Saturday, May 21, 2011

Stuffed Lamb (or Beef) Meatballs

Cooking with a student friend recently, I was provided with a pound of ground, locally raised lamb by a couple for whom I've been doing some personal cheffing. This gave me the chance to make them one of my favorite dishes, meatballs.

To stretch that pound of fairly expensive meat and to include a fruit the couple liked, I decided to make Turkish-style stuffed meatballs - "köfte dolmasi." Dried apricots were to be the filling, but other options might have included feta cheese and green onion; spinach and dill; or plums. The styles of meatballs in the vast West-Central Asian culinary region extending from Turkey to Pakistan are very diverse.

Meatballs - variously called kufta, kofta, kefta and köfte throughout that region along the ancient Silk Road - have extraordinary variety, exotic yet delicate fragrances and occasional surprises. Lamb is the favorite meat there.

Because the ground meat was a little fatty, I designed the meatballs to be roasted rather than fried. And I used a non-Turkish manner of binding the meat - chopped rolled oats and a little cornstarch rather than the more traditional egg. (Egg in meatballs produces messy, coagulating juice rather than just oil coming out of the meat.) I did not use bread crumbs because the people for whom the dish was cooked avoid gluten.

My student friend Andrew (from the University of Georgia, not a culinary school) actually was the one who prepped, shaped and stuffed the meatballs, using a recipe I sketched out for him. He liked the result so much he made them again at home, though with ground beef instead of lamb. He pronounced the result "great." Thus the recipe below has been well tested.

Various sauces or condiments would traditionally accompany this type of meatball, the simplest being lemon to squeeze on. Other options include lightly salted garlic-scented yogurt, cucumber-yogurt sauce (cacik/tsadziki) and lemon-tahini sauce. The traditional accompaniment would either be a rice dish or flatbread.

In the lands where these stuffed meatballs originated, alcoholic beverages generally are not consumed.

However, if you were to serve wine (as I would), try a chilled, somewhat fruity white like a dry to mildly sweet Riesling or Gewurztraminer, or a Viognier or Albariño.

The recipe we used will serve four people.

Turkish Meatballs with Apricots: Köfte Dolmasi

2 tablespoons finely minced onion

1 teaspoon olive oil for frying onion

1 pound ground lamb (or beef), not too lean

2 tablespoons quick oatmeal (or mince old-fashioned oatmeal on cutting board with chef's knife)

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon oregano

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

4 to 6 dried apricots (depending on size), finely chopped

Olive oil for glazing

Minced parsley for garnish

Mince then fry onions until softened. Transfer to mixing bowl.

Combine with remaining ingredients other than apricots, oil for glazing and garnish. Knead ingredients together well.

Divide meat into 8 equal portions. Divide chopped apricots into 8 portions.

Form a portion of meat into a flat patty. Place one portion of apricots in middle. Fold meat over and gently seal together to keep apricots in middle. Shape back into round ball, rolling gently between your hands. Place on baking sheet, jointed side down.

Rub a little olive oil on top of meatballs. Roast in 375 degree oven about 12 minutes.

Serve dusted with minced parsley. Accompany with lemon wedges to squeeze on.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Cooking with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The St Bartholomew's staff for whom I cook for their Monday staff meetings includes several people who have to avoid certain foods. The individual for whom I cannot cook with seeds or chopped nuts will not be there this Monday.

That was my chance to use some sun-dried tomatoes I've been keeping for a while. We put them in a couple of dishes at the restaurant, but I don't cook with them often at home.

This Italian ingredient is relatively new on the American cooking scene, only a generation or so. So there are not many dishes here using them.

Here's a creation that takes advantage of dried tomatoes' special qualities. I revive the tomatoes in wine, both at home and at the restaurant. Dried tomatoes have a tangy, acidic flavor that, to me needs something a little sweet to balance them. Fried onions and carrots serve that purpose in this dish.

It's a heavy stew, hinting of northern Italy or southern France. Probably the best accompaniment for it would be polenta. But other starchy, mildly flavored side dishes would work, like brown rice or pasta.

The recipe serves six. I made a double batch for the Monday group, and offered brown rice with it.

