When it comes to food, I will forever favor crispy over saucy because saucy is the enemy of crispy, and crispy is the best and most pleasant thing about food. For example, I can’t stand when people squeeze lemon over my fried calamari or schnitzel, and I think eggplant Parm is a waste of a crunchy piece of eggplant.
And so if you saw the word “meatballs” in the headline and began fantasizing about a simmering pot of tangy tomato sauce or salty Swedish gravy, you have come to the wrong place.
Let me just come right out and say it: These meatballs are not saucy. Instead, they are lightly spiced, pan-fried with a crunchy exterior and served with fat slices of olive oil-browned eggplant on a bed of warmed chickpeas. If that disappoints you, let me comfort you by mentioning that technically there is a sauce, but it’s a thick, spoonable sauce made of seasoned yogurt and it sits below (never over) the meatballs.
To further destroy your meatball fantasies, you may also notice the absence of any binding ingredients, such as breadcrumbs, egg or dairy. OK, so really each meatball is more of a round sausage, but I’m still calling them meatballs. (“Round sausage” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue — no pun intended.)
The good news for anyone I may have lost here is that this whole dish (except the yogurt sauce) is made in one skillet. In fact, the success of each component depends on it.
The meatballs are cooked in the pan first, so the eggplant can brown in a mixture of olive oil and leftover fat. Then the chickpeas are tossed around in whatever is left (not to crisp, but to take the tinny edge off). It’s a dish built layer by layer: The ingredients are cooked separately not to annoy you, but to bring the most out in each one. The end result feels kind of fancy, almost restauranty, but still comes together in about 45 minutes.
Hopefully, by this point, I have so successfully distracted you with the appealing details of this one-skillet dinner that you’ve forgotten all about the lack of sauce or traditional meatball ingredients, and you’re willing to give it a try. If so, my job here is done.
Crispy Meatballs with Chickpeas and Eggplant
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb, pork or beef
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, plus more as needed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
1 medium eggplant, sliced about 1/4-inch thick
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup full-fat Greek yogurt, labneh or sour cream
3 cups mixed greens (the more peppery, the better)
1 cup cilantro, leaves and tender stems
1 lemon, halved
1. Combine meat, fennel seeds, garlic and 1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes in a medium bowl. Season with 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and black pepper to taste, and mix until everything is well combined and the spices are evenly distributed.
2. Using your hands, roll meat mixture into balls about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter, placing them on a parchment-lined baking sheet or plate. You should have about 12 meatballs.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add meatballs — work in batches if your skillet can’t comfortably fit them all without crowding — and cook, gently rotating them occasionally so they more or less brown on all sides while keeping a vaguely round shape, 8 to 10 minutes. (Do not stress about this part; they will be delicious no matter what shape they are.) After they are evenly browned and cooked through, transfer them to a plate, leaving the fat and any browned bits behind.
4. Add 4 tablespoons oil to the skillet and, working in batches, if needed, add eggplant slices in an even layer, seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook the slices, flipping them once, until they are browned on both sides, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add more oil as needed. After eggplant slices are cooked and browned, transfer them to the plate with the meatballs.
5. Add remaining 3 tablespoons oil to the skillet, along with chickpeas. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, shaking the skillet and stirring occasionally, until chickpeas are nicely browned, 3 to 5 minutes. (They won’t exactly crisp; you’re just looking to take the edge off and get them nicely seasoned.)
6. Season yogurt with salt and pepper and smear onto the bottom of a large plate or serving platter. Top with meatballs, eggplant and chickpeas. Scatter with greens and cilantro, and then squeeze lemon halves over everything before serving.