for years is plump rounds of sweet and spicy meat, crunchy with cracked wheat and crimson with the vivid flesh of finely grated beetroot.

The inclusion of the roots has broken up the solid lump of minced meat and married well with the garlic and clean-tasting herbs. We dip the sizzling patties into a slush of shredded cucumber, yoghurt and mint, given a snap of piquancy (to balance the beet-root) with a spoonful of capers.

Makes 12-16, enough for 4 or more

Ingredients

75g fine or medium cracked wheat
250g raw beetroot
A small-to-medium onion
400g minced lamb
2 large cloves of garlic (or even 3), crushed
2 heaped tablespoons chopped dill
A small handful parsley, chopped
A little groundnut oil

For the dressing

About a third of a medium cucumber
The leaves from 4 or 5 sprigs of mint, chopped
1 tablespoon capers
200g yoghurt

Method

Put the cracked wheat into a bowl; pour over enough boiling water to cover, then set aside to swell. Peel the beetroot and onion and grate them coarsely into a large bowl. Add the minced lamb, garlic, dill, parsley and a generous grinding of salt and black pepper.

Squeeze any water from the cracked wheat with your hands, and add it to the meat. Mix everything together thoroughly, and then squish the mince into little patties about the size of a flattened golf ball. Cover with cling film (I do this tightly because the chopped garlic will taint everything in the fridge), and then chill for at least an hour.

Set the oven to 180˚C/gas mark 4. Make the dressing by grating the cucumber coarsely and leaving it in a colander, lightly sprinkled with salt, for half an hour. Squeeze it dry, and then mix it with the chopped mint, capers and yoghurt. Season with salt and black pepper.

Heat a non-stick pan, brush the patties with a little groundnut oil and fry until golden on both sides. Try not to move the meatballs very much when they are cooking, or you risk them falling apart.

Once they are lightly browned on both sides, carefully lift them into a baking dish and finish in a hot oven for 15-20 minutes (incidentally, you can only tell if they are done by tasting one, as the beetroot gives them a rich red colour, making it impossible to gauge by sight whether they are cooked). Drizzle them with the cucumber dressing and eat.

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