Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Kefta Marocains (Moroccan Meatballs)

In a review of her Mediterranean Grains and Greens, Nicolas Lemann describes legendary cookbook author Paula Wolfert “as having mastered a technique that a few other food writers practice but which none equals: the fierce anthropological/reportorial quest for folkish recipes that are hiding in out-of-the-way, premodern places. In her cookbooks Wolfert is always traipsing up to some unelectrified mountain encampment and finding an old woman dressed all in black who has spent a lifetime perfecting one master dish whose ingredients she communicates to Wolfert using sign language.”

Years ago, when I was in the depths of my history doctorate and flirting with the idea of starting a blog, I expected that any food writing I might someday do would be at least a pale imitation of Wolfert’s trademark style, adapted to personal predilection and budget by its reliance on books and the internet rather than my physical presence in someone else’s kitchen. After all, my favourite cookbook to read—which I bought the day my first fellowship check arrived and which, in another lifetime, I’d like to believe I could have written—was Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food, a meticulously researched yet compulsively engaging Jewish culinary history, complete with recipes.

But while I’ve enjoyed the scattershot research requirements posed by a generalist food blog, I’ve struggled to find a style which can integrate etymology, history and the odd bit of trivia with the lightness of touch which in some sense best suits the genre. Yet if I have not yet succeeded in this regard, at the very least I can pay some homage to Paula Wolfert, whose books are peerless, and who also, if the recipe below is any indication, makes a damn fine meatball.

And if someone should hear that Claudia Roden is looking for a (unilingual) research assistant for the re-release of her tome, please do pass on my details.

Kefta Marocains

I’m not sure I’ve ever had an ephemeral meatball, made practically weightless with the addition of copious quantities of cheese, breadcrumbs or milk. But these are certainty not of that school. Whether you choose to offset a loss in authenticity with a slightly lighter texture I leave up to you (options below). Wolfert’s original recipe also called for poaching eggs on the surface of the tomato sauce just before serving. While I imagine this would be delicious, I’ve always found that the meatballs, accompanied by nothing more than flatbread or rice and some equally rustic red wine, make for a very hearty meal.

Serves 4
Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes; Active time: 30 minutes

1 pound ground lamb, not extra-lean (you could also use beef)
1 onion, finely diced
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
2 tbsp finely chopped coriander (cilantro)
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
½ cup-1 cup fine bread crumbs (optional)
Olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped
2 cans tinned tomatoes (either pre-chopped or broken up as they go into the pan)
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground cinnamon
1 medium bunch parsley, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Harissa to taste

Combine the ground meat, onion, herbs, spices and breadcrumbs (if using) in a bowl, mixing well. Add a good pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper. Heat a very thin film of olive oil on a medium heat in a heavy, wide-bottomed skillet or casserole. Form the meat into 1-inch balls and fry until well-browned on all sides. Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to do this in batches to avoid overcrowding. Be sure to leave at least a few minutes each time before turning, to allow a crust to form, and try not to over-handle. When finished, remove to a plate.

If you have time while the meatballs are frying, chop the onions, garlic and parsley for the sauce. Add them into the pan, along with a bit more oil if the meat was particularly lean. Pour in the tinned tomato, measure in the spices and add a small spoonful of harissa, along with salt and pepper. Cover the pan and turn down the heat to a light simmer. Cook the sauce until it is well thickened, between 20 and 30 minutes.

Add the meatballs back to the sauce and simmer for 10-15 minutes, checking after the shorter amount of time whether the meat is cooked through. Check the seasoning.

The meatballs can be served immediately, though their flavor becomes more complex if they sit for a few hours or overnight.

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