Try a North African meatball

New York TimesOctober 2, 2012 


A dish of North African meatballs, or boulettes, with roasted tomatoes and couscous, in New York, Sept. 11, 2012. The extensive Italian repertory may be thought of first when it comes to meat balls, but their counterparts are found everywhere. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)


  • North African Meatballs, also known as Boulettes For the saffron tomato sauce: 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 1/2 cups finely diced onion 3 garlic cloves, minced 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1-inch piece cinnamon stick Large pinch saffron, crumbled Salt and pepper 3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water For the meatballs: 1 1/2 cups cubed day-old firm white bread 1 cup milk 1 pound ground beef or lamb 1 large egg, beaten 1 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon black pepper 4 garlic cloves, minced 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg 1 teaspoon ground ginger 1 teaspoon turmeric 2 teaspoons paprika 1/4 teaspoon cayenne 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 3 tablespoons chopped parsley 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion All-purpose flour, for dusting Olive oil or vegetable oil For the couscous (optional): 1 cup giant couscous, m’hamsa, or medium couscous 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water to soften, then drained Salt 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. HEAT oil over medium-high heat in a wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan to make the sauce. Add onion and cook without browning until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon and saffron and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper and allow to sizzle for 1 minute more. Add broth and simmer gently for 5 minutes. May be made several hours in advance, up to a day. PLACE bread cubes and milk in a small bowl to start the meatballs. Leave bread to soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry. COMBINE squeezed-out bread, ground meat and egg in a large bowl. Add salt, pepper, garlic, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cloves, coriander and cumin. Mix well with hands to distribute seasoning. Add 2 tablespoons each of parsley, cilantro and scallion, and knead for a minute. May be prepared several hours in advance, up to a day. ROLL mixture into small round balls about the size of a quarter. Dust balls lightly with flour. Heat a few tablespoons of oil, or a quarter-inch depth, over medium-high heat and fry meatballs until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Drain and blot on paper towel. Simmer meatballs in saffron-tomato sauce, covered, over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until tender. COOK couscous according to package directions; fluff gently and stir in butter and raisins. Season with salt and cinnamon and toss well. GARNISH meatballs with remaining parsley, cilantro and scallion. Serve with couscous and roasted tomatoes if desired. Yield: 4 to 6 servings, about 36 meatballs.
  • Roasted Tomatoes 8 small ripe tomatoes, halved Salt, to taste Ground toasted cumin, to taste Smoked Spanish paprika, to taste 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. PLACE tomatoes cut side up in a low-sided baking dish. Season to taste with salt, cumin and paprika. Drizzle with olive oil. ROAST in a 400-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until softened and sizzling. Brown lightly under broiler if desired. Serve hot or at room temperature. May be reheated.

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.

To see printable versions of the recipe, click on the recipe name below:

North African Meatballs

Roasted Tomatoes

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