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Eric Akis: Meatballs star in this Middle Eastern dish

Seasoned meatballs served with a beguiling pomegranate juice-based sauce can do double duty — serve them as an appetizer or as a main course with side dishes.
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You could serve these small Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-style meatballs as an appetizer, as shown in the photo, or as a main course with side dishes. ERIC AKIS

I make meatballs all year round, but during the holiday/Christmas season I like the ones I prepare to be able to serve two purposes.

If, for example, I need an appetizer to bring to a potluck, I’ll want the meatballs I roll up to star in that role. But, if I’m having guests over for a casual dinner with a festive flair, those same meatballs need to be able to play that role, too.

Today’s Mediterranean/Middle Eastern-style recipe for mini-meatballs in sweet and sour pomegranate sauce is one that has that kind of culinary flexibility. To make it, ground meat, which could be turkey, chicken or pork, is mixed with breadcrumbs, egg and seasonings, such as cumin, cayenne pepper and garlic, and rolled into small meatballs.

Those meatballs are then roasted and while they cook you make a simple, but very flavourful, sweet and sour tasting sauce for them. That’s done by combining pomegranate juice, honey, cornstarch, balsamic vinegar and other flavourings, such as ginger and black pepper, in a small pot and simmering them until a sauce forms.

When the meatballs have done roasting, they are set in a casserole dish and the sauce is spooned over them. They are then covered and set back in the oven a while longer, to be braised and enhanced by the sauce.

To serve those meatballs as an appetizer you might bring to a potluck or other occasion, transfer them and their sauce to a shallow serving dish and sprinkle with pomegranate arils (seeds) and chopped pistachios (or parsley or mint). Set some small forks alongside the meatballs and let folks dig in and enjoy them.

That’s how I served them in my recipe, but, as noted, the meatballs could also be served for a casual dinner. To do that, simply set the meatballs on the dinner table and serve them right from the casserole dish, sprinkled with pomegranate arils and chopped pistachios (or parsley or mint). To round out the meal, serve the meatballs with couscous or rice pilaf, a green vegetable or side salad, warm wedges of pita bread, and some thick yogurt, to dollop beside the meatballs once plated.

You make the meatballs oven-ready hours in advance. See the Eric’s options portion of the recipe for details.

Mini-Meatballs in Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce

Small, nicely seasoned meatballs, roasted, and then heated in a beguiling, sweet and sour tasting pomegranate juice-based sauce.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Makes: 36 mini meatballs

1 1/2 pounds (about 680 grams) ground turkey, chicken or pork

1/3 cup dried breadcrumbs

1 large egg

1 1/2 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp garlic powder

1/4 tsp ground cayenne pepper

1 tsp salt

1 1/3 cups pomegranate juice

1/4 cup honey

2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 Tbsp soy sauce

1/4 tsp ground ginger

1 Tbsp + 1 tsp cornstarch

• freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 to 3 Tbsp pomegranate arils (seeds; see Note 1)

2 Tbsp shelled pistachios, chopped, or 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley or mint (see Note 2)

To make meatballs, place ground meat, breadcrumbs, egg, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne and salt in a bowl and mix to combine. Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Lightly dampen your hands with cold water, and then roll ground meat mixture into 36, roughly equal, about 1 1/4-inch round, meatballs and set them on the baking sheet. While you do that, dampen your hands lightly with cold water again if the meat mixture begins to stick to them. Roast the meatballs 20 minutes, or until cooked through.

While meatballs roast, make pomegranate sauce by placing the juice, honey, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger and cornstarch in a small pot and whisk to combine. Set over medium-high heat, bring to a simmer, and simmer sauce 30 seconds. Remove from the heat, season sauce with freshly ground black pepper, to taste, and then aside for now.

When roasted, lift meatballs off the baking sheet and set in a 13- x 9-inch casserole (see Eric’s options). Pour the pomegranate sauce over the meatballs. Cover meatballs with foil, set back in the oven and cook 20 minutes more. Transfer meatballs to a shallow serving dish and spoon any sauce left in the casserole over top of them. Sprinkle and garnish meatballs with pomegranate arils and chopped pistachios (or parsley or mint), and serve.

Note 1: One large pomegranate, when opened and picked through, should yield at least 1 1/2 cups of arils (seeds). Use some for the meatballs and put the rest in a sealed jar and refrigerate. Over the next few days you can simply snack on those arils, or use them in other ways, such as topping pancakes, crepes and desserts with them, or adding them to other savory dishes, salads, and drinks.

Note 2: Shelled pistachios are sold in bags in the produce section of some supermarkets and in the bulk-foods section of some supermarkets and at bulk food stores. If you can’t find them, shell 1/4 cup of in-the-shell pistachios to get the amount required here. It’s OK if the pistachios are lightly salted.

Eric’s options: Once the meatballs are roasted, set in the casserole dish and, topped with the sauce, they could be cooled to room temperature, covered with foil and refrigerated many hours in advance of serving. When ready to serve, bake the sauced meatballs as described in the method, adding a few minutes to the baking time as you will be starting from cold.

eakis@timescolonist.com

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.