Meatballs are comfort food the world over – cheap, easy to love and simple to make.
I suppose we all think of the extensive Italian repertory first when it comes to these delicious spheres of tender fried polpettine or saucy Italian-American-style meatballs, but their counterparts are found everywhere.
In France, meatballs are called boulettes (sounds better than meatballs), and by far the favorite versions are the spice-scented North African type. Most of the neighborhood Tunisian and Moroccan restaurants in Paris offer them, served as an appetizer or a side, or in a fragrant main-course tagine with couscous.
In Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, former French colonies, that’s what they’re called, too, at least on tourist menus; they also go by numerous other names in local languages. Jewish communities in those countries traditionally serve boulettes on Friday night for the Sabbath meal. Assorted sweet spices, along with chopped cilantro and parsley, are added to minced lamb or goat, then formed into delicate little balls. Simmered in a saffron-scented broth, they are usually accompanied by stewed seasonal vegetables.
When I made boulettes at home, I took a few liberties. The recipe is an amalgam of several that I found on my bookshelf, among them one called boulettes tangeroises in an old French cookbook. Since I like things a bit spicier, my boulettes are more like Tunisian ones, in which hot pepper is more assertive.
I used 85 percent lean beef and also tried a ground turkey version. Both were good, though the beef boulettes had a more supple texture. Instead of medium-grain couscous or Arab bread to serve with my meatballs, I wanted the larger, chewier giant pearls sometimes called Israeli couscous.
I spiced and roasted some tomatoes as a vegetable accompaniment. Roasted artichokes or zucchini would also be good, as would braised celery and carrots.
Regarding the browning of the meatballs, there are options there, too. Dusting them in flour before lightly frying helps keep the meatballs tender and thickens the sauce, but they can be browned without flour if desired. Or instead of frying, they can be briefly broiled before simmering. And if you don’t want a sauce, just finish the cooking in the skillet and serve the pan-fried meatballs crisp and hot.
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