moroccan meatballs

Farewell 2011, a year of successful cooking and culinary enjoyment. 2012 begins with an exploration of Moroccan cuisine – a dive into combinations of spices and herbs, traditional meats and accompaniments that constitute the “taste” of Morocco.

In the close of 2011, I was treated to Moroccan meatballs, and although they were

Moroccan Markets: the towers of spice are well known

delicious, and simple to make, I felt there were modifications that would increase the richness, and perhaps cultural authenticity, of the dish. The original recipe, in terms of spice, instructed only the use of paprika – this gave good taste, but it was incredibly subtle; I felt a wider variety of spice would increase the depth of flavour. To achieve this, I researched the traditional, and considered by some to be essential, spices and flavourings of the region. The images of spice in Morocco are near famous, and as a result I found there was much more than paprika on offer, suggesting the use of spice in Moroccan cuisine was certainly extensive, if not proving it was essential. Cinnamon, turmeric, cumin, saffron, coriander; the taste, smells and colours of these flavours are respectively bold and bright – when combined, I was sure they would give the depth of taste the original meatball recipe deserved. I chose to continue the use of paprika, and supplement it with cumin and a pinch of saffron. Garlic, a staple of many other cuisines was also added – a simple ingredient that brings another dimension to most dishes, I felt it would do the same for the meatballs.

I began to modify the recipe firstly by approaching the cooking method in a different way. Whilst the original recipe advocated cooking each component in a separate pan and combining them last minute, presumably to maintain the taste of each ingredient respectively, I decided the ingredients were strong enough to stand alone whilst contributing to the richness of the dish, adding layers of flavour. For example, the meatballs were originally kept separate from the tomatoes until the later stages of the cooking process – although simmering the ingredients at that stage in the recipe blurs the rigidity of each ingredient, arguably keeping the ingredients together for the majority of the cooking can only be beneficial; the more time the ingredients spend together in the pot, the longer chance they have of developing their own flavours whilst blending with and complementing others, strengthening the overall taste and smell of the dish. And on a simpler level, it saves on washing up; who can complain about that!

The choice of meatball, beef, contradicted my belief that the traditional meat of Morocco was lamb. Having researched into this, I learnt that both are authentic, and that in fact beef is the more popular choice! Despite this, I decided to use lamb meatballs for my modified recipe, as I felt it would give distinction between this and other meatballs recipes. Furthermore, I felt lamb would complement the apricots listed in the original recipe better than beef, as it would give an edge of sweetness to the dish. The only difficulty in doing this was the ready availability – whilst most supermarkets stock pre-rolled beef mince meatballs, thus saving time and effort in the kitchen, I was unable to locate a lamb equivalent.

Homemade lamb meatballs

I made my own, rolling lamb mince (250g), a handful of raw oats and 1 tsp of cold water together in a bowl until a ball was formed, then dividing into as many meatballs as desired. Although this process was not lengthy, it must be noted that I (as a humanities student!) had plenty of time to do this, and this may not be an option to everyone. All things considered, whilst I preferred the taste of the lamb meatballs and found they were perfectly complemented by the garlic I decided to add, I do not think a choice to use beef would detract from the main flavourings of the dish, nor reduce the cultural authenticity.

Finally, the meatballs are served with cous-cous, the authentic carbohydrate staple. It is important when making cous-cous to ensure that it is fluffy – this is done by pouring boiling water over the grains (according to packet instructions), and then leaving alone until it is fully absorbed, as this allows the grains to soak up the water to their fullest potential and expand. Normally, oil or butter is added at the end to stop sticking to guarantee its “fluffiness”. Cous-cous is often flavourless, making it the perfect accompaniment to make the flavours of a main dish stand out and shine. However, as part of my research, I found sesame seeds were sometimes used, and decided to experiment by sprinkling some, toasted, on the cous-cous before serving. The results of this were another texture in eating, adding crunch and a nutty taste – an extra sensation and taste.

And so, to the recipe, with highlighted modifications:

Moroccan Meatballs, Serves 4 (possible modifications) 

▪   meatballs: lamb or beef are most traditional, although beef available in pre-rolled meatballs

▪   Three medium sized red onions, peeled and roughly chopped

▪   Half a packet of dried apricots, chopped into halves; quantity to taste

▪   2/3 400g tinned tomatoes

▪   Spinach, quantity to taste

▪   2 cloves of garlic, crushed 

▪   spice: paprika, cumin, saffron

▪   accompaniments: cous-cous; a handful of sesame seeds, toasted

1. To begin, fry off the meatballs until browned in a deep frying pan or saucepan. Once this is done, drain the majority of the oil and fat from the pan, reserving some to ensure later ingredients don’t stick as the dish progresses. Using the fat and oil from the meat will add extra flavour because of the cooking juices, but draining it will make it less greasy and thus healthier!

2. Move the meatballs to a separate plate, and place the pan back on a medium heat on the hob.

3. Add the chopped red onions to the pan, and fry until softened but not browned. Stir in the chopped apricots and season well with salt and pepper. Add the crushed garlic, but again, do not allow to brown.

4. As the garlic softens and begins to emit an aroma, add the tinned tomatoes and bring to the boil. How many tins of tomatoes used here will depend on the size of the meal – the more people it is for, the more tomatoes will be necessary. Moreover, if you like lots of sauce, add more tomatoes!

Allow spinach to wilt before adding more, as it drastically reduces in volume

5. Add handfuls of spinach at a time, allowing it to wilt before adding more. Continue to add spinach until you think there is enough in the dish – this will come down to personal preference. Reduce the pan to a medium heat, and add the meatballs back into the sauce.

6. Add the spices and reduce to a low heat. Sample, and add more of one or each of the spices until the flavour reached is desirable to you. I personally like spicy food, and so would recommend 2:1 ratio of paprika and cumin, with the saffron to taste.

7. Simmer the meatballs for half an hour, or until the sauce is significantly reduced. Monitor the progress of the sauce as this will vary depending on hobs (our student kitchen is very poor and so took me around an hour, but using an AGA originally it took just short of 30 minutes) and stir as and when necessary.

8. In a large saucepan or bowl, add a cup of cous-cous per person, and follow pack instructions. Allow the cous-cous to absorb the water, then add either butter of oil and fluff. Top with the toasted sesame seeds if using, which can be lightly tossed in a little oil until browned.

I think this dish works extremely well when also served alongside a green salad with mozzarella and tomatoes, adding extra freshness, but this is by no means a requirement.

Delicious!

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