Today, I’m finally ready to share my S&M confessions—um, that’s spaghetti and meatballs, y’all. It’s a surprisingly polarizing issue! To some, it’s a classic comfort food; to others—me included—it’s just a pile of pasta and some dense, tasteless meat blobs. I know, I know, if you’ve had authentic Italian meatballs it’s totally different. But, as a 10-year-old, when I first realized that I thought the dish was totally overrated, I hadn’t.
And even now that I have eaten meatballs at lovely restaurants in Italy . . . I’m just not a big fan. Part of it is that I don’t like the meat plus tomato combination that’s the hallmark of most meatball dishes. And part of it is that ground beef and veal, which form the base of many Italian meatballs, aren’t my favorites. Finally, though, as much as I adore cheese, cheese on meat grosses me out a little bit.
But that’s not to say I steer clear of all meatballs. The Italian-style meatball is, of course, only one of many variations found in cuisines all over the world. In Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking, kofta or kefta, from the Persian verb meaning “to grind,” are more often prepared using lamb or mutton. (Versions of kofta grilled on sticks are called kebabs.) Instead of the breadcrumbs or egg typically featured in Italian meatballs, in kofta, the meat is mixed with onion, garlic, and herbs, which makes them tender and very light. Kofta are flavorful and infinitely versatile, and have totally become the meatballs of choice in my kitchen.
My favorite way to prepare kofta is to use a technique I learned from Indian cooking. Instead of mincing onion, garlic, and herbs by hand before mixing them with the meat, I use the food processor to blend them into a paste. This serves a dual purpose: the paste mixes incredibly well with the meat, getting flavor throughout the kofta, and it adds moisture, so you don’t need bread or egg to bind them.
The kofta are great on their own, but make a flavorful sauce and add some veggies and you have a tagine, a North African dish that resembles a stew. Named for the Arabic word for the earthenware pot in which it’s prepared, a tagine is a one-pot delight, my favorite kind of dish, full of bold flavors and fresh herbs, and easy to mop up with a thick piece of bread. Let’s start with the kofta.
The recipe below makes about 12 to 15 smallish kofta, enough to make a tagine for three people. It’s an easy recipe to double if you’re cooking for more people, though. Just keep a ratio of about 1 part veg to 2 parts meatballs for your tagine and you’ll be fine. And, of course, you can add additional veggies and increase your eggs and liquid.
By no means is it necessary to own a traditional clay tagine (as pictured here) to make this dish. It will be just as good if you make it in your favorite saute pan or deep skillet. However, if you do decide to use a tagine dish, remember that it should only be used over low heat for slow stovetop cooking—so it’s best to brown your meatballs and start the stew part of the tagine in a separate pan that can handle searing over high heat. Once you’ve cooked the meatballs and browned the onions and garlic, deglaze the pan with a bit of water and transfer everything to the tagine to finish the dish.
Kofta (Lamb Meatball) Tagine
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Makes about 3 servings (or 2 with leftovers)
- 1/2 of a medium-sized onion of any color
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 small handful fresh parsley leaves
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint leaves
- a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard powder
- 1/2 pound ground lamb
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium-sized red onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper (you can adjust this to taste at the end of cooking)
- 1 cup water + additional water as needed
- about 1 cup fresh or frozen peas; OR about 10 stalks asparagus, trimmed; OR half a bunch kale, de-stemmed and torn into bite-size pieces
- 3 large eggs (or, one per person, if you increase the recipe)
- about 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- juice of half a lemon
- pita, flatbread, or buttered bread, for serving
- 1 small handful fresh cilantro
- 10-12 kalamata olives, chopped
- 1-2 tablespoons capers
- 5-10 dried apricots or
- 2-3 dried figs
- 1-2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
To make the kofta:
Blend the onion, garlic, parsley, mint, salt, pepper, thyme, cumin, paprika, chili powder, and mustard powder in a food processor for about 30 seconds until you have a chunky paste. Or, if you like, you can blend less, leaving more discrete chunks.
Mix the paste with your lamb and form into small meatballs.
Heat the oil in a wide, high-sided pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the meatballs and brown on all sides until cooked through for delicious lamb kofta that could be the meat component of any dish; leftover, you could slip them in a pita with some veggies and hummus or a tzatziki sauce for a great lunch.
If making the full tagine, take your kofta out of the pan and set aside to rest. You’ll be putting them back in your sauce to cook more, so you don’t need to cook them all the way through.
To make the tagine:
Heat a second tablespoon olive oil in the pan, add the onion and garlic, and cook for about 5 minutes until the onion is soft, scraping up all those lovely brown bits from the kofta.
Add the turmeric, salt, pepper, and 1 cup water, cover, and bring to a boil. Put the kofta back into the pan and add more water if needed to cover the meatballs about halfway. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens a bit.
At this point, you can add whatever veggies you’d like to your tagine. Common additions are peas (frozen are fine) or asparagus; I also like kale, but whatever you choose, pick veggies that will stand up to hot liquid; you don’t want something with a high water content or it will turn to mush. Cook uncovered until the veggies are tender; timing will vary based on your choice of veg.
Next, add your eggs. They’re optional, but they add such a lovely richness to the dish. Crack your eggs carefully into the liquid and let them poach in the sauce until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny (or to your taste). If you’d like your eggs a bit more cooked, you can spoon the simmering sauce over them to cook the tops of the eggs.
Finish with a squeeze of lemon and a handful of chopped parsley and you have a dreamy one-pot meal that tastes even better the second day. Sop up that delicious sauce with pita, flatbread, or buttered bread.
If you want to prepare the tagine in advance, omit the eggs. When you go to heat up your dish, add a little extra water and poach the eggs just before serving.
One of my favorite variations on this is to add some briny, coastal flavors. When making the kofta, replace the cumin with paprika and add cilantro to the parsley. When making the tagine, omit the turmeric and add chopped kalamata olives and capers to the sauce, and even some chopped dried apricots or figs, if you like a little sweetness with your salt. Then, instead of poaching your eggs in the sauce, hard- (or medium-) boil them (7 minutes for medium; nine minutes for hard) and chop them up to sprinkle over top of your tagine along with a little bit of feta cheese.