Monday, March 3, 2008

Great (Meat) Balls of Fire

As I've written in the past, I once spent quite a bit of time seeking out the perfect meatball. I of course eventually found that ideal meatball, but it doesn't mean I haven't kept searching for new and interesting recipes. I recently revisited a few of those recipes that I'd originally discarded when I became obsessed with dip-able meatballs. I didn't want to do the big fat meatball and heavy marinara thing, so I decided to go with a middle eastern/Greek inspired preparation. I already had all of the necessary herbs and spices on hand and a nice tub of yogurt in the fridge that would act as the base for a refreshing dipping sauce. The only thing left to figure out was what the carb would be--after all, what's a meatball dish in any country if not juicy morsels served over a carb of some kind with a tasty sauce? I wanted to avoid pasta and potatoes (my usual carb companion of choice), so I went with couscous, which I know is technically pasta, but somehow seems lighter.

I had the perfect opportunity to test out this recipe in my farewell dinner with Gloria. Well, it wasn't really a farewell dinner since she'll only be in France for a little over a week, but for best friends who see each other every day (and have always worked in the same 2 buildings) it's actually quite a bit of time apart. The anchor of this bon voyage meal was obviously the meatballs, which had very little in common with the kind that I typically make. These meatballs were incredibly fragrant with the heady scents of cumin, coriander, fennel and cilantro. I would highly recommend using whole spices and roasting and grinding them yourself, if just for the experience of cooking while their aroma hangs in the air. A lovely aromatic cloud floats through the whole dish since the spices in the yogurt sauce echo those of the meatballs. The couscous was a perfect carby foil for the dish, being both light and flavorful at the same time. I use the standard method of preparation, but usually make it in strong chicken broth with lots of butter and olive oil to keep it light and fluffy.

Needless to say,the dish was successful. It is extremely rare for the two of us to sit and do anything in silence, and we almost succeeded if not for the occasional "yum" groan. It's a perfect dish to share with your friends and eat with your hands--just grab a meatball, dunk it in the sauce, and scoop up of a forkful of couscous. I guarantee if you make this to entertain, your guests may just postpone their vacation.

Spiced Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce

1 1/4 lb ground beef
1 onion, finely diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup milk
1 large egg, beaten
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp cumin seed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1 Tbsp olive oil

Yogurt Sauce

1/2 cup Greek style yogurt (whole milk)
1 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp cumin seed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
3 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

1. Dry roast all of the fennel, cumin and coriander seeds in a hot pan until fragrant. Grind spices in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

2. Add half of the spice mixture to the yogurt along with the cilantro, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Set aside.

3. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet and sweat onions and garlic until soft (do not brown). Set aside to cool.

4. In a large bowl, toss breadcrumbs with milk to soften. Add cooled onion mixture, egg, cilantro and remaining spices to the bowl. Add meat and mix until everything is well incorporated. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

5. Roll meat into 1 to 1 1/2 inch wide balls and fry (in batches) in 3 Tbsp oil (I used light olive oil). Add any extra oil as needed.

6. Serve over a bed of couscous with yogurt sauce on the side. Enjoy!

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