In Spain, albóndigas, or meatballs, are a quintessential tapas offering, enjoyed as part of a spread of shared dishes. Unlike Mexican albóndigas, which are simmered in a soup, these petite, saucy meatballs are typically served in a cazuela (a shallow clay baking dish) and eaten one by one using toothpicks.
I’ve enjoyed albóndigas coated in a robust tomato sauce, but I recently learned of another style. In this version, a saffron-and-paprika-infused wine sauce is flavored and thickened with picada, a lively mixture of fried ground nuts and bread, raw garlic, and often parsley. Unlike a roux or cornstarch, each of which is primarily used to thicken foods, the ground nuts and bread in picada provide body while also contributing vibrant complexity. Frying the nuts and bread in olive oil brings richness and nuttiness that’s accentuated by the grassy parsley and sharp garlic. (For more information, see “Ode to Picada.”) I couldn’t wait to give this style of meatballs a try.
I tested a handful of recipes, all of which followed a similar process: Ground meat (pork alone or pork mixed with beef or veal) is combined with egg, garlic, parsley, and a panade—a paste of bread and liquid (water is typically used for albóndigas). The panade’s liquid adds moisture while the bread’s starch interferes with the meat’s proteins, preventing them from connecting too strongly and causing toughness. The meat mixture is shaped into balls, deep- or pan-fried until browned, and then set aside while a sauce is created by cooking softened onion with broth and white wine. The meatballs then simmer in the sauce until it has reduced a bit and the meatballs are cooked through. Finally, the picada is stirred in.
Due to a range of cooking times and ingredient proportions, the sauces ranged from porridge-like to brothy. And the meatballs themselves? They were either too dry or so moist and tender that they failed to hold their shape.
I envisioned moist, cohesive bite-size meatballs napped in a warmly spiced sauce, lightly thickened and enlivened by a vivid picada. The petite meatballs would make an enticing appetizer that, along with rice or potatoes and a vegetable, could easily be served as a meal.
I wanted my albóndigas to have the tender yet sturdy quality of Italian meatballs. As for the flavor, I’d follow tradition and keep it relatively simple, which made sense since the sauce has so much depth.
I started with 1 pound of ground pork (I stuck with just one type of meat for simplicity), one egg, two minced garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley, and two slices of bread soaked in ¼ cup of water. Rather than stir the ingredients together by hand, which can leave bready spots in the meatballs, we’ve found that mixing the panade in the food processor and then pulsing it with the meat creates a more uniform blend.
After processing, I rolled the mixture into 1-inch meatballs—petite but not so small that they would be tedious to shape. Deep frying can be a hassle, so I didn’t even go there; I simply pan-fried the meatballs in a 12-inch nonstick skillet and then cooked them through in a placeholder sauce. The resulting meatballs were too tender: They failed to maintain a pleasing round shape and broke apart as I tried to scoop them into a serving dish.
It was clear that I’d added too much panade. For my next batch, I cut the amount in half. These meatballs had a better balance of moistness and structure, but the frequent turning required to brown them on all sides still caused some to eventually split apart. I was also dealing with the usual challenges that accompany pan-frying meatballs, such as splattering oil and flattened, slightly tough sides where the meatballs touched the pan.
The benefits of deep frying were becoming clear: Submerging the meatballs in hot oil would not only quickly cook their exteriors so they wouldn’t become tough but also set their surfaces so they would stay round and intact. I wondered if cooking the raw meatballs directly in the sauce, covered so they would steam, would evenly cook them from all sides. I’d have to sacrifice browning, of course, but maybe that wouldn’t matter since the saffron-, paprika-, and picada-laced sauce would be so packed with flavor.
Sure enough, meatballs cooked this way held their shape beautifully without developing the tough browned crust. They were also tender, moist, and perfectly round.
It was time for the critical final flourish: the picada. The nuts and bread are typically ground together and then fried, but I found it difficult to finely grind the almonds simultaneously with the bread. Instead, I first processed ¼ cup of slivered almonds (skins would be distracting) and then pulsed in pieces of hearty white bread, which had just the right amount of heft and is widely available. Finally, I fried the mixture in extra-virgin olive oil before adding raw minced garlic and chopped fresh parsley.
During the last couple of minutes of cooking, I stirred the picada into the sauce. It gave the dish richness, body, and some bracing sharpness, but I thought the sauce could be slightly thicker. So I ground the nuts finer, which gave them more volume. With more nut surface area exposed to the skillet, I was also able to fry the nuts more thoroughly for even richer flavor.
My sauce now had just the right amount of cling to coat the delicate, tender meatballs. Though it’s not customary, I finished the sauce with a splash of sherry vinegar for acidity and a smattering of chopped parsley for color. I know tapas are meant to be shared, but as I dug into the albóndigas, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.
For a new take on meatballs and sauce, try albóndigas en salsa de almendras, a tapas staple featuring a rich nut mixture that should be in everyone's repertoire.