Chopped Challenge #2: mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with corn chip cornbread

Course: entree

Ingredients: lamb, sweet potatoes, chives, corn chips

The first thing I thought of when N. issued me this “mystery basket” was meatballs: the lamb and chives would be pressed lovingly into a tender little sphere perhaps reminiscent of these beauties from my meatball challenge year, and instead of pilaf, I would nestle them into a bed of softly cooked sweet potato noodles. Spoodles?

But there were those corn chips. As with last month, one of the players stubbornly refused to fit in. I thought halfheartedly of nachos, but then, remembering a play on mole spices crusted onto roasted sweet potatoes I’d attempted a few years ago, I suddenly envisioned a chili. Ground lamb, cubes of sweet potatoes, black beans, a roasty dark beer, all swimming in a sauce resounding with the flavors of that most famous player in Oaxacan cuisine.

Of course my mole is an approximation. It’s an adaptation of an adaptation of one of Rick Bayless’s recipes, and I can claim no authenticity. But mole and its flavors correspond well with chili: the peppers are there, of course, though lending more fruitiness than heat in most cases, and the warm spices play so nicely with lamb, taming its gaminess. Mole gets its thickening power (as well as flavor, of course) from toasted nuts and seeds, and I realized these would make an excellent thickening agent for the chili, as well as adding tasty, toasty depth. It felt like cheating to just sprinkle on the chives at the end, so I decided I would make a chive oil to drizzle on top, for a little fresh onion flavor and a bright burst of contrasting color.

Now that I knew I was making chili, the corn chips became easier to deal with. Again, as with the chives, serving them simply as dippable garnishes to the main event sounded delicious, but too easy. Since they are essentially cornmeal and salt (with a few extras), I wondered if I could grind them up and use them as a base for cornbread, which is our typical accompaniment to chili.

After about two bites, N. told me that “the judges” thought I would definitely progress to the dessert round, so I’m going to call this a successful experiment. Lamb and mole are meant to be together, and as so many makers of bean-based brownies have already discovered, black beans and chocolate – that most recognizable of mole ingredients – complement each other very well. There’s just enough heat to prevent the sweet potatoes from getting too saccharine, and the chive oil, though we agreed it was negligible in terms of flavor, was a very striking drizzle: bright emerald against cocoa-dark.

The cornbread turned out well too, although it was a touch sweet and not particularly strong in corn flavor – adding whole kernels of corn helped, but as I’ll also note in the recipe below, subbing in stone ground cornmeal for a portion of the chip powder would likely produce a cornier end product (or, you know, just use cornmeal…). Something about the flavor and the softer-than-usual texture reminded me of those scoops of corn cake you get at Tex-Mex restaurants, which made me forgive its otherwise regrettable lightness in flavor. In an effort to make it a little more savory, and get good use out of all of my ingredients, I whipped up a little chive butter in case we wanted to top the cornbread. We agreed this was probably unnecessary – the cornbread was nice and moist on its own – but tasty all the same, and how lovely to be able to do the whole thing in the food processor!

I’m including the recipes for both here, and the chive components, though I have to admit that with the chili, I wasn’t timing things too carefully. My directions about how long the recipe takes to make are… let’s kindly call them an approximation. I’d say you should make this, if you’re going to, over a leisurely afternoon, so you have plenty of time for things to simmer.

