A staple of the Israeli home kitchen, these easy Moroccan-style meatballs are spiced with ras el-hanout and cooked in sauce with peas alongside to soak up all the flavors.Yum
Meatballs and peas go to together like peanut butter and jelly or mac and cheese, at least in Israel. I never really thought about it until I saw a snap of meatballs swimming in saucy peas on Imaot.co.il, a site that vies for the title of AllRecipes of Israel neck to neck with FoodisGood. (Totally gendered name—it's literally "moms.com"—but the recipes are indubitable winners and unstyled snaps of home cooking always win me over). That's when I realized that these canonical meatballs were sadly missing from my repertoire. Rectified.
I'm guessing these have Moroccan roots, given that the recipe is generous with the turmeric and paprika, with notes of cumin and cinnamon. They're now the collective property of Israeli home cooks, filling up kids from the Upper Galil to Eilat, hooking them surreptitiously on a grown-up flavor palette. Add cubed yellow potatoes to the sauce for a one-pot meal, or serve alongside your favorite grain and a green salad.
Meatballs with Moroccan lineage typically include grated potato and a lively spice blend. I own an entire cookbook devoted to meatballs, by Benny Saida, who basically taught me to cook, should to shoulder (or rather, book spine to spine) with Mark Bittman. His master recipe, the base for most of the book's many wonderful twists and turns, notably calls for a grated potato and a tablespoon of baharat seasoning.
In the case of these meatballs, the operative spice is ras-el-hanout, a catch-all term for "top of the shop" spice, i.e., a spice seller's signature blend. Along with ras-el-hanout, the meatballs feature an additional hit of north African favorites--paprika, turmeric, and cumin--in both the meatballs and the sauce. Grating the onion along with the potato makes the meatballs light and almost fluffy, not dense and studded with onion like kebabs.
Sourcing Ras-el-Hanout + Substitutions
Ras-el-hanout is more widely available these days, not only in Middle Eastern groceries or from imported Israeli brands like Pereg (which, in the US, will only be available in select markets). A good-quality version you can sometimes find in supermarkets is Frontier Co-Op. You can also find ras-el-hanout at specialty markets--everything I've tried from The Spice House has been outstanding and they carry a ras-el-hanout blend; here's how to order their kosher certified spices.
If you don't want to source ras-el-hanout, you can add a generous pinch each of the following ground spices to the sauce (in addition to the ones specified in the recipe): ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, white pepper if you've got it, and chili flakes or cayenne, if you like a little heat.
How to Make the Meatballs
The first step in making these meatballs is grating the potato and onion. I use the fine-shred disc in my food processor and grate them together; you can also do it by hand, especially since we're not talking latke quantities here. After grating, I dump out the contents of the food processor work bowl onto the middle of a large, clean, absorbent kitchen towel. Then, use the towel to wring the moisture out from the grated potato/onion mixture. Once you've got the veg recipe, you just combine all of the meatball ingredients.
The recipe calls for a mix of ground beef and ground chicken, half a pound of each (250g) for a pound (½ kilo) total. You can certainly use all beef or all chicken. Also, if you can't find ground chicken--it's much more common in Israel than in the US--you can use ground turkey instead. I do find that these come out best when made with the mix. Because we like meatballs around here, what I do, when I get home from the butcher, is to combine one package of ground beef with one package of ground chicken and then subdivide the mix into 1-pound portions.
These meatballs really benefit from a chill in the fridge after mixing and before shaping: half an hour is good, an hour is even better, and you can certainly make the mix several hours ahead and keep it in the fridge until you're ready to cook. The chilling accomplishes two nice things: it allows the flavors to meld, and it makes the mixture easy to handle. I usually make the meat mixture first, then put it in the fridge while I take care of a few other kitchen tasks, like chopping vegetables and starting the sauce. Usually by then half an hour is up and it all works out.
You cook the meatballs right in the sauce. Just plop 'em in and leave them to simmer, turning them gently every now and again so that they cook evenly.
Ras-el-Hanout Meatballs with Saucy Peas
- Dutch oven or large pot
For the meatballs:
- ½ lb ground beef - 250g
- ½ lb ground chicken - 250g
- 1 medium onion
- 1 medium yellow potato
- 5-6 sprigs parsley
- 5-6 sprigs cilantro
- 3 Tbsp bread crumbs
- 2 tsp minced garlic
- 2 tsp ras-el-hanout - see notes for substitutions
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp paprika - sweet or hot, whichever you like
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- pinch ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
For the sauce:
- 2 cups frozen peas - from one small bag
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp ras-el-hanout
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 Tbsp potato starch - or cornstarch
- 1 cup hot water
- 1 cup chicken stock
Make the meatball mix:
- Peel the potato and onion. Using the fine-shred disc of a food processor, shred the potato and onion together.
- Spread out a large, clean, absorbent kitchen towel on your work surface. Dump out the potato-onion mixture from the food processor work bowl onto the center of the towel. Bundle up the mixture and wring out over the sink to remove moisture.
- Rinse out the work bowl. Switch to the chopping blade (use the smaller/nested bowl, if you've got one). Cut off the stems of the cilantro and parsley and add them to the work bowl. Pulse the fresh herbs until finely chopped.
- To a lidded, medium-sized mixing bowl, add the ground beef and chicken. Add the fresh herbs from the food processor and the wrung-out potato-onion mixture to the bowl, right on top. Then, add to the bowl the remaining ingredients: the bread crumbs, minced garlic, and dry spices (ras-el-hanout, turmeric, paprika, cumin, salt, and pepper).
- Using your hands, combine all of the ingredients in the mixing bowl. This is almost like kneading bread dough, punching your hand into the center and turning the mixture so that all the ingredients are evenly incorporated.
- When thoroughly mixed, cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Make the sauce:
- Meanwhile, prepare the sauce, in which you'll be cooking the meatballs: In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. When it shimmers and thins, add the chopped onion. Fry the onion until softened and browned.
- On top of the onions, add the dry spices: ras-el-hanout, paprika, and turmeric. Season with salt. Stir and let the spices toast for about 30 seconds.
- Add the potato starch and stir well.
- Pour the hot water on top of the spiced onions. Stir well. Add the chicken broth and stir again.
- Lower the heat to low and leave the sauce to simmer until slightly thickened and you are ready to cook the meatballs.
- Just before cooking the meatballs, add the frozen peas and stir to combine.
Cook the meatballs:
- Remove the meatball mix from the fridge. Working next to the simmering pot and using your hands, form the mixture into rounded balls about 1 ½" (4cm) in diameter. Drop the meatballs one by one into the sauce as you form them.
- When all the meatballs are in the sauce, turn the heat up slightly to medium-low. Simmer the meatballs for 7-10 minutes.
- Using a rubber spatula, gently turn the meatballs in the sauce. Cook undisturbed for another 7-10 minutes.
- Give the contents in the pot another good stir and continue to simmer until the meatballs are cooked through and the sauce is slightly thickened, another 5-7 minutes.