Spanish meatballs in tomato sauce

Spanish meatballs in tomato sauce

I love a good meatball. And these Spanish meatballs in tomato sauce are the latest iteration of my obsession. Meatballs are such an easy thing to make a big batch of and freeze. Read on for how you can store and serve these in all sorts of ways for midweek dinners and fancier dinners with friends.

You can take meatballs in any flavour direction really (here’s a previous, equally good meatball recipe I shared a while back) but the ones I’m sharing today are decidedly Spanish. If you’ve had albondigas when you’ve eaten tapas you’ll have an inkling of the way these are going. Those of you who follow my recipes and classes will know I’m a sucker for smoked paprika. It crops up in lots of my recipes as it is a quick way to get subtle smokey heat into things.

I use rice cakes in my spanish meatballs, not only does that make them gluten free – handy if you’re feeding a crowd – but it also acts as a brilliant way to get the flavour and moisture of the seasonings into the meatballs. As the meat cooks the rice cakes suck up the juices, holding them within the meatballs rather than them disappearing into the pan.

These spanish meatballs are finished in a tomato sauce that I enrich by adding a Parmesan rind. I urge you to get into the habit of keeping your Parmesan rinds in a bag in the freezer. Then drop them into soups, stews and sauces for an umami hit – that very savoury mellow base note that good food needs. If you don’t have a Parmesan rind to hand today – and I know that most people do not – add a tablespoon of tomato purée to the sauce instead.

My favourite ways to serve meatballs

Meatballs are so handy for family dinners as they can be made in bulk then turned into all sorts of meals without it feeling too groundhog day. Of course you can go old school and cook them with tomato sauce and stir the sauce and meatballs through pasta, but these are my favourite ways to serve them:

spanish meatballs in tomato sauce with freekeh
  • With my fennel freekeh (see picture above)
  • On top of a plate of microwaved frozen brown rice mixed with frozen peas. I add some homemade slaw underneath or alongside the meatballs and top the meatballs and tomato sauce with a little yoghurt and some toasted pumpkin seeds or pistachios. Eagle eyed British readers may recognise that this is in homage to the meatball box from Leon. If you’re making this for children, just put everything on the table and let them make their own bowl of the various elements – they may surprise you what they’ll try.
  • As the meat part of a taco night – just serve the cooked meatballs – plain or with the tomato sauce – with warmed tortillas, wedges of avocado, chopped coriander (cilantro) plain yoghurt, roasted butternut squash or sweet potato chunks and something green.
  • Add pan fried meatballs (without the tomato sauce) to a bowl of noodles with finely shredded raw carrots and courgette (zucchini), chopped basil or coriander (cilantro) and some of my Thai dressing.
  • Make a football viewing worthy sandwich (man-wich). Split a baguette lengthways and warm it slightly in the oven. Spread the baguette interior with pesto or mayo then scatter rocket (arugula) on top. Place hot meatballs along the length of the baguette the spoon over a little tomato sauce – too much sauce will make the sandwich too messy. Grate some Parmesan over the meatballs then close up the baguette and apply to face. Napkins essential.
  • With salad and leftover roasted vegetables for lunch

Using these meatballs as the centerpiece of a stress-free grown up dinner

Increasingly I’ve been making these when we’ve had a big crowd over for dinner. Last time I served them I got rave reviews from our friends so I wanted to share them with you (and the people who came for dinner who clamoured for the recipe). I make the meatballs and sauce in advance and either freeze them or keep them in the fridge for 2 days then fry them before everyone arrives and then put them in a low oven to slowly cook while our guests arrive and we tuck into drinks.

Making, freezing and reheating a big batch of meatballs – two ways

These meatballs are fast to make and cook and freeze brilliantly. I usually make a big batch and either:

  • Cook them and freeze them in the tomato sauce so that they can be defrosted and reheated.
  • Or I freeze the balls raw on a plate. Then once they’re frozen, I transfer them to a plastic bag. Then I either let them defrost in the fridge overnight, or pop them in a frying pan from frozen and cook them on a medium high heat until they’re brown on the outside and starting to defrost. Then I pour tomato sauce over them and continuing to cook on a medium heat with a lid on for about 20-30 minutes until the inside of the meatball is no longer pink and is piping hot. If you’re cooking them from frozen, add 5 minutes to the cooking time in the sauce to make sure they’re cooked all the way through.

A word on sherry

The sherry I add here may seem unusual but it is essential to give the depth of flavour and moisture I’m after. If you think sherry is for old ladies think again. Good sherry, served chilled is cropping up in all sorts of in the know places. The kind of places where you’re the odd one out if you don’t have a sleeve of tattoos and a beard. I have neither but I know a good trend when I spot one.

