I first thing I ever cooked---not counting scrambled eggs and quesadillas, which constituted my entire repertoire back on the Upper West Side---was meatballs. I was standing around in my aunt's sunny Tel Aviv kitchen, morning coffee in hand, watching her make meatballs. She's a Morning Person, lucky thing, and has a tendency to make lunch before 7 in the morning. And by lunch here we're talking Israeli hot lunch, or the thing that Americans call dinner.
It was the summer I'd brought my fiancé to Israel to meet my clan for the first time, and so a light bulb had dimly lit in my mind. Like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny, my biological clock was ticking. like. this. and it suddenly seemed like probably they don't let you bring home a baby from the hospital if you can't make decent schnitzel.
So I did something unprecedented: I asked my aunt to teach me how to cook whatever she was cooking. Turns out, she was making making homestyle Israeli meatballs, simmered in Yachin tomato sauce concentrate, Israel's answer to tinned San Marzanos.
I was pleasantly surprised by how approachable it was to make meatballs, not that that stopped me from writing down the steps in agonizing detail and poring over them for the next few years while I mastered the recipe.
What makes a meatball Israeli?
I haven't sussed this out yet, but my best guess is that this way of making meatballs comes to Israel by way of Tunisia, which has highly varied regional cuisines (including Jewish regional cuisines) but, as a generality, is fond of simmering things in tomato sauce. These meatballs are often served with rice to soak up the sauce. They occupy just one slot of a larger category in Israeli food, k'tzitzot--somewhat tendenciously approximated by the English term "fritters" or "patties," underscoring the tragic underappreciation of this genre in the Anglophone world. I own and treasure an entire cookbook devoted to the subject (by the always fantastic Benny Saida, whose starter cookbook my aunt promptly gifted to me on that fateful visit). The addition of baharat, a wonderful, savory-sweet Middle Eastern spice blend, comes by way of him. But you can make these meatballs with your favorite spice blend (Italian would work), or none at all. You might also have kids someday who flat-out object to green specks in their food, in which case, you can leave out the parsley, and everything will be beseder (alright).
Israeli Homestyle Meatballs
- Dutch oven or large, straight-sided skillet
- 1-2 Tbsp olive - oil
- ½ medium onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 small (16oz) can tomato sauce - about 1 ½ cups
- 2 tsp salt
Make the meatball mixture:
- Begin by finely chopping your onion (the whole thing). Place half the chopped onion in a mixing bowl, and set aside the other half for adding to the sauce later.
- Finely chop the parsley and add to the bowl.
- Add the bread crumbs, egg, and baharat (if using) to the bowl, right on top of the onions and parsley. Season with salt and pepper, then stir to combine.
- Add the ground turkey to the bowl. Using your hands, mix the onion/seasoned breadcrumb mixture into the ground meat. Don't be tempted to use a spoon; you want to knead the breadcrumb mix into the dough, almost like kneading bread: punch it into the center, turn, repeating until the spices are evenly distributed into the meat.
Make the sauce:
- In a Dutch oven or large, straight-sided skillet, heat up a tablespoon or two of olive oil over medium-low. When it thins and shimmers, add the chopped onion that you set aside earlier. Cook for five minutes or so, until golden and beginning to brown. Lower the heat and add the garlic, stir well, and cook for a few seconds. Add the tomato sauce and season with salt and pepper.
Cook the meatballs in the sauce:
- Using the palm of your hand, shape the spiced meat mixture into medium-sized meatballs, a little over an inch in diameter (3cm). As you form them, drop the meatballs one by one into the sauce, beginning around the outer perimeter of the pot (this way, the hotter center of the pan is reserved for the last meatballs rolled.)
- When all the meatballs are in the sauce, raise the heat to medium-low. Cook without turning for another five minutes, then, using a flexible spatula, gently turn the meatballs in the sauce.
- Cook the meatballs for another 10-15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until cooked through.