Corn chip cornbread with chive butter
Makes a 9x9x2 inch square loaf
About 40 minutes
For cornbread:
1 cup corn chip powder, from about 2 cups corn chips, loosely packed (note: this will produce a less corn-y tasting bread. For stronger corn flavor, use only 1 cup of the corn chips, and add ½ cup stone ground cornmeal. If you do this, you may have to add just a touch of salt)
1 cup all purpose flour
¼ cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cool but not refrigerator cold
1 cup buttermilk (or just shy of 1 cup milk with a splash of vinegar stirred in)
1 egg
1 cup defrosted or fresh corn kernels
For chive butter:
3 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (what remains from the stick you used for the cornbread works very nicely)
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
salt to taste
  • Preheat your oven to 375F and spray or grease a 9-inch square baking dish. Buzz the corn chips in a food processor until they become a fairly fine powder (they won’t go completely to dust because they do already contain fat, so stop processing before they become wet). Add the flour, the sugar, and the baking powder and process until well combined.
  • Cut the butter into roughly tablespoon sized chunks and add to the food processor; pulse 2-3 times for 2 seconds each until the butter is distributed in small to medium chunks. Add the buttermilk and the egg and pulse again in 2 second intervals until the mixture is combined – at first it will look quite liquid, but then suddenly thicken an puff (this is the baking powder activating).
  • Add the corn kernels and pulse once or twice just to distribute, not to break up the corn.
  • Scrape and pour into the prepared baking dish and bake at 375F until golden on top and cooked through: about 25 minutes.
  • Let cool at least 10-15 minutes before slicing, though we like ours completely cooled to room temperature.
  • To make the chive butter, use a spatula, spoon, or small whisk to combine the butter and chopped chives. Season with salt if desired. Serve with the cornbread.

 

Mole inspired lamb and sweet potato chili with black beans
Makes a large pot – at least 6 hungry diners
Approximately 2 hours
For chili:
3 dried ancho chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
½ cup skin-on almonds
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground cloves
3 dried bay leaves
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced
1 medium poblano or pasilla chile, stemmed and diced (take the ribs and seeds out if you don’t want the thrill of potential spice)
5-6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 pound ground lamb
1-2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained
1 12 ounce bottle dark beer, such as a stout or porter
1 28 ounce can low-sodium peeled tomatoes (I like whole, but you can use diced or even fire-roasted, if you prefer)
optional: up to 1 cup low sodium beef broth or water
1-2 tablespoons lime juice, if desired
For chive oil:
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons roughly chopped chives

 

  • In a dry pot over medium high heat, toast the dried chiles 2-3 minutes, until fragrant. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  • In the same pot, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat, then add the almonds, the pumpkin seeds, and the sesame seeds. Toast until they are beginning to brown, then remove these as well, keeping as much oil in the pan as possible.
  • Again in the same pot, add the cumin, coriander, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, cloves, and bay leaves, and toast until fragrant, stirring frequently. If the pot seems very dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil. After just a minute or two, add the onion, garlic, and fresh poblano, stirring to integrate well into all of the spices, and sweat until the onion and pepper are softened, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the ground lamb, the salt, and the black and red pepper and raise the heat to medium high. Cook, breaking up the lamb with a wooden flat-sided spoon or spatula, until no longer pink, around 10 minutes.
  • Use a spice grinder or small food processor to grind the reserved dried chiles, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds into a paste. Add this to the pot along with the cocoa powder, stirring well to fully integrate.
  • Add the sweet potato chunks, the drained black beans, the bottle of beer, and the can of tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the mixture at a simmer. If at this point the mixture seems way too thick, stir in some of the beef broth. Keep in mind, though: it will loosen up as it cooks.
  • Continue to simmer the mixture for at least an hour, until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the flavors have had time to meld.
  • Shortly before you are ready to serve, taste for seasoning. It may need more salt. If it feels a little flat, add a squeeze or two of lime juice.
  • To make the chive oil, combine the olive oil and the chives in a blender and blend until uniformly liquid. Swirl on top of the chili before serving.
  • Other topping options: freshly chopped cilantro, greek yogurt or sour cream, crumbled cotija or queso fresco cheese, cubes of avocado, more of the corn chips, or fresh chopped chives or green onions.
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Chopped Challenge #2: Mystery Basket Revealed!

Course: entree

Ingredients: lamb, sweet potatoes, corn chips, chives

 

What would you make? Tell me in the comments, then come back tomorrow to see how I fit it all together…

 

* for an explanation of this year’s challenge concept, take a look at this post.

Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.

 

Braised Lamb on Kale and Avocado Toast

2016-food-blog-november-0420Are you tired of turkey yet? Good, me neither. But just in case you want an indulgent break, may I suggest lamb instead? The inspiration for this recipe comes from three places: a restaurant near our house that does a braised lamb dip with kale and a garlic jus, the intense obsession of the last few years that is avocado toast, and Ina Garten. Ina doesn’t offer me any dish in particular, but does often take luxury ingredients and serve them in a very simple, homey way, and that’s exactly what happens here.

2016-food-blog-november-0395The first few times I watched a Barefoot Contessa episode that did this, I was annoyed. Like Ina’s penchant for advocating “best quality” base ingredients (read: expensive), I found the idea somehow pretentious. If I’m going to spend the money on fancy ingredients, then I want a fancy dinner! But contemplating this dish, it somehow seemed right. Let’s slow braise some lamb with aromatic vegetables and a good splash of wine until it collapses and shreds eagerly, bake a loaf of nicely seeded bread and cut it into thick slices, and spread that bread with a smash of avocado and kale, dosed with a good squeeze of lemon to keep it bright before draping on a healthy pile of the lamb. Fill the belly and keep the darkness away.

2016-food-blog-november-0391In determining how to go about this, I turned to yet another inspiration: the marvelous food mind that is Michael Pollan. In his book Cooked, which I’ve written about before, he spends a chapter discussing braising as a cooking method, and offers a mentor chef’s procedure in seven steps. Though I’ll give you the full recipe below, here’s what he recommends in my own order:

  1. salt the meat, then brown it
  2. finely dice some onions
  3. sauté onions and other aromatic vegetables
  4. place all the ingredients in a covered pot
  5. pour the braising liquid over the ingredients
  6. simmer, below the boil, for a long time
  7. remove pot from oven. If necessary, skim fat and reduce liquid. Bring to the table and serve.

As you can see, this is a procedure rather than a recipe – it’s the kind of steps a grandmother well acquainted with her own methods would give, and answer questions like “how many onions” with “enough,” or the precise temperature at which to braise with “oh, pretty low.”

2016-food-blog-november-0401Within the chapter itself, though, Pollan does give a bit more. Since the section of the book is the look at “Water,” he discusses the merits of using water rather than some other liquid to braise. Though we are always tempted to use broth or stock or wine, he notes that water retains a purer flavor – the meat is not in competition with the flavors of the liquid you’ve chosen. I bore this in mind, but wanted some red wine richness and tang anyway, so I settled for half and half water and wine. Only part way through the miracle, I suppose you could say.

This is a long project. The braise itself takes 2-3 hours all on its own, and that’s after you’ve let the onions cook down slowly for 30 minutes, then allowed the other vegetables to mingle another 15. Plus, as if all that wasn’t enough, you give the lovely, heady broth another good half hour to boil to create your final jus. And if you’re baking the bread yourself (in for a penny, in for a pound, right?), you’re looking at another multi-hour ingredient. You could, it seems, spend the entire day in the kitchen, lazily cooking your way toward dinner. Add some Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and that sounds like the day of my dreams.

2016-food-blog-november-0408When you’re finished, even though the resulting product looks humble, the reward is anything but. The lamb falls apart, and you stand there over the bowl you’re shredding it into trying not to stuff too many pieces straight into your mouth. It is meaty and savory and slightly gamey, and you taste lamb, but also wine and dark, piney, peppery herbs, and a subtle sweetness that comes from the vegetables. And then you pile it onto freshly toasted bread that you’ve smeared with the grassy, fatty spread you’ve made of kale and avocado, and you dribble over some of the juice left behind in the pan, and you eat it. And that was your day: making food, eating food, letting the aroma of the long braise fill your nostrils and your house, and you sleep happy.

