The meatballs of the mideast

At a casual Mizrahi restaurant, I tasted "koofta'ot," (Hebrew for meatballs) when my husband ordered them. To my surprise, I liked them.

November 1, 2006 10:51
meatballs 88

meatballs 88 . (photo credit: )


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Meatball-and-spaghetti suppers weren't my favorite meals when I was growing up. I can still hear my mother's voice encouraging my brother and me to eat more meatballs. Referring to the little boy next door, she would say, "Have another one; Howie eats six!" This prejudice against meatballs stayed with me for years, until my late teens, when I moved to Israel. At a casual Mizrahi restaurant, I tasted "koofta'ot," (Hebrew for meatballs) when my husband ordered them. They were seasoned with the Yemenite soup spice mixture, hawaijj marak-cumin, turmeric and black pepper, then poached in broth and served over rice seasoned with the same spices. To my surprise, I liked them. After that, when I made meatballs, this was the seasoning blend I usually chose. On a trip to Istanbul I gained new respect for meatballs; there they are called "kofte", similar to the Hebrew "koofta". Sometimes they were made with lamb rather than beef. In some kofte the meat was mixed with rice, which fluffed up as the meatballs cooked. Gardener's kofte was attractive and savory, served in tomato sauce with peas, potato cubes and fried eggplant. Allspice gives these meatballs their distinctive flavor, wrote Ayla Esen Algar, author of The Complete Book of Turkish Cooking. I also liked the Turkish kofte simmered in tomato-green pepper sauce, and their beef and rice kofte in lemon and egg sauce. When we visited Gaziantep in southeast Turkey, our friend Filiz Hosukoglu introduced us to delicious meatless lentil kofte. They were composed of red lentils and bulgur wheat and flavored with cumin, paprika and plenty of green onion and parsley. In Greece the word kofte becomes keftedes or keftaides. Mint is a popular seasoning for the Hellenic meatballs, which might be simmered in tomato sauce flavored with white wine and cinnamon. According to Diane Kochilas, the author of Glorious Foods of Greece, some keftedes are composed of goat meat and trahana, tiny pebble-shaped pasta that resembles couscous, and flavored with red onion, garlic and lots of fresh mint and parsley. Israeli chef Orit Pery of Moadon Allon in Givat Ada also uses herbs with exuberance in her meatballs. In her recipe for parsley and basil meatballs in The Chef's Kitchen by Elinoar Rabin and Zeev Aner (Hebrew), for 1 kg of meat she adds 1 kg of herbs! She cooks the meatballs in a rich tomato sauce with red onion and garlic sauteed in olive oil. Traveling east, you'll find kofta all the way to India. As in Turkey, cooks there make both meat and vegetarian kofta. A favorite of mine at Indian vegetarian restaurants is malai kofta, made of vegetables and white cheese, simmered in a creamy, cardamom-flavored cashew sauce. My friend Neelam Batra, author of 1,000 Indian Recipes, makes chicken-almond kofta, spicy lamb kofta with chilies, gingerroot, cilantro and garlic, and spinach potato kofta in green curry sauce. Last week we unexpectedly came across a glorious representative of the meatball family when we attended the public celebration of the Mehregan Festival, the Persian autumn holiday, held at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, California. "Would you like to try a kufteh tabrizi?" asked the man who was serving them at a food booth from which enticing aromas wafted. This golden brown meatball in the style of Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran, was big about the size of an orange. Shirin, who had brought it from her restaurant, told me it contained lentils and saffron. The meatball was served in a smooth tomato sauce with a pleasing lemony taste and an orange hue from turmeric. It came with lavash (a flat bread), from which you tear pieces and eat bits of the meatball inside them. We sampled a little, and it was delicious. Actually, it tasted somewhat familiar it reminded us of Iraqi kubeh bamia (a meatball-dumpling with a semolina coating, simmered with okra in a similar tomato sauce). The meatball was studded with long, slim grains of Basmati rice and barberries, which look like red raisins and taste tart and sweet. When we ate our way to the meatball's center, we found a tender dried apricot half. Najmieh Batmanglij, author of New Food of Life, wrote that it usually also contains walnuts and pieces of prunes. No wonder this festive, fruity dish was chosen to celebrate the Mehregan holiday. According to Batmanglij, the festival, which is dedicated to the god of light, "may be one of the most ancient origins of the thanksgiving harvest ceremonies celebrated in the west." Turkish Meatballs in Tomato Pepper Sauce Serve these meatballs with rice, fried potatoes or Iraqi pita, and a plate of Israeli salad or green salad. For a leaner dish, substitute turkey for all or half the beef. 2 slices bread 454 grams lean ground beef 1 egg 1/3 cup finely minced onion 2 large garlic cloves, minced 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon paprika 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, or more if needed Tomato Green Pepper Sauce (see Note below for preparation instructions). Soak bread in water, squeeze dry and break into small pieces. Combine bread with beef, egg, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, cinnamon and paprika. Knead until thoroughly mixed. With moistened hands, shape mixture into balls, using 1 or 2 tablespoons for each. Roll them between your palms until they are smooth. Heat oil in a heavy saute pan or large saucepan. Add meatballs in batches and brown them on all sides over medium-high heat, adding more oil to the pan as necessary and heating it before adding more meatballs. Transfer meatballs to paper towels with a slotted spoon. Discard fat from skillet. Add tomato pepper sauce to pan and bring to a simmer. Add meatballs, cover and simmer over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until cooked through, adding a little hot water if sauce becomes too thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot. Makes 4 or 5 servings. Note: Tomato Green Pepper Sauce: Combine a 800-gram can tomatoes, drained and chopped, with 2 large chopped garlic cloves, 1 diced green pepper, 2 teaspoons tomato paste and 1 cup water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmered uncovered for 15 minutes. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.

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