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Meatball stuffed tomatoes

There are somethings I never tire of and could eat for all eternity and one of those things is meatballs. I just adore them. Served with spaghetti, stuffed into a sandwich, as a canapé or just on their own, I can’t get enough of them. I usually use Allegra McEvedy’s failsafe recipe from the first Leon cookbook, but as the sun slowly came out over London a few weeks ago, I fancied something lighter and more summery. A chance encounter with some veal mince at Waitrose helped focus the mind and the next thing I knew, I had a plateful of veal, black olive and parmesan meatballs chilling in the fridge.

Pan-fried until well sealed and then steamed with stock until fully cooked through, I served them with some grilled courgettes and the pan juices for a treat of a Friday night dinner after a long week. And they were good. The sweet meatiness of the veal was enhanced utterly by the umaminess of the parmesan and the olives. I scraped the plate clean in record time and even recommended the combo to the little loaf on Twitter. But something was missing. It needed something to take it from good to amazing.

It had to be tomatoes. The July sun and heavy rains of the past few months mean that everything is better with a British tomato right now. Bursting with flavour and warmed up naturally by the flickering sun, they add a note to every dish that lifts it beyond just good. But even having decided on the welcome addition of tomatoes, it still needed something beyond just a sauce. And flicking through some stored up summer recipes, I saw an idea for stuffed beef tomatoes and it all fell into place. Meatball stuffed cherry tomatoes…

As I’ve mentioned before, my life is never too short to stuff anything. Not when everything is more delicious filled with something else. Taking the tops off and scooping out the middles of the cherry tomatoes is in fact no more time consuming than rolling individual meatballs and chilling them into shape. It’s almost as relaxing in fact.

I used about 200g of veal mince, a handful of fresh oregano, about 75g of parmesan and about ten black olives finely chopped and bound together with an egg yolk. I didn’t bother with the usual milk soaked breadcrumbs as I didn’t need the mixture to form such distinct shapes and then I stuffed the tomatoes nice and full. They then got baked for around 35 minutes until soft and collapsed and intensely tomatoey. This was longer than I thought they’d need and when I checked them about 20 minutes in, I added a splash of tomato juice to help steam them quicker. I then served them along with the pan juices on a big plate of pasta.

And they had gone up a notch from tasty to terrific. The tomato was exactly what they needed to set off the flavours perfectly and despite my intentions to only have half the meatballs for dinner, I found myself wolfing down the other portion immediately because let’s face it, there was never really any chance of me saying no to two of my favourite things combined. I enjoyed every single scrap and wished I had twice as many. I did miss the sticky cruncy crust that you get on a fried meatball, but I might just put them in upside down, pan sear them and go from there in future. But really these are the perfect summer supper. Stuff one immediately!

Veally good…

I love veal. I know some people are apprehensive about it due to the dark days of veal crates and the inhumanely reared tasteless wan meat they created. Sadly this meat is still available for purchase, but mainly in Continental Europe. Britain has embraced the much more humane and tastier rose veal in recent years and when I see this at the butcher it’s hard to resist, which is how I came to have to some stunning English veal fillet to cook on St George’s Day.

This sensational piece of meat came from Paul Stansfield at Todmorden Market and like all his meat, is top quality, beautifully prepared and is locally sourced, possibly from the same farm that produces the wonderful Pexommier cheese. I only wish I had a butcher like him handy to me in Brixton. In fact, I wish everyone still had a butcher like this available to them…we’d all be eating better quality, more ethically raised meat and probably enjoying it much more too!

I decided that a top class piece of meat like this needed to cooked simply and without much fuss, so roasting it seemed like the perfect way to go. I expected this piece of fillet to be more like pork fillet than beef due to the size of a calf compared to a cow, and therefore thought it would be good stuffed for flavour and moisture. But as you can see, when unwrapped, stuffing would simply have been unnecessary. Instead, I simply seasoned it, sealed it on all sides in a hot pan and roasted it in the oven at 190˚C for 20 minutes.

The lure of stuffing was too great to abandon completely, especially as I had some beautiful organic rye bread from the farm shop at Tebay just itching to become breadcrumbs. I mixed these up with some kale, sauteed with anchovy, garlic and lemon zest, then finely chopped with a russet apple and bound with lemon juice and an egg. This mix was rolled into stuffing balls and baked in the oven to be served on the side of the veal, along with some roasted beetroot.

The veal came out after 20 minutes and rested for another 10 while I deglazed the pan with a splash of red wine to make a light gravy. The meat was beautifully tender, still very slightly pink and extremely moist and juicy and carved as easily as butter. Served with a salad, the stuffing and beetroot, it made a very handsome plate of food.

Unfortunately despite the 45 minutes in a hot oven it had had, the beetroot was still raw when we tried eating it, but the veal was so good, nothing could have detracted from it. It was incredibly tender, genuinely melt-in-the-mouth and packed with rich, but light beefy flavour. It was massively enhanced by the sharp lemon tang of the stuffing and ably accompanied by a Chilean Carmenere/Syrah blend. It was without doubt some of the finest meat I have ever eaten. (And my stuffing was pretty damn good too!)

So if you happen to see some British rose veal on your next trip to the butcher or have just always wondered what actually happens to all those ickle baby boy calves that the British dairy industry creates each year, I suggest making a purchase and supporting farmers in rearing top quality, ethically sound meat. You won’t regret it!