My obsession with meatballs rivals only my long-held fixation with David Tanis's first cookbook. So I couldn't stand to cook through his new cookbook, One Good Dish, without trying his Tunisian meatballs. In his recipe, miniature, well-spiced nuggets of beef or lamb are briefly fried in olive oil before being simmered in a simple, fragrant sauce of broth, onions, and tomato paste. Tanis thickens the sauce using a bit of magic—lightly flouring the meatballs before frying and simmering. The small amount of flour left on the meatballs turns the sauce to velvet, and it clings to both the meat and the buttery pilaf of Israeli couscous and raisins.
Why I picked this recipe: These meatballs, served with buttery couscous, were one of the most substantial meals in Tanis's book. Also, I love meatballs.
What worked: The long list of spices came together in great harmony, and the completed meatballs were perfectly tender.
What didn't: No problems here.
Suggested tweaks: Tanis suggests using beef or lamb in the meatballs. I think they'd also be great with ground pork. I had fregola sitting in the pantry, so I used it in lieu of the couscous to great success.
Reprinted with permission from One Good Dish: The Pleasures of a Simple Meal by David Tanis. Copyright 2013. Published by Artisan Books. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
- Yield:serves 4 to 6
- Active time: 30 minutes
- Total time:about 1 hour
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/2 cups finely diced onions
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- A 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
- Large pinch of saffron, crumbled
- Salt and pepper
- 3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
- 1 1/2 cups cubed day-old firm white bread
- 1 cup milk
- 1 pound ground beef or lamb
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions, plus 1 tablespoon for garnish
- All-purpose flour for dusting
- Olive or vegetable oil for shallow-frying
- 1 cup giant couscous, medium couscous, or m’hamsa
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water until softened, then drained
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
To make the sauce, heat the oil in a wide heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, without browning, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon stick, and saffron and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper and allow to sizzle for 1 minute. Add the broth, bring to a simmer, and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. The sauce can be made up to a day in advance and refrigerated.
To make the meatballs, Put the bread cubes and milk in a small bowl and let the bread soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry and transfer to a medium bowl.
Add the ground meat to the bread and mix gently with your hands, then add the egg, garlic, salt, pepper, paprika, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, cloves, coriander, and nutmeg, and mix well to distribute the seasonings. Add 2 tablespoons each of the parsley, cilantro, and scallions and knead for a minute. The meat mixture can be prepared up to a day in advance and refrigerated.
With your hands, roll the meat mixture into small balls about the size of a quarter. Dust lightly with flour. Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Fry the meatballs, turning once, until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Drain and blot on paper towels.
Add the meatballs to the sauce, bring to a simmer over medium heat, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened slightly and the meatballs are tender. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding salt or cayenne as necessary.
Meanwhile, cook the couscous according to the package directions, then fluff gently and stir in the butter and raisins. Season with salt and the cinnamon and toss well.
Spoon the couscous into shallow bowls and top with the meatballs and plenty of sauce