Greek-Turkish Meatballs, a treat that can be grilled

Greek-Turkish Meatballs, a treat that can be grilled

I love meatballs, all kinds of meatballs. And if you follow my recipes you’ll see lots of them. But I’m in good company. Meatballs show up in the still-existing 4th to 5th century A.D. Roman cookbook compiled by Apicius, a notorious epicure from the late Empire period. Indeed, the first chapter of actual recipes in his cookbook (the introductory chapter describes cooking and household methods) is “Sarcoptes,” translating to rissoles or meatballs. How’s that for support for my love of meatballs?

Ground meat – chopped with a knife then pounded in a mortar and pestle in ancient days – can be seasoned throughout. Cooked correctly, meatballs can be elegantly moist and tender. There’s even a fancy Ottoman Turkish meatball called Kandin budu köfte, or “Lady’s Thigh” meatballs. I’m not making this up.

I’ve enjoyed Italian-American meatballs (not actually Italian) with spaghetti or on “Italian” sandwiches all my life. I make them a lot for my kids and, now, grandkids (see my blog post from 7/30/2019). But I find the meatballs from the Middle East, Central Asia and India the most exciting, and subtly but exotically fragrant. Those typically have names derived from old Persian, where the word, “kuftan,” meant “pounded.” They show up as kofta (KOF-ta) in India and the Arab countries, köfte (KUF-tay) in Turkey, and keftedes (kef-TED-es) in Greece. Generally, these meatballs are made from lamb, but for economic reasons, and where permitted religiously, beef is also used. Meatballs can be stuffed (köfte dolmasi) as with dried fruit, chopped nuts, cheese, or spinach. Or they can be skewered for grilling (kofta kebab). Or they can be served with other appetizers as a “meze.”

When grilled (often after pre-cooking) and accompanied by a sauce, meatballs can be main-course treats, not some inexpensive alternative to a piece of meat. In Sweden, delicate poached meatballs in cream sauce with dill are a centerpiece at weddings and Christmas smorgasbords.

Shown with grilled sweet peppers and rice pilaf
Here’s a good example of Middle Eastern meatballs as a main-course meat, particularly when finished on the grill. They can be skewered for a “şiş” kebab (şiş, or “shish,” meaning skewer in Turkish). These go well with a rice pilaf containing dried fruits plus a yogurt-based condiment or a cinnamon-tinged tomato sauce. Or they can be rolled in warmed flatbread, like pita, and drizzled with lemon-tahina sauce (see my blog post of 8/14/2019), tomatoes, lettuce, and fresh herbs like parsley or mint for a great Middle Eastern sandwich.

A wine that pairs with these meatballs is a light-bodied red, such as Pinot Noir, Chianti, or Beaujolais. A hearty but dry rosé also works. In Greece, the wine might be white Retsina, a resin-tinged wine (which I actually like), but it’s an acquired taste.

The recipe serves six to eight.

Greek/Turkish Meatballs (Keftedes/Köfte)

1 small-medium onion
1 medium clove of garlic
2 pounds ground lamb, beef, turkey, or a combination
3/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1 egg
6 tablespoons water (3 tablespoons if using only turkey)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon oregano
3/8 teaspoon ground allspice
3/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
Flour for dusting, if frying
Olive oil, or sunflower or canola oil, if frying
Minced parsley for garnish
Lemon wedges for serving
Dice then finely mince onion and garlic. Combine with meat, breadcrumbs, egg, water and seasonings. Knead ingredients together well.

Shape meat into balls the size of a walnut (wet your hands occasionally), then extend them into oval shapes like a football. Set them on a cookie sheet as you make them.
Either roast them: bake on an oiled cookie sheet in a 375-degree oven for 13 minutes, then roll them sliding a sharp spatula under them, and bake for 10 more minutes. Or fry them: heat large frying pan with a little oil; dust meatballs lightly with flour and roll them gently to coat all surfaces; fry them, half at a time, turning frequently until they are lightly browned on all sides, adding oil if needed.

Drain meatballs briefly on paper towel. Transfer to a platter in a warm oven, or store in refrigerator for later toasting on a grill, individually or skewered lengthwise as kebabs.

Serve with a rice dish, such as Pilaf (see my blog post of 8/24/2019). Accompany with lemon wedges or with cucumber-yogurt tzatziki (Greek)/cacik (Turkish for virtually the same thing) sauce (see my blog post from 8/20/2019).

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