This Thai-influenced dish delivers big flavor for very little work. Tender oven-baked chicken or turkey meatballs, simmered in a delicious coconut milk-based red curry sauce. Packed with ginger and garlic and showered with fresh herbs, this is a guaranteed crowd pleaser.
It’s been made clear to us that we don’t talk enough about balls on this blog. This must be rectified. Because there’s nothing quite like the culinary experience of shaping a firm ball, baking it to meaty perfection and then slathering it with lashings of hot creamy sauce. And if you think we started with that sentence just to titillate and excite you, as well as improve our search engine rankings, you couldn’t be further from the truth, although those are two very good reasons. The fact is, we’ve only assembled four meatball recipes in the last six years of Nerds with Knives, and we felt that it was time to give those balls another gentle squeeze and/or spin. So here we go.
We’ve previously made cocktail meatballs with our favorite Chinese, Korean and Japanese flavorings. This time around, we’re using the taste of Thai red curry paste, boosted with fish sauce, peanut butter, lime, and plenty of fresh green herbs.
A little info on Thai curry sauce
Red curry dishes can have a mild-to-moderate heat, depending whether you make your paste from scratch, or choose one of the ready-made pastes you can find in the store. Even store-bought brands can vary wildly in heat: we’ve found Thai Kitchen (which happens to be gluten free) to be very mild, whereas Mae Ploy is spicier and arguably more authentic. Our favorite, Maesri, is also very spicy, and in our opinion has the best flavor. If you’re sensitive to heat, add less paste to start and taste the sauce until you’re happy with the flavor. (Remember that the heat can intensify as the dish is cooked or re-heated.) You can use red curry to infuse many different kinds of dishes, from butternut squash soup to a seafood dish like curried shrimp or mussels.
Of course there are many types of Thai curry pastes, and you can adapt this recipe to use your favorite. A simplified breakdown of the most common types are as follows: Green curry paste (kreung gaeng keo wahn) is the often the spiciest, and the verdant color comes from green chilis, cilantro, basil, and makrut lime leaf. Red curry paste (kreung gaeng phet daeng) uses a variety of red chilis, along with garlic, lemongrass and shrimp paste. Yellow curry paste (nam prik gaeng karee) gets its color from turmeric, curry powder, ginger and galangal. It’s mildly spicy, with a lightly sweet flavor that goes especially well with seafood. There are several other types of Thai curry including Massaman (which we use in our Chicken Massaman Curry with Wheat Beer), Penang curry, and sour curry paste.
About the meat
We’ve always liked making meatballs with chicken or turkey, as they tend to pair well with the stronger flavors that Asian or curry sauces can provide. In this case, we used ground turkey: chicken works equally well, as does pork, but for poultry, dark meat is a better choice if you can find it. If you use the leaner white meat, just be careful not to overcook the meatballs, or they can get dry. Our recipe makes balls on the small side (stop tittering) and were fully baked in just 15 minutes, so it’s a good idea to set your kitchen timer and have an instant-read thermometer handy. For a chicken meatball, you need to bake it so that the center reaches 165ºF.
To make the meatball mixture
Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and gently mix it with your fingers to amalgamate. You don’t want to press or squash the meat, since this will result in a tough meatball. Once that’s done, you can make the meatballs right away, or if the mixture feels too loose, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for an hour or more so that it has a chance to stiffen: this will make the balls easier to form. This is a great time to use a portion scoop if you have one, or you can just eye 2 tablespoon portions and roll them with your hands. Place the balls on a foil or parchment-lined baking tray and bake them in a 400ºF oven for about 12 to 15 minutes. Once they’re cooked you can set them aside until the sauce is ready.
Note: the meatball mixture can be made up to a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator. You can also bake the balls up to 2 days ahead, store them in an air-tight container and warm them gently in the curry sauce when ready to serve.
To make the sauce
Heat the oil in a deep skillet or Dutch oven set on medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook them just until they turn soft and translucent. If they start to brown, turn the heat down a little. Then add the aromatics (garlic, ginger and the curry paste) and cook for another couple of minutes until the mix is fragrant and the spices from the paste bloom in the oil. Then stir in the liquids (coconut milk, chicken stock and fish sauce) along with the peanut butter and brown sugar. Simmer the mix until it thickens a little, about 5 minutes. Then add the lime juice and the spinach, a handful at a time, stirring it in until it wilts enough to add the next bunch. Add the meatballs to the pan and gently toss them until they’re hot and covered in sauce.
We served our meatballs over rice noodles with extra curry sauce dolloped over them. A pretty tasty way to get our ball fix in for a little while, anyway.
- 2 pounds ground chicken, dark meat recommended (you can also use ground turkey, pork or beef)
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
- 3 medium scallions, minced (about ¼ cup)
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
- 1 tablespoon fresh minced or grated ginger, (about 1-inch knob)
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced or grated
- 2 large eggs
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon coconut or neutral oil
- 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1½ cups)
- 3 large garlic cloves, minced or grated
- 2 tablespoons minced or grated fresh ginger, (about 2-inch knob)
- 3 tablespoons red curry paste (or more if you like spice)
- 1 (15oz) can coconut milk
- ½ cup chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
- 1 tablespoon lime juice, plus wedges for squeezing
- 3 cups baby spinach
- Roughly chopped fresh mint, basil, and or cilantro leaves
- Steamed jasmine rice or rice noodles
- Preheat the oven to 400°F and place a rack in the middle. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment.
- Add all of the meatball ingredients in a large bowl and, using your fingers or a fork, gently mix everything together until fully combined. Don’t squeeze the meat or the meatballs will be tough. Form the mixture into 2-inch meatballs (a scoop is great though you can also just estimate) and arrange them on the baking sheet with a little space between each ball. Bake the meatballs until golden brown and just cooked through, about 12 to 14 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven and set them aside.
- While the meatballs are cooking, make the curry sauce. Heat the oil on medium-high in a deep, wide skillet or dutch oven. Add the onion and cook, stirrinq often, until the onion turns soft and translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the red curry paste and cook, stirring everything around, until the paste sizzles and turns a darker red, about 3 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, chicken stock, fish sauce, sugar and peanut butter and bring sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and gently simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, about 5 minutes. Add in the spinach and lime juice and stir until wilted, 1 minute. Transfer the meatballs to the sauce and gently toss until coated in sauce.
- Serve on top of rice or rice noodles, with lots of fresh herbs and lime wedges for squeezing.