Eight ingredients, plus pantry staples. That's all it takes to make an entire meal from scratch. Add in a good bottle of wine for less than $20, and you've got a feast for family or friends.
I don’t often cook Italian food at home, but meatballs are a major exception. They’re inexpensive, fast and easy to make, and the mix-ins can be tailored to whatever I’m craving that day.
I typically go with ground beef for a guaranteed rich-and-juicy result. But to diversify what’s become a weeknight mainstay for me, I wanted to find a way to use chicken instead, without it getting dry and crumbly, as it’s prone to do. And in my opinion, ground chicken needs an extra dose of flavor to stand up against its red-meat counterpart.
One solution? Pesto. Adding it to the meat before cooking brings the vibrant flavors of fresh basil and garlic, along with much-needed fat content from the olive oil and nuts. (I went with walnuts over pine nuts because I prefer their flavor, but choose whichever is your favorite.) Pesto is remarkably simple to prepare, so it won’t derail the ease of this meal. You can even make it several days in advance, and keep any extra in the freezer.
You’ll first make a version that’s thicker and more paste-like than a standard pesto to ensure the meatballs keep their shape, and you’ll add breadcrumbs to assist with that too. Later, you’ll thin the pesto out slightly with a couple more tablespoons of olive oil to serve as extra sauce.
Other than shredding and grating the cheeses if you’re doing that yourself, there’s barely any prep required for this recipe. Most of the work is done for you in the food processor, and once the pesto’s made, all that’s left to do is combine it with the chicken and cook the meatballs.
They’ll spend some time in a high-heat oven (preferably on the top rack to promote browning), then get topped with shredded mozzarella and go under the broiler. The melty cheese surrounds each meatball and creates lacy, crispy edges around the sides, adding a feeling of decadence to this quick dinner. Once you first pull the baking sheet out of the oven, you can reposition the cooked meatballs into groups of three or four before topping with cheese. That way, when they are broiled, each serving is tucked under a continuous blanket of cheese.
Vermentino is known as a solid wine pairing for pesto, with pronounced acidity to cut through the fat and an herbaceousness that complements the basil-based sauce. I found that it’s also the right choice for the chicken component of this dish, as it’s a medium-bodied wine with some savory notes but plenty of floral and fruit character.
I tasted these chicken meatballs with two Vermentinos, including one from the Italian island of Sardinia, but the French selection actually wound up being a much better fit. The 2019 vintage of the Château Maris Vermentino Vin de France from Languedoc-Roussillon showed notes of citrus and stone fruit that brought an illusion of subtle sweetness to the salty and savory dish. At the same time, herbal and lightly floral accents created the pleasing sidekick for the pesto that I was hoping for. If you’re reaching for a non-Vermentino white, try to find one that has some body and isn’t overly bright and crisp. With such a straightforward recipe, there’s really no reason not to pull the cork before you get cooking.
8 & $20: Cheesy Pesto-Chicken Meatballs
Pair with a medium-bodied white wine with herbal notes and substantial acidity such as Château Maris Vermentino Vin de France 2018 (88 points, $18).
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Approximate food costs: $25
- 2 ounces basil (about 1 cup packed or 1 1/2 cups loosely packed)
- 1/4 cup walnuts
- 1 whole clove garlic, peeled
- 6 tablespoons good olive oil, divided, plus more for greasing pan
- 3 tablespoons grated parmesan
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 2 tablespoons unseasoned breadcrumbs
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella
1. Preheat oven to 425° F. Add basil, walnuts and garlic to a food processor. Pulse to roughly combine (about 10 pulses), then continuously blend while streaming in 4 tablespoons of olive oil until the mixture is fully combined and smooth, pausing to scrape down the sides when needed. Stir in grated parmesan and then season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. Add ground chicken to a large bowl with breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of the pesto. Gently mix with a spatula to combine. Use your hands to shape the mixture into golf ball–sized spheres and place on a large baking sheet greased with olive oil.
3. Transfer to the oven to bake for 14 minutes, flipping the meatballs halfway through. While the meatballs are cooking, stir about 2 more tablespoons of olive oil into the remaining pesto and set aside for serving.
4. Pull the baking sheet from the oven and turn on the broiler. Top each meatball with a generous amount of shredded mozzarella and broil until the cheese is melting and beginning to brown, about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve immediately with remaining pesto, on the side or tossed with pasta. Serves 4; makes 10 to 12 meatballs.