I can’t imagine a better dinner to help ring in the New Year than a plate of these lemony cardamom spiced meatballs nestled in tahini sauce. We had ours with a thick swath of CREAMY HUMMUS, a chopped tomato and cucumber salad, and GRILLED LAFFA BREAD. While it may sound like an exotic meal, it’s really just a matter of how and in what proportions you use common ingredients. These lamb meatballs start out with the usual egg, onion and breadcrumbs, but take a more flavorful turn with multiple fistfuls of fresh herbs, pine nuts, feta cheese, the zest of two lemons, and freshly ground cardamom.
Moroccan food has always fascinated me. It’s one of the oldest cuisines on the planet, and also one of the most complex, thanks to the particular geography of the region and the fact that it’s been a crossroads for so many different cultures over the centuries. The diverse flavors bounce off one another to make for an incredibly vibrant experience. In comparison to, say, an Indian curry, where the many spices marry together, in these meatballs you will get the lemon, the mint, the feta, the spices, and herbs all competing for your attention. I love that.
These meatballs are an easy way to introduce yourself to some of the key flavors of the cuisine. Lamb is the traditional meat that comes to mind when I think of Moroccan cooking; it has a rich, earthy flavor that gets balanced by the other strong elements in this dish. It’s critical to use a light touch when mixing ground meat. There are lots of flavor components in this recipe that need to be distributed into the lamb, but you don’t want to compact the meat in the process. Your hands, fingertips actually, are the only tools for the job, and they’ll help insure that these meatballs have a light, delicate texture.
- 1 lb ground lamb
- 1/2 medium red onion, very finely minced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- a 2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated or finely minced
- 1/4 cup plain dry bread crumbs
- 1 large egg, well beaten
- a handful of fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
- a handful of fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
- a handful of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
- zest of two lemons
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1/2 cup fresh feta cheese, finely crumbled
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp fresh cracked pepper
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp freshly toasted and ground cardamom*
- olive oil for frying
- 2/3 cup tahini
- juice of 1 lemon
- 3/4 tsp salt
- pine nuts
- chopped parsley, cilantro, or mint
- a sprinkling of smoked paprika, or sumac
- Set oven to 350F
- Place the lamb, onion, garlic, ginger, bread crumbs, beaten egg, fresh herbs, lemon zest, pine nuts, feta cheese, cinnamon, cardamom, and salt and pepper into a large bowl. Mix everything together using your fingertips. You want to get all the ingredients evenly distributed without compacting the meat.
- Form walnut sized meatballs from the mixture. You can do this several hours ahead of time if you want, but be sure to cover the meat completely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.
- Cover the bottom of a heavy pan with the olive oil and heat until hot. Work in batches so you don't crowd the pan, and brown the meatballs on all sides. Add more oil as necessary.
- Place the meatballs on a baking sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, or until cooked through. (Ground lamb should be cooked to about 170F)
- Meanwhile make the sauce by mixing the tahini and lemon juice, and then adding enough water to make a thin sauce. Salt it to taste.
- Serve the meatballs hot from the oven, nestled in the sauce. Garnish with more pine nuts, herbs, and a sprinkling of sumac or paprika.
To remove seeds from cardamom pods, lightly crush the pods with a rolling pin to open them. Remove the black seeds and toast in a dry pan over medium heat for a couple of minutes, moving the seeds constantly, until they are fragrant. Then grind them with a spice or coffee grinder. This recipe is inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi
One of the biggest arguments, in my mind, for making the effort to experience the foods of other cultures, is to wake up our own palate. And not only for the fun of it, either. Keep your taste buds entertained and you might just be able to resist the not so healthy stuff we all fall back on when we’re bored.
Cardamom isn’t one of the most common spices in Moroccan cooking, but it makes these meatballs distinctive. The papery pods come in green and a dark brown variety, and it’s the green we’re using here. They contain little dark seeds that pop out when you crack them open, and it takes just seconds to grind the seeds into a powder in a small coffee or spice grinder. It is so worth it. Of course you can substitute ground cardamom, but promise yourself you will try the whole spice one day…it’s a must for those times when you want to take your cooking to the next level.
*This post was written in association with Schwartz *