2016-food-blog-november-0412Not that you need telling what to do with leftovers as luxurious as braised lamb, but if you aren’t sure, I think they would make amazing filling for tacos, perhaps with some shredded cabbage and feta cheese, and maybe a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, thinned with a squirt of lime and sprinkled with wafer thin slices of jalapeno and radish.

2016-food-blog-november-0420

Braised Lamb on Kale and Avocado Toast
Approximately 5 hours
Serves 4 + leftover lamb
2 tablespoons salt
2 pounds lamb leg or shoulder, in one piece (i.e. not in chunks)
¼ cup olive oil
2 white or yellow onions, finely diced
3 large or 4 medium carrots, finely diced
3 ribs of celery, finely diced
8 garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns, optional
2 inch sprig rosemary, optional
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups cold water
2-3 ounces kale, leaves only – tough stems removed – finely chopped
1 ripe avocado
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chives or green onion tops, very thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
thick slice of seeded toast for each diner
optional: finely sliced pickled radish or onion, to garnish

 

  • Sprinkle the salt evenly over both sides of the lamb. It will seem like a lot. Don’t worry. This is seasoning the entire 2 pounds of meat AND the broth. Let it sit for at least ten minutes, or up to a few hours.
  • When you are ready to cook, heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or other large, steep-sided pot with a lid over medium-high heat until it is shimmering. Carefully add the lamb (the oil may spit) and let it sear until well browned, then flip and repeat until all sides are nicely browned: about 2-4 minutes per side. Remove to a plate.
  • Turn the heat down to medium low or low and add the onions. We are looking to sweat them, not brown them. They will pick up some color from the lamb, but don’t actually let them sizzle too much after adding them. Cook, stirring frequently, until they are very tender and translucent, about 30 minutes.
  • Add the carrots, celery, and garlic cloves, stir to combine, and cook another 15 minutes.
  • Add the bay leaves, the rosemary and peppercorns, if using, and settle the lamb on top of the vegetables. Pour the wine and water in around the lamb as well as any meat juices that collected on the plate while the lamb rested, add the lid, and turn the heat up to medium high. Bring to a simmer, then turn back down to medium low or low – we want to keep the liquid below a simmer – only the barest bubble every so often.
  • Cook, keeping just below a simmer, until the lamb is very, very tender: 2-3 hours.
  • When the lamb falls apart at the slightest fork provocation, hoist it out to a bowl and turn up the heat on the pot to high. Boil the cooking liquid about 30 minutes to reduce it, then strain out the vegetables and, if you wish, pour the remaining jus into a gravy boat to serve.
  • While you wait, make the kale and avocado spread: scoop the avocado out of its skin and smash it up with a fork or spoon. Squeeze in the lemon juice, add the kale and chives and mix well, then taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.
  • Toast the bread and smear on thick, equal portions of the kale and avocado spread.
  • Just before serving, shred the lamb using two forks or, if it has cooled enough, your fingers. Pile a good helping onto the toast, then scoop or pour on a few tablespoons of the jus. Eat immediately.

Project Meatball: Reflections

As I did last year, I want to conclude my study in meatballs with a few reflections. Having now conducted twelve experiments, I have a few definite thoughts to offer, if you’re thinking of increasing your own meatball intake.

1.) Meatballs are not as photogenic as a food blogger might like. I mean, the finished dish, with its starchy base and the browned and simmered balls and their garnish artfully arranged look nice enough. The process of making them, though, is decidedly less so. Think about it. Chopped and sautéed aromatics, sopping breadcrumbs, and a bowl of raw ground meat. Not particularly aesthetically pleasing. As I went through each recipe, I found myself struggling a bit to achieve attractive shots. This was, in part, due to the ragged look of the raw ingredients themselves, but also the overlap in staging possibilities: you take the bowl of raw meat, you roll it into balls, you brown and then simmer the balls. You can only take pictures of each step so many times before it begins to feel repetitive.