I like to buy Fino which is a dry, delicate sherry. It needs to be chilled and then drunk within a week of opening (although I often use it for cooking when it has been in the fridge for longer). Chilled sherry is a perfect aperitif with tapas. If you buy sherry for this recipe you can use it in place of Marsala in many recipes.

I love a chilled Fino and tonic as a pre-dinner change from a G&T. Just put 1 measure (1 oz or 30 ml) of chilled Fino in a glass with a big lump of ice, a slice of orange and two measures (2 oz or 60ml) of a good tonic water (like Fevertree).

Fino and tonic

Spanish meatballs in tomato sauce ingredients (makes around 30 walnut sized balls enough for 6 people)

meatball ingredients

  • 4 plain rice cakes (I like the Kallo brand ones in the UK and the Lundberg ones in the US)
  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry such as Fino (see note above)
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled and minced (I use my Microplane)
  • 1 and a half teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • three quarters of a teaspoon of fine grain sea salt
  • half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 50g (a quarter cup) freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
  • 740g (26oz) minced beef, pork or lamb. Buy something with 10% fat. Any less fat and the meatballs will be too dry.
  • a teaspoon rapeseed or olive oil


  • 1 red pepper (bell pepper)
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 750g (26oz) passata (smooth puréed tomato)
  • quarter of a teaspoon sea salt
  • a Parmesan rind if you have one or a tablespoon tomato purée (tomato paste in the US)
  • a teaspoon or so of sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

To make:

  1. Break the rice cakes into a fine powder in a food processor then transfer the resulting powder to a large bowl. Or use your hands to crumble them to a powder into a large bowl.
  2. Sprinkle the sherry and water onto the powder – it will start to absorb the liquid straight away. Then add the garlic (I mince mine by grating it on my Microplane but you can see how I do it with a knife here), smoked paprika, fennel seeds, salt, pepper, egg, grated Parmesan and red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar.
  3. Mix everything together with a spatula or your hands before adding the meat. At this stage you want to use your hands to really squeeze and pound the meat and other ingredients so that they mix well. If you are squeamish you can wear plastic gloves. Don’t be tempted to do this in a food processor as it will make the meat too mushy.
  4. Take around a heaped tablespoon of the meatball mixture and roll it into a ball using your hands. Continue until you’ve used all the mixture. This is a great job to enlist children into. Put the balls onto a parchment paper lined plate. You’ll probably need 2 large plates for this quantity. At this stage you can chill or freeze the meatballs for later if you’d like. If you’re a fast roller, you can drop the balls straight into a large deep sided frying pan or a Le Creuset style pan as you roll them. This speeds things up a bit.
  5. When you’re ready to cook, put your pan on a medium high heat and and a teaspoon of rapeseed or olive oil then gently drop the meatballs in. Don’t crowd your pan as it will bring the temperature down and the meatballs will steam rather than brown. If need be, brown the meatballs in two batches or two pans.
  6. Cook your meatballs for around 6 minutes on one side before flipping them. Don’t be tempted to flip them too early as they will stick. Once they’ve cooked on a medium heat for 6 minutes they will have developed a nice brown crust so they will be much easier to turn. If you flip them too early, they will stick and you won’t get the flavour that comes with this crust. I use a spatula and a fork to flip my meatballs. I slide the spatula under the ball then use a fork to gently hold the top of the ball before flipping it over.
  7. While your meatballs cook, finely chop your onion (watch my how to video here) and red pepper (watch my how to video here) for your sauce. Set aside until you have browned the meatballs on both sides.
  8. Once your meatballs are browned on both sides, take them out of the pan and put them on a clean plate or the upturned pan lid while you make your sauce. Don’t worry – your meatballs don’t need to be fully cooked at this stage as they will finish cooking later in the sauce.
  9. Put your chopped onion and red pepper into the pan on a medium heat. Any crusty bits at the bottom of the pan will lift off as the onion cooks and will make the sauce extra delish. Use a silicone spatula to stir the onions every minute or so and cook for around 8 minutes until the onions are softening and turning golden.
  10. Add the passata, Parmesan rind or tomato purée and salt then increase the heat until the sauce bubbles. Carefully drop the meatballs one by one into the pan of bubbling sauce and add a few tablespoons of water until the meatballs are half submerged by the sauce. This will vary depending on the size of your pan.
  11. Put a lid on the pan, or if you don’t have one, cover it with foil. Drop the heat and simmer on low for 25 minutes.
  12. To finish, take the pan off the heat, gently stir with a silicone spatula then taste the sauce. Add salt, pepper and sherry or red wine vinegar until you get a good flavour. You may want to add a pinch of sugar if your tomatoes are very acidic. Remove the Parmesan rind before serving.
  13. Serve in one of the ways I suggest above or chill then freeze in the sauce for another day. You could keep the cooked meatballs in the sauce in the fridge for 3 days before reheating them until the center of the meatballs are piping hot.


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