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.

Lambikopita Burgers

Food Blog April 2014-3562My bachelor habits are unusual. I typically don’t, when I’m making dinner just for my lonesome, go for what’s quick and easy. In fact, I use the rare occasions when I’m dining solo to catch up on cooking and consuming foods N. is not fond of. So when he was out of town last week visiting his parents, I took advantage of the evening alone to rendezvous with one of his major food rivals: lamb.
Food Blog April 2014-3574Most of the time (at least lately) I try to shy away from cute titles – I want to make sure you know what you’re getting – but this one was too clever not to use. This is a riff on a dish my sister made for us for Christmas (hi, R!), a version of spanikopita with crumbles of ground lamb and gooey shreds of mozzarella mixed in. Since my first thought upon tasting it was “more,” and then “more, more,” I thought a burger might be the answer. More of everything!
Food Blog April 2014-3544Food Blog April 2014-3548Food Blog April 2014-3551The delightful thing about spanikopita, to me, is the burst of briny saltiness from the hunks of cheese that muddle reluctantly into softness amid the spinach. I love the dill, and I love the earthy hit of nutmeg. Lately I’ve been adding lemon zest to the mix as well, for sour brightness to contrast the salty tang of the cheese.
Food Blog April 2014-3549Food Blog April 2014-3550All this, then, would have to go into my lamb burger. I’m not a big fan of massive additions to burgers. They seem, too often, fussy and unnecessary. That’s what toppings are for. But here, I think the incorporation works incredibly well for several reasons. First, lamb has a bit of a gamey flavor. Some of us like that, but for those who don’t, the additions of extra ingredients mean it’s a mild gaminess, not overwhelming. Second, it’s very easy for ground lamb to dry out. Here, where I’ve incorporated not just cheese but a sodden handful of sautéed fresh spinach, producing a dry product becomes a challenge. Third, but no less important, the addition of these extra ingredients bulks up the burgers, making the lamb – not nearly as cheap as everyday ground beef – stretch a bit further. This isn’t like a crab cake stretch, though, where your product is so drenched in seasoned bread crumbs you forget what kind of meat is supposed to be in there. All of these flavors dance well with the lamb, enhancing rather than masking it.
Food Blog April 2014-3554Food Blog April 2014-3558Food Blog April 2014-3556Because you’re cooking with a heady amount of cheese in the mix, these burgers will get crusty and deeply bronzed as the cheese seeps down onto the hot pan to toast. Don’t be alarmed. Settled on a bun with some fresh spinach leaves, to contrast the cooked tumble in the burger itself, this is nearly perfect. Slathered with some Greek yogurt whipped with lemon juice and fresh raw garlic, it turns into lamb burger nirvana.
Food Blog April 2014-3560Just because this isn’t, perhaps, a typical bachelor meal, what with the longish ingredient list and the time taken to prepare it from scratch, doesn’t mean I treated it as fancy. There’s no need for ceremony here; it’s too good. Hasty bites. No napkin. Straight over the sink. I don’t mind telling you, just between us, that I didn’t even bother with a plate.

Food Blog April 2014-3570

Lambikopita burgers
Makes 2
⅓ pound ground lamb
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 green onions, finely sliced
2 teaspoons finely chopped dill
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup shredded or cubed mozzarella
½ cup fresh spinach leaves, plus more, to serve
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated, if possible
Salt and pepper to taste (I suggest ¼ teaspoon salt and ⅛ teaspoon black pepper)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

 

  • In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the ½ cup spinach leaves and sauté gently until they are wilted: 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the lamb, garlic, onions, dill, lemon zest, and cheeses. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper. The best way to do this is to get in there and use your hands, gently kneading with your fingertips to mix thoroughly.
  • When the spinach is cool, transfer it to a cutting board and chop finely. Don’t squeeze it out – we want that wetness to keep the burgers moist.
  • Add the chopped spinach to the lamb mixture and mix again to integrate it.
  • Divide the mixture in two and form patties of your desired diameter. Mine were probably 3 inches around. Keep in mind that the thicker your patties are, the longer they will take to cook.
  • In the same skillet you used for the spinach, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat. When it shimmers, add the lamb burgers, clamp on a lid, and turn the heat down to medium.
  • Cook for 4-5 minutes undisturbed, then cautiously lift with a spatula to check the bottom. When they are deeply bronzed and have a dark crust from the melting and toasting cheese, flip, recover, and cook for another 3-4 minutes, or until your desired doneness is reached.
  • Remove from heat, transfer to a bun of your choice dressed with condiments to your liking (I recommend the Greek yogurt spread below), top with fresh spinach, and serve.
Greek yogurt spread
2 tablespoons Greek yogurt
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, chopped fine and pasted with salt

 

  • Combine ingredients in a small bowl, mix with a fork, spoon, or small whisk.