2.) Meat is expensive. For financial, ethical, and digestive reasons, N. and I tend to limit our intake of meat, especially red meat, and when we do buy it, we try to buy responsibly and humanely farmed product. This, of course, means a certain type of grocery store or butcher shop, and when you add one or two different types of ground meat to your list a couple times a month, your grocery bill gets noticeably higher.

3.) It’s SO MUCH MEAT! As a side effect of our choice to limit our meat consumption, N. and I have become much less accustomed to, well, how bodies process meat. While we really liked most of these meatball dinners, we definitely noticed how much more meat we were eating, and how our stomachs, among other parts, responded. It’s not an official resolution, but I think we’ll be laying off the meat for a little while next year (though the cheeseburgers my dad made us a few nights ago were everything good about beef).

4.) Despite these critiques, meatballs are delicious, and really quite easy. They follow a definite pattern: prep some aromatics, whether that means chopping some herbs, sautéing aromatics, or both; whizzing up and soaking breadcrumbs or beating egg; massage the seasonings and moistening elements in with the meat; roll, brown, remove, bring the sauce component to a simmer, and plop the meatballs back in to simmer until cooked through. In all honesty, and to no real surprise, the trickiest thing about the whole process is having all three components – meat, sauce, and starch or accompanying side – ready at the same time.

Next week I want to show you a few of my favorite images from the past year, and I’ll be back with a new recipe for you in January!

Lamb meatballs with basmati pilaf and pomegranate drizzle

2015 Blog September-0440I don’t remember the first time I had lamb. I suspect it was a special occasion – probably Easter – and I suspect I had it in the company of a generous scoop of that emerald green mint jelly that still, in my memory, is the perfect accompaniment for the slight gaminess of a well-seared chop or slim carved slice.

2015 Blog September-0423To bring lamb into the meatball fold (too much? I couldn’t resist), I went back to the mint pairing with a few fresh sprigs, but decided to dress up the seasonings a bit more, pushing these meatballs in a Mediterranean direction. Oregano joined the mint, along with green onions, pine nuts, a small handful of coarsely chopped golden raisins, a tiny touch of cayenne pepper to keep things interesting. Fresh breadcrumbs soaked in cream keep the meat mixture springy and moist, and after a sear and a simmer in beef broth, they are fragrant and herbaceous, tugging toward both the savory and the sweet.

2015 Blog September-0426In dreaming these up, I knew I wanted to play with the sweetness of the traditional mint jelly, but push it in a more grown-up direction. Lamb and chutneys are also a common pairing, since lamb goes so nicely with fruit, and in searching for that agradolce flavor – the Italian sweet/tart/sour answer to a gastrique, I hit upon a thick, puckering drizzle of pomegranate juice and balsamic vinegar, reduced down into a glossy syrup, that would be as delectable over vanilla ice cream as it is here over meat. To finish, according to my notes, all is needed is lemon zest and a “sparing crumble of feta.”

2015 Blog September-04332015 Blog September-0435Just like this – a meatball drizzled in syrup, sprinkled with briny cheese and a touch of bitter citrus rind, these make perfect appetizers. They require only a toothpick, and since they are even better at room temperature than they are steaming from the pan (time to cool gives the herbs a chance to assert their flavors), they are ideal for a party. If you’re looking for an entrée application, though, I also opted for a basmati pilaf, all nutty and fluffy and toasted, spiked with currants and nuts and a little fresh parsley to finish, that these meatballs can be happily snuggled into.

2015 Blog September-04312015 Blog September-0437These are, without question, my favorites of the meatball project thus far. When it’s done right, the play of savory and sweet is one of my favorite taste combinations. And I must, for the sake of your stomachs, eschew modesty and admit: here, it is done right.

