Sicilian Memories — Meatballs in Lemon Leaves

I love lemon trees. You probably would too if you had a few prolific specimens in your yard like I do. Especially if you’re into cooking.

As you might imagine, lots of lemons end up in my kitchen. And, of course, I’m always looking for new ways to use them. That’s why one of my most memorable experiences on our trip to Sicily this past October was an unexpected dish of meatballs grilled in lemon leaves.

Grilling in lemon leaves. What a great idea. I’d never seen it done before. Never even knew anyone used those fragrant leaves in that way.

Kissed with lemon-tinged smoke, the tasty mix of meat and assertive spices surrounded by partly charred leaves seemed to me so Sicilian: all at once, sensuous, mysterious, rustic, refined — with more than a wiff of Ancient Greece and North Africa! They were molto delicious.

And visually cool on the plate. An ideal prelude to the pasta that was to follow. They made my evening. And their memory lingers on…

Not to say I wasn’t impressed with other things Sicilian. Like the intimate vineyard lunch and wine tasting at a family estate nestled in the countryside not far from Palermo with the owners of Winery Feudo Disisa. Or the valley in southern Sicily at Agrigento with its well-preserved ancient Doric temples. Seven of them. Golden in the sun.

Then there was the city of Syracuse, with its intriguing ancient Hellenic history and baroque piazzas. It certainly made an impression. As did the spectacular view from the Greco-Roman Amphitheater in the touristic hilltop town of Taormina overlooking the Ionian Sea.

But, strange as it sounds, it was that “che figata” (cool) plate of polpette alla foglia di lemone that moved me the most.

To add to their mystique, the authentic, little restaurant where I discovered those citrus-scented bites happened to be hidden in a lemon grove, far from the unpleasantness of tour buses and urban squalor — on the very island known as “the land where lemons grow.”

When it gets warm enough to grill where you are you might want to make a batch of these smokey-tasting Sicilian treats. I’ve already made them a few times since I’ve been back. Here’s the recipe I’ve finally ended up with. Go ahead, tweak it even more if you like.

Grilled Sicilian Meatballs in Lemon Leaves

Here’s what you’ll need to make about 24 meatballs:

1/2 cup fine fresh breadcrumbs
1/8 cup milk
1/2 lb coarsely minced pork*
1/2 lb coarsely minced veal*
2/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tbs finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tbs finely chopped fresh marjoram
2 tbs finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp toasted fennel seeds, roughly ground
1 clove garlic
Smoked salt and fresh ground black pepper
48 lemon leaves, washed thoroughly
olive oil
lemon wedges
red pepper flakes

* If you’d like, substitute both with 1 lb ground turkey

The preparation:

Toast fennel seeds in a small pan on low heat until they become fragrant, taking care not to burn. Then roughly grind with a mortar and pestle. Or you could smash them under a towel with a heavy pan.

Combine milk and breadcrumbs with your hands to form a paste.

In a large bowl throughly mix together the ground pork and veal (or turkey) with the breadcrumb paste, pecorino, egg, parsley, marjoram, fennel seeds, garlic, 2 teaspoons of smoked salt and a healthy grind of black pepper. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

When the grill is hot and you’re ready to cook, form tablespoons of the mix into balls. Place each ball on a lemon leaf and cover with a second leaf, pressing down to flatten the meatball a bit. (Glossy sides of the leaves should be facing out.) I do this on a large sheet pan before I finally place the packages in a flat grilling basket with a handle that I use to easily flip all of the little guys at the same time when they’re on the heat. 5 minutes per side is what it usually takes to cook them through. Take a nick out of one to make sure they’re done.

Then just plate them up and get them to the table hot and smokey. Now you might be tempted — but don’t eat the lemon leaves!

What you want to do is uncover the meatballs on your plate, hit them with a good squeeze of lemon juice, followed by a splash of your best olive oil and a spinkle of red pepper flakes before taking a bite.

Can’t find lemon leaves? Sautee the meatballs in olive oil. Add smokey lemon flavor by grilling lemon halves to squeeze over the dish.