It’s been cold and grey recently with even snow on the ground and a chill in the air and I’ve wanted warm, filling food, rich with carbs and comfort to see me through. A recent trip to Waitrose to get ox cheek from their butchery counter to make Mister North’s famous tongue and cheek pudding also resulted in the purchase of a lovely jar of beef dripping and so my mind immediately thought of Yorkshire puddings or a proper toad in the hole. But sadly my house was sausage-less and I thought such delights would have to wait for another day when I suddenly thought ‘could you make it with meatballs instead?’
My dinner companion assured me that would work very nicely indeed and because he’s wittier than me, named it Tadpoles in the Hole before I’d even rolled my sleeves up to roll the meatballs. How could you not want to eat a meal with a name like that? The oven went on to get lovely and hot to make sure my batter rose well and I turned my attention to the meatballs.
I used turkey mince for mine as it was the first draw on my game of freezer roulette, but any relatively lean meat would work well. I mixed the meat with some breadcrumbs and added lemon zest and tarragon as I had both to hand, but your seasonings here are only limited by your imagination. Some chilli would have been just the ticket here actually and I do love black olives and parmesan in a meatball. Whatever you go for, roll your meatballs nice and small so you get one in every bite of batter and chill for at least half an hour first. You’ll also need to leave your batter to sit for about this long so plan ahead slightly and then this is a very simple dish to assemble and cook.
It also works fabulously well with a caramelised onion gravy which if you have a bit of extra time to spare, but is extremely good served naked as well. I tend to slow cook a big batch of onions at a time and then freeze them in portions so you don’t need to wait on them turning sticky sweet and golden every time you need them.
Tadpoles in the Hole (serves 4)
For the meatballs:
- 250g lean mince
- 125g breadcrumbs
- zest of 1/2 lemon
- 25g chopped tarragon
- salt and pepper
- pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 egg, beaten
For the batter:
- 200g plain flour
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 150ml milk
- 1 teaspoon mustard powder
- 2 tablespoon beef dripping
For the gravy:
- 2 onions, sliced
- 25g butter
- pinch demarara sugar
- 2 tablespoons plain flour
- 300ml stock (vegetable or animal, depending on your meat choice)
- 100ml vermouth or wine (replace with more stock if you don’t have any)
- generous dash of Worcestershire sauce
Start with your onions for the gravy. Slice them into half moons and cook in the butter on a low heat for about 30 minutes on a low heat or until soft and just starting to colour. If there is liquid coming off them, drain it and keep for the gravy as it’s pure onion flavour. Add in the sugar and leave to cook for about another 45 minutes. They need no attention (I went off and watched an episode of Breaking Bad which meant I wouldn’t have noticed the kitchen going on fire) but to properly caramelise an onion til jammy and golden takes time. If you do extra, they freeze well and take only a few seconds in a microwave to defrost.
Try not to become utterly fixated by the do it yourself meth trade while your onions are cooking, and start on your batter instead. Resting it really does make a difference, making it much lighter and fluffier and rise better. I presume this is something to do with the gluten. But I like to think it’s a reward for patience. The batter is easy, put everything but the beef dripping into a bowl and mix til the consistency of double cream. The odd slight bump in the batter doesn’t matter as mixing it too much can make it flop. Leave to rest on the worktop til needed.
Your meatballs also like a rest before dinner and are similarly simple. I love rolling them, I find it very relaxing and the longer you chill them for the less they fall apart when cooking. They are so easy to make, it’s also worth doing a freezer batch while you’re there. Basically put everything but the egg in a bowl and mash together well with your hands to combine everything. Then add the egg a bit at a time, making sure the mix isn’t too wet and mix well. Then roll about a fork’s worth at a time into a meatball and chill til needed. Doing them with this proportion of breadcrumbs makes them very light and stretches the meat a longer way making this great value.
When you’re ready to eat, put the meatballs in your dish and add the dripping and heat for at least ten minutes or until it is smoking hot. Hot fat may be mildly terrifying, but it’s the secret of a pillowy billowing batter. Pour your batter in carefully from the edge so you don’t cause the meatballs to float and pop into the oven as fast as possible and leave it to cook for 40 minutes. On pain of death, don’t open your oven door again before then or you’ll end up with a giant pancake with meatballs poking out forlornly.
Make your gravy about 10 minutes before by adding the plain flour to the buttery onions and cook til quite dry. Then add in the warm stock, including those onion juices and the wine if using, and stir until it starts to thicken. Season and add the Worcestershire sauce. Add more liquid if you like it less thick. This gravy can be adapted to be veggie or vegan if you use oil and tamari instead if you need a meat free gravy at some point.
When your tadpoles are completely cooked and the hole is puffy and golden and slightly quivering with its own self importance, serve big slices of it with lashing of gravy and heaps of peas (garden or mushy) on the side and give fervent thanks for cold weather. As comforting as eating a hot water bottle, this is deliciously decadent with the meat to batter ratio and a great twist on a old favourite. It’s just as well we’ve got a north wind coming in…