Thanksgiving Turkey Meatballs and Gravy
2020 will probably be the year of the small scale Thanksgiving. This year, my immediate family has decided to give it a go at getting together for the first time since last November. While this will be the most people I've hosted at once since the pandemic hit, it's still a far smaller crowd than I usually have over for a holiday where we tend to have a least one set of in-laws join in as well. This got me to thinking that there is likely a lot of folks going even smaller than I am and are in situations where an entire turkey may be more than overkill...so what might be a good alternative to get all those fall celebration flavors in a smaller scale and with less effort? My brain told me that Thanksgiving turkey meatballs with gravy would be a really good answer to that question, so I gave it shot to see how it fared.
So much of the flavor of the Thanksgiving meal comes from long roasting times that incorporates lots of meat, veggies, and herbs, so simulating that in less time and in smaller quantities is certainly a challenge. I was considering ways to approach the problem and remembered back to a gravy recipe from Cook's Illustrated I tried out when I was first learning how to cook that delivered a deep flavor using store brought broths and some fresh veggies. The recipe starts with the turkey-roasting trinity of carrots, onion, and celery, which are chopped in a food processor for expediency.
I chopped up more than the original recipe called for, because it seemed apt to use this same veggie mixture for seasoning the meatballs as well. To develop a well cooked flavor, I sautéed the vegetable medley in butter until well softened and lightly browned, then I added in the classic Thanksgiving herbs of sage and thyme. I transferred roughly a third of the veggie and herb mixture to a bowl and then added flour into what remained in the saucepan, whisking it until browned and fragrant to create a flavorful roux.
Next I whisked in both chicken and beef broths, added a bay leaf, and let the liquid simmer until it thickened into a nice gravy. The gravy was then strained to remove the solids and I adjusted the seasoning with salt and pepper to my liking. The gravy was a bit on the thin side for my taste, so I used a cornstarch slurry to thicken it up and adjusted my final recipe to add less broth so this hopefully won't be an issue for you. If you find your gravy is a little too thick though, just add a bit more broth to thin it out in the end.
By the time that flavorful gravy was complete, the veggies I had set aside had cooled down and I felt comfortable moving forward with meatball creation. Into the bowl I added in 85% lean ground turkey, an egg, panko breadcrumbs, garlic, salt, and pepper and mixed everything together with my hands.
I then rolled out the meat mixture into balls roughly 1 1/2-inches in diameter to make a size fitting for a main course. I had the thought to make these smaller and serve them as an appetizer too, which you can of course do, and then this recipe would probably serve twice as many folks as an hors d'oeuvres instead of a main.
Ground poultry can be notoriously fragile on the grill, but these meatballs felt pretty solid thanks to the breadcrumbs and egg binding them together. It's still a best practice to cook them over high heat, which helps sear them fast to hold their shape, making them less susceptible to falling apart when moving around. So I began these over a freshly lit batch of coals, which cooked them even faster than I was expecting.
The first side darkened quickly and might have over seared a few of the meatballs, so from then on I kept a closer eye on things and turned the meatballs frequently for even browning without over doing it. As each meatball was done, I moved it to the cool side of my two-zone fire, and once all were there, I covered the grill and let them cook until they reached 155°F in the center, which only took a few minutes for me.
After portioning the meatballs out, I topped them with gravy and added some fitting sides by way of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and roasted root vegetables. I'm sure the entire plate had an influence over my perception, but this delivered so many comforting tastes of the Thanksgiving meal. I felt the veggies and garlic gave the meatballs a very appropriate flavor that gained an all-day roasted character once the gravy was added into the equation. The meatballs were rich and juicy, which made the contrasting cranberry sauce a welcomed addition and really cemented the holiday experience in my mind. I put together the entire meal in a matter of a few hours, with the meatballs and gravy accounting for just a third of that time, but the final plate certainly had that cooking-in-the-kitchen-for-days taste, which was exactly what I was after and something I think many others will be too in a year where preparing their holiday meal for families and friends is more likely than not to be done for numbers that are significantly less than in an average year.
Thanksgiving Turkey Meatballs and Gravy
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 50 Minutes
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 1 Hour
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces (about 3/4 cup)
- 2 ribs celery, chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 1/4 cups)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1 1/2 cups low-sodium beef broth
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 1/3 pounds ground turkey thighs or 85% lean pre-packaged ground turkey
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon freshly minced garlic (about 1 medium clove)
- Kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- In a food processor, pulse carrot until broken into rough 1/4-inch pieces, about five 1-second pulses. Add celery and onion; pulse until all vegetables are broken into 1/8-inch pieces, about five 1-second pulses. Heat butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat; when foaming subsides, add vegetables and cook, stirring frequently, until softened and well browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in thyme and sage and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer roughly 1/3 of vegetable mixture to a medium bowl and set aside.
- Reduce heat to medium; stir in flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thoroughly browned and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Whisking constantly, gradually add chicken and beef broths; bring to boil, skimming off any foam that forms on the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low, add bay leaf, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened and reduced to 3 cups, 20 to 25 minutes. Strain gravy through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean saucepan, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible; discard solids. Adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Set aside or store in an air-tight container and refrigerate for up to a week. Reheat gravy before serving.
- Add turkey, breadcrumbs, egg, garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and 1 teaspoon of pepper into bowl with reserved vegetables and mix with hands until incorporated. Roll out meat mixture into balls roughly 1 1/2 inches in diameter.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place meatballs on hot side of grill and cook, turning occasionally, until well browned all over. Move meatballs to cool side of grill, cover, and continue to cook until center of meatballs registers 155°F on an instant read thermometer. Transfer meatballs to a serving platter and let rest for up to 5 minutes. Serve immediately with reheated gravy.