2015 Blog September-0444

Lamb meatballs with basmati pilaf and pomegranate balsamic drizzle
Serves 4-5 (with 18-20 1-½ tablespoon meatballs)
45 minutes if you’re quite efficient, 60-90 minutes if you’re not
For drizzle:
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup unsweetened pomegranate juice
For meatballs:
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
½ cup milk or cream
1 lb. ground lamb
¼ cup finely sliced green onions, dark and light green parts only (save the bulbs for another night)
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
¼ cup roughly chopped golden raisins
¼ cup pine nuts
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 cups beef broth
For pilaf:
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons roughly chopped pistachios
3 tablespoons sliced almonds
¼ cup minced red onion
¾ cup basmati or other long-grain rice
¼ cup orzo (small rice-shaped pasta)
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons currants
¾ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt (but taste your chicken broth first – you may need more or less salt)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
¼ cup roughly chopped parsley, to finish
To serve:
½ cup finely crumbled feta cheese
zest from one lemon

 

  • Combine the balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice in a small pot and set it over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce to just simmering and let it go for 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has become a thick, glossy syrup the consistency of molasses. When that happens, remove from heat immediately and set aside.
  • In a glass measuring cup or small bowl, combine the fresh breadcrumbs and the milk or cream and let sit for about 10 minutes to soak. While they suck up the moisture, chop and prep your remaining meatball ingredients (and the pilaf ingredients, if you have time).
  • Add the ground lamb, the green onions, the oregano, the mint, the golden raisins, the pine nuts, the ½ teaspoon of salt, and ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper to a medium mixing bowl. Using a fork or your fingers, lift the bread crumbs out of the milk or cream, let any excess liquid drip off briefly, and add them to the other meatball ingredients. Use your fingertips to combine the meatball ingredients, mixing lightly but thoroughly to distribute the wet bread and the sticky meat evenly.
  • In a large skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add about a teaspoon of the meat mixture and fry for about a minute on each side until cooked through. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and cayenne pepper quantities as desired. It’s okay to leave them slightly undersalted, though, as the feta you’ll crumble over at the end is so salty.
  • With moistened hands, scoop up 1-½ tablespoon quantities of the meat mixture and roll them into spheres. This should net you 18-20 meatballs. Place as many meatballs as will fit in a single layer without touching one another in the preheated skillet, and brown on all sides over medium heat – about 2 minutes per side. Remove to a clean plate. Repeat until all meatballs are browned on the outsides.
  • Wipe out the meatball skillet with a paper towel to remove the excess fat, then add the 1-2 cups beef broth and bring to a simmer. When it is bubbling, carefully add the meatballs back into the skillet – you want enough liquid that it comes approximately halfway up the sides of the meatballs. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and let simmer 15-20 minutes, turning all meatballs once.
  • The moment the meatballs hit their simmer, make the rice. Heat the 3 tablespoons butter in a medium pot over medium heat. Add the pistachios and almonds and toast, stirring frequently, until lightly browned. Add the ¼ cup minced red onion and sauté until onion is translucent and tender – 3-5 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure the nuts do not burn.
  • Add the rice and the orzo to the onion and nuts and stir to coat evenly with the melted butter. Toast over medium heat for 1-2 minutes, just until the rice gains some opacity. Add the black pepper, the salt, the bay leaf, the currents, and the chicken broth. Stir well and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
  • Bring the rice mixture to a boil, stir once more, and reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer 15 minutes, or until rice is tender and has absorbed all the broth. Stir in the parsley and fluff with a fork before serving.
  • To serve, nestle 4-5 meatballs per diner on a bed of the fluffy pilaf. Drizzle a few teaspoons of the thick, glossy pomegranate syrup over the meatballs, crumble on some feta and lemon zest, and serve warm or at room temperature.
  • Alternatively, for appetizers, make a decorative drizzle of the pomegranate glaze on an attractive platter (I prefer white, for the contrast), spear the meatballs and place them atop the glaze layer, and then dust the whole thing lightly with feta and lemon zest. Serve the rice alongside, or not at all.