There is snow on the ground and holiday lights on my house, which means it is finally acceptable to eat my weight in comfort food. Okay, so maybe I do that all year round. But there is something far more satisfying about tucking into a bowl of cozy deliciousness when your cheeks are stinging from the cold. The outside world may be transforming into a beautiful yet inhospitable place, but all those frosted toes and damp clothes make dishes like today’s Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Meatballs taste that much better. Nothing like a side of suffering to make comfort food all the more comforting.
When I was a kid my grandmother would make sweet and sour meatballs. I’m sure you know the meatballs I’m talking about, especially if you’re a child of the 90s. But just in case you aren’t, these meatballs were baked in the oven in a saucy concoction of bottled chili sauce and grape jelly. My grandmother would always serve them over brown rice buttered within an inch of its life and I loved it. To me, this dish was the ultimate in bleak mid-winter comfort food. Meat, carbs, and a piping hot sauce positively loaded with sugar and sodium. Corporate condiment cooking at its finest.
These days I’m less inclined to douse my cooking in ketchup or the like. Not that I’m too good for ketchup – I stan ketchup. I’ve even passionately railed against the existence of “gourmet” ketchup. Ketchup is perfect, it cannot be improved upon, it will only lead to disappointment…Phew! Got a little carried away there. Anyway, for the most part, ketchup is much more likely to finds its way onto my fries than into my meatballs of pad thai. There are certain condiments that should stay condiments. I don’t believe mustard or mayo belong to this group. But that could be its own potentially boring post.
The point is, I’m not about to knock a jar of chili sauce, ketchup or jelly into a casserole dish and call it dinner. The era when that was acceptable has long since passed. But every winter, when the memories of those meatballs creep into my mind, I contemplate popping the top of a jar of grape jelly. So this year, I decided to grow the meatballs of my youth up, by coating them in a sophisticated, Asian-inspired pomegranate sweet and sour sauce.
I wait for pomegranate season all year long. It’s not just the flavor that I love, it’s how the fruit looks as well. I know, when it comes to comfort food, looks are not usually the top priority. But in my industry, food always has to look good. And when you look at food from that angle day in and day out, you quickly figure out a few simple flourishes are all any dish needs to look its best. Case in point – pomegranate arils. Sure, they can be a trick to wrangle out of the skin, but a smattering of these little jewels can transform any dish with an abundance of beige and brown into a bonafide beauty queen.
I served these saucy meatballs with buttered pearl barley as a nod to the brown rice of my youth. I opted for barley because I love the chew and, frankly, I’ve been eating way too much rice since the pandemic began. Rice is apparently, my eat-my-feelings food of choice. And here I thought it was noodles…I suppose it can be both. Anyway, the pairing works so well. The barley adds another layer of texture to the meatballs and readily soaks up the sauce as well.
And speaking of the sauce, the recipe below makes a lot of it. I dressed my meatballs in a cup of it before serving. Then I put the remainder on the table for additional saucing for anyone who felt the need. Needless to say, the sauce disappeared with the meatballs and barley. So don’t fret if you feel like you have more sauce than meatballs – I promise you you don’t. But if you are the rare individual who likes their meatballs on the dryer side, you can simply store the excess sauce in the fridge. It’s a great stand-in for plum sauce or sweet chili sauce.
So that’s everything you need to know about these Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Meatballs with Buttered Barley. They’re loaded with nostalgia and are cozy season approved. What more could you ask for?
Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Meatballs with Buttered Barley
Buttered Pearl Barley
- 3 cups water or stock
- 1 cup pearl barley
- ½ tsp salt
- 3 tbsp unsalted butter cut into cubes
- 454g (1 lb) lean ground beef
- 2 shallots halved and sliced thin
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 (1-inch) knob ginger minced
- 1 egg yolk
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp five spice powder
Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce
- ½ cup pomegranate arils
- ¼ cup micro greens
- 2 tbsp toasted sesame seeds
For the Barley
- Combine the water, barley, and salt in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover and let cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Let the barley stand for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork. Keep warm until ready to serve.
- When ready to serve, add the butter to the barley and toss until the butter melts and coats the barley evenly.
For the Meatballs
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Place all of the ingredients in a large bowl and, using a clean hand, mix to combine.
- Using a tablespoon as a guide, divide and roll the beef mixture into evenly sized meatballs. Transfer the finished meatballs to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the oven. Bake the meatballs for 15-20 minutes or until firm and evenly browned. Keep warm until ready to serve.
For the Sweet and Sour Pomegranate Sauce
- While the meatballs are baking, make the sauce. Pour the pomegranate juice, soy sauce, honey, black vinegar, chili crisp, and Shaoxing wine into a small saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
- In a small bowl whisk to combine the cornstarch and water. Pour the mixture into the simmering sauce and stir until the sauce thickens and becomes glossy.
- Transfer the finished sauce to a heatproof jar and set aside until ready to serve.
- Pour a cup of the sauce over the meatballs and toss to coat. Transfer the meatballs to a platter and the remaining sauce to a small bowl.
- Garnish the meatballs with pomegranate arils, sesame seeds, and microgreens. Serve immediately alongside the additional sauce and the buttered pearl barley.