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.

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