Beef and ricotta meatballs with crispy fennel crumbs recipe

Beef and ricotta meatballs with crispy fennel crumbs recipe - Eleanor Steafel
Beef and ricotta meatballs with crispy fennel crumbs recipe - Eleanor Steafel

The meatballs my mum makes (fluffy, packed with seasoning, and fantastically hefty – they’re roughly the size of a tennis ball) have my heart. This iteration makes a particularly light meatball thanks to the ricotta in the mix. I tend to use a high-fat mince and will sometimes mix beef and pork, which you could absolutely do rather than just doing straight beef as I have here. The lemon zest and fennel help to make them bright and full of flavour. A modest amount of tomato sauce with a little sherry vinegar, a few crispy crumbs, and you have a dinner worthy of sinking into on a Friday night.


Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour 20 minutes




  • 120g fresh, fine white breadcrumbs

  • 2 tsp fennel seeds

  • Plenty of nutmeg, freshly grated

  • A handful of parmesan, finely grated

  • A lemon

  • ⅓ tsp cayenne

  • 250g ricotta

  • An egg

  • 750g 20% fat beef mince

  • 2x500g cartons of passata

  • 4 garlic cloves, bashed and peeled

  • A splash of sherry vinegar

  • Olive oil, for frying

  • A few parsley sprigs


1. Put 80 grams (or roughly two thirds) of the breadcrumbs in a large bowl, setting the rest aside in another bowl for later. Put the fennel seeds in a pestle and mortar and grind them a little (not to a powder, just so they break up a bit). Split the fennel between the bowls of crumbs.

2. Zest roughly half the lemon into the large bowl, leaving some to be grated directly onto the finished dish later. Into the large bowl, grate plenty of nutmeg and add the parmesan, a teaspoon of salt, freshly cracked black pepper, and the cayenne. Drain the ricotta of its water and add that to the crumbs along with the egg and mince.

3. Use your hands to mix everything together. Mix well so everything is evenly incorporated. Then form the mixture into balls a little bigger than golf balls. Put the balls on a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper, cover and put in the fridge for half an hour to firm up.

4. Meanwhile, get the sauce started. Pour the passata into a large casserole pan with a lid. Add a big pinch of salt, the bashed garlic cloves, sherry vinegar and a splash of olive oil. Set over a low-medium heat with the lid on and bring to a simmer. Simmer with the lid on for 15 minutes, then with the lid off for a further 10 minutes. You can turn it off while you fry the meatballs or just have it cooking on a very low heat with the lid on.

5. Take the meatballs out of the fridge. Set a large frying pan over a medium heat with a splash of olive oil (you don’t need masses as you’ve used a higher fat mince). Fry the balls in batches so as not to overcrowd them in the pan. Use tongs to turn them occasionally so they brown all over.

6. When fried add them to the tomato sauce, which should be over a low heat. Cook for 20 minutes in the sauce with the lid on. Then cook for another 10 minutes with the lid off.

7. Meanwhile, turn the heat back on under the frying pan and add another splash of oil. Fry the fennel breadcrumbs until golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with kitchen paper. Sprinkle with salt.

8. To serve, use a large spoon to transfer the meatballs to a warm serving dish. Spoon over any excess sauce, top with the crumbs, grate over a little extra lemon zest and finish with some parsley.