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.
(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.
- 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
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.