Italo-Armenian Meatball Mashup

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There’s a saying I remember from my days as a newspaper reporter: You’re only as good as your last story. In my family, a similar rule holds true: You’re only as good as your last batch of meatballs. They must be tender and richly flavored; not too big and not too small; light but with enough heft to hold up to simmering in sauce. If they do not meet those standards, well then, woe is you.

Lucky for me, I have a tried and true classic meatball recipe that I can rely on (it is in my forthcoming book The Glorious Pasta of Italy). However, I also happen to be one of those people who can’t leave well enough alone. I am forever fiddling with recipes, mine and others, which is how I came up with my Italo-Armenian Soujouk Spice Meatball Mashup.

The key player here is the aforementioned Soujouk spice, which I discovered awhile back at The Mediterranean Bakery and Cafe, in Alexandria, VA. This grocery store is a gem. Its focus is on Middle Eastern ingredients, but it carries products from all over the world. So you can find everything from fresh pita bread to fresh dates; from halva to halloumi, from Turkish feta to Turkish delight. There is an entire aisle devoted to olive oils and vinegars and another to grains, dried legumes, and pastas.

The spice aisle is stocked with bags filled with crushed dried herbs and jars of earth-toned spices—whole, ground, and blended. I have no idea what prompted me one day to pick up and (surreptitiously) open the jar of Soujouk spice, but I was immediately taken with its strong, warm scent, a mix that I could tell included allspice, cumin, cinnamon, and I wasn’t sure what else. I learned from Armenian friends of mine that the spice is used to flavor a dried sausage of the same name, Soujouk, that also goes by the name Pasturma or Basturma. Like a good curry or chili blend, Soujouk spice is personal and varies depending on who is mixing it. But generally it includes allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, and nutmeg. It is a potent combination. Once, when I spilled a little and vacuumed it up, I could smell it for months afterwards whenever I turned on the vacuum cleaner (even after changing the filter).

The traditional method for making Soujouk calls for mixing beef or lamb (or a combination) with a generous quantity of the spice; stuffing the mixture into a casing (even something as simple as a stocking) and weighing it down; then letting the sausage dry for several days before slicing and frying it. One day, perhaps, I will get to making my own Soujouk sausage. In the mean time, I had a notion that the spice would make a great meatball. I started with lamb, which is popular in Armenian cooking and also in the cooking of Abruzzo, where my family is from. I mixed in fresh bread crumbs from a sturdy loaf of Italian bread, minced garlic and parsley, some crumbled feta, a lightly beaten egg, and a pinch of mint; plus a couple of tablespoons of the Soujouk spice. Instead of shaping the meatballs into spheres, as I usually do, I made fat little patties, which I browned in a little vegetable oil before simmering them in sauce.

Taking a cue from the meatballs, I added mint and Soujouk spice to my tomato sauce, which I also flavored with minced red onion and red wine. I am happy to report that I have not yet been tossed out on my ear; to a person, my family loved these meatballs. I served them over rice, but they would be just as good tossed with pasta, with crumbled feta in place of grated Parmigiano; or even plain, bathed in tomato sauce and with freshly baked pita bread on the side.

 

 

Italo-Armenian Soujouk Spice Meatballs

(copyright 2011 Domenica Marchetti)

These meatballs are a delicious, spice-infused alternative to traditional Italian meatballs. Serve them over rice or pasta, or on their own, bathed in sauce, topped with crumbled feta and good pita bread on the side.

Ingredients

  • For the tomato sauce:
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Soujouk spice
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 4 cups diced canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried mint
  • Fine sea salt

  • For the meatballs:
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 tablespoons Soujouk spice (see Cook’s Note)
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried mint
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup crumbled imported Greek feta

Instructions

Make the sauce: Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan placed over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, until softened but not browned. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the garlic releases its aroma. Sprinkle in the Soujouk spice and mix well. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Let it bubble for a minute or so, until some of the wine has evaporated. Pour in the tomatoes and add the mint. Bring the sauce to a boil; then lower the heat to medium-low or low to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover partially and cook, stirring from time to time, for 25 to 30 minutes, until somewhat thickened. Remove the sauce from the heat and cover to keep it warm.

While the sauce is simmering make the meatballs: Place the breadcrumbs in a small bowl and pour the milk over them. Let the mixture steep for 5 to 10 minutes. Place the lamb in a large bowl and pour the moistened breadcrumbs over it. Add the parsley, garlic, Soujouk spice, mint and salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Pour in the egg and the feta. Use your hands or a sturdy spatula to mix everything together thoroughly.

Form the lamb mixture into 16 balls, and then press them lightly to make patties about 3 inches in diameter. Dip your hands in cold water from time to time to keep the mixture from sticking to your palms. Transfer the patties to a platter or rimmed baking sheet.

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a 12-inch skillet set over medium heat. Arrange half the patties in the skillet and cook without turning them for 3 to 4 minutes, until nicely browned on the bottom. Flip the patties with an angled spatula and cook on the other side until nicely browned, another 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the patties to a paper towel-lined platter or tray to drain. Cook the remaining patties in the same way.

Return the sauce to a simmer over medium heat. Add a splash or two of water if the sauce seems too thick. Gently arrange the meatballs in the saucepan. Cook, reducing the heat to medium-low or low if necessary to maintain a gentle simmer, for 20 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are thoroughly cooked and have had a chance to impart their flavor to the sauce.

Cook's Note: I have to be honest: I have never made my own Soujouk spice blend; the stuff at The Mediterranean Bakery is just too good. I have seen Soujouk spice blend available online. However, if you would like to make your own, mix together equal parts ground allspice, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, nutmeg, and red and black pepper.

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22 Responses to Italo-Armenian Meatball Mashup

  1. Ken⏐hungry rabbit March 15, 2011 at 2:04 am #

    It so wonderful to learn new spices and cooking/recipes from fellow bloggers. I’ll definitely look for Soujouk when I shop for spices next time at the store and expand my repertoire. Thanks Domenica.

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 2:16 am #

      Thank you, Ken. There are so many spices and other ingredients that I bypass in stores because they are unfamiliar to me. It’s nice to branch out every now and again–I’m almost always glad when I do.

  2. Chef Chuck March 15, 2011 at 2:32 am #

    Wow, ~ I like the blend ~ These meatballs sound delish…
    Soujouk spice is new to me, I believe. Thank you for sharing!

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

      Thanks, Chuck. I’m so glad to introduce a new flavor to fellow food lovers. Soujouk spice is not the easiest thing to find, but it’s worth seeking out (or mixing yourself). Cheers

  3. Liz the Chef March 15, 2011 at 2:52 am #

    Cannot wait for your cookbook…I had a close Armenian friend when I was a student at Kalamazoo College – her family lived in Bloomfield Hills, a fancy- dance suburb of Detroit. I still remember the exotic aroma of kitchen scents in her family’s kitchen!

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      Thanks, Liz–I met my Armenian friends when we lived in Detroit. Great food traditions. I hope you will like the book (I think you will : )

  4. foodwanderings March 15, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    Hi Domenica, SO nice to learn about Armenian soujouk. Have never heard of it but again I don’t know much about Armenian cooking. You are so right it all depends on the tastes and hand of the peson who mixes it true with curries, garam masalas and baharat. I made, a simple version of baharat mix not for meatballs but something similar this week, lamb and beef kebabs. Great post my friends and introduction to another gem in Alexandria!

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

      Thank you for your comment, Shulie. I learned a little bit about Armenian cooking when I lived in Detroit. Wonderful, delicious food. Your kebabs sound wonderful. We love kebabs in our family; I will have to make them. Thanks, my friend.

  5. Maureen March 15, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    I can’t wait to get over to that Bakery. I’m dog sitting in April in Falls Church and will certainly be doing the food Tour du NoVA that week!

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

      Maureen–let me know when you know when you will be in the area. I would love to go with you!

  6. janie March 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    I love any kind of meatballs and lamb and the spice mix sounds delicious. I have a Middle Eastern market close by and hope I can find Soujouk there.

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm #

      Hope you are able to find it, Janie. It’s worth seeking out. Am thinking of using soujouk spice to roast some vegetables. I’ve also put it in a frittata with halloumi cheese. Delicious!

  7. Sprinzette @ Ginger and Almonds March 15, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Hurrah – a new meatball recipe. Gorgeous photos too. Really enjoying your blog.

    • Domenica March 15, 2011 at 10:21 pm #

      Thank you! And thank you for the photo compliment. I am a writer and a cook so I am totally winging it with the images. But I do enjoy taking pictures (much better at landscape than food). Cheers

  8. Cathy March 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Domenica – I love the way you take what you know and turn it all around in your recipe-brilliant mind to make something so unexpected! I’ve got to find Soujouk – and make some sausages.

  9. Domenica March 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

    Thank you Cathy. We should team up and make soujouk sausage together–got any stockings?!

  10. Rita April 3, 2011 at 3:26 pm #

    Domenica, thanks for the recipe! I am Armenian and making Soujouk is a major event where all the moms, aunts and grandmothers come together to make enough for all their families…all the kids sit around waiting to taste the little pieces they fry to make sure the spice is right. But thanks for the recipe, when I am craving Soujouk this is a great alternative to quickly satisfy! Can’t wait to make it for my mom.

    • Domenica April 3, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

      Many thanks for your comment, Rita. I hope you and your mom enjoy the meatballs. Making Soujouk sounds like such a great family event. One day (hopefully soon) I am going to tackle it. Cheers

  11. Steve December 16, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

    Basturma and Soujouk are actually two different Armenian dried meat products that are equally delicious! You seem to have a good grasp of how to make soujouk, you should try it sometime. I have started making it recently and it is easy and tastes wonderful!

    • Domenica Marchetti December 17, 2013 at 10:42 am #

      Steve, thanks for the clarification. I want to try making soujouk sometime. If you have a link to a good soujouk recipe I’d love to take a look. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Joanne Sliteris September 7, 2015 at 6:57 pm #

    I improvised your entire recipe based on the ingredients in my kitchen, and made the Soujouk spice mix sans the fenugreek which i did not have. Substituted ground turkey and one hot Italian link sausage for the meat. Used quinoa and panko instead of bread crumbs, heavy cream instead of milk, and 1/2 bunch not one teaspoon of cilantro. I used larger portions of the spices and the herbs. Poached them in a broth made of water, left over tomato juice from a drained can of tomatoes used the other day for a sauce, sautéed chopped red onions lacinto kale in butter and added to the broth, and the other 1/2 bunch of cilantro. The flavor is amazing and a keeper. Good as a soup on a cool day, or just use the meatballs as appetizers by themselves. The huge amount of spices makes them delicious on their own. Thanks for the basic recipe.

    • Domenica Marchetti September 8, 2015 at 8:11 am #

      Hi Joanna, welcome and many thanks for sharing your adaptation. It sounds delicious. It’s been awhile since I made these; thanks for the reminder. Now that the weather is turning cooler here, these would be a welcome dinner. Cheers, D

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