Chicken Stewed with Dried Tomatoes

1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut in dice
1/2 cup red wine
1 medium onion, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large clove garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced 1/4 inch
1 cup water
2-inch sprig fresh rosemary (do not use dried; substitute 1 large bay leaf)
2-inch sprig fresh thyme or 1/8 teaspoon dried
1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut in 1 1/4-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
2 fresh basil leaves

Dice tomatoes if not already done. Soak tomatoes in wine while preparing the other ingredients.

In heavy pan, fry onion in olive oil, stirring frequently, until softened and beginning to turn golden.

Add garlic and carrot. Fry 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add tomatoes and their marinade, water, rosemary and thyme. Simmer, covered but stirring periodically, until carrots are tender.

Add chicken and salt. Raise temperature until mixture boils. Reduce heat again and simmer, covered but stirring frequently, until meat is cooked, 12 to 15 minutes. If liquid dries down, add a little water.

Remove stems of herbs. Taste and add salt, if needed.

Remove from heat. Stir in basil leaves.

The dish is tastiest if allowed to cool then reheated to serve. Check salt when reheating.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Braising Kale

At the Athens Farmers Market on Saturday mornings at Bishop Park, local farmers are loaded with kale, all of it organically grown. Particularly pretty is the "Red Russian" variety, a mauve-stemmed favorite that is young and tender. But as delicate as kale's frilly leaves appear, their flavor is assertive.

This is a cool weather green, which with some "hoop house" protection can be produced all winter in Athens and, with some shade, bears into early summer.

An open-leaf cabbage family member, kale reaches back to antiquity. It was well established in ancient Greek and Roman gardens.

Kale is thought to be close to the original wild cabbage from which it and related vegetables were domesticated. Through selection over the millennia, people have developed an entire group of culinarily important plants, all variants of a single biological species. In addition to kale, these include cauliflower, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and red, Savoy and green cabbages.

Kale is particularly rich in vitamins and reasonably rich in calcium. Perhaps even more important is the plant's bounty of antioxidants, thought to have important anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Boiling kale destroys some of these beneficial compounds, but steaming and stir-frying it does not.

Quickly braising kale ("braising" is a Western counterpart to Asian stir-frying) is not only healthful and fast, but brings out the young green's outstanding flavor and texture.

Kale braised with butter or olive oil is fine. Yet after a few dinings it starts to lose interest. But add some diced apple, onion and a little shredded bacon or ham, and the effect is rich and extraordinary.

Here's a simple but rewarding method for braising fresh, local kale with those ingredients. Omit the smoked meat for delightful vegetarian eating.

For kale as a side dish, I wouldn't recommend any particular wine. Wines are best chosen to pair with more central dishes in the meal.

However, if you have a kale fest, serving it over cheese grits, for example, go for a crisp, fruity white wine with some acidity like a Sauvignon blanc, Albari o or Viognier.

The recipe serves six.

Braised Young Kale with Apple

2 bunches (about 8 ounces each) locally grown kale, such as "Red Russian"

1/2 apple, peeled, cored and finely chopped

1/2 of a small onion, minced

1 strip smoked bacon or 1 (1/8-inch) slice smoked deli ham

2 tablespoons olive oil (3 if bacon not used)

1/4 teaspoon salt plus to taste

A sprinkle of black pepper

Water as needed

Rinse kale well in basin of water to eliminate sand or grit. Cut stems into 1-inch lengths and set aside. Cut leaves in half lengthwise, then cut across into 11/2-inch wide strips. Prepare apple and onion.

For bacon, cut raw strip across very thinly (chill in freezer 5 minutes for easier cutting).

For ham, cut into 1-inch wide strips, stack them up and cut across into narrow threads.

Heat large frying pan or wok to medium high. Add oil and bacon or ham, and stir and fry 1 minute. Add apple and onion.

Fry, stirring frequently, until they are softened.

Add kale stems, and stir and fry 1 minute. Add kale leaves, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon or so of water. Fry, stirring almost constantly, until kale is wilted and tender to the bite, adding a little more water as needed to keep a bit of liquid in pan.

Remove from heat. Taste and add salt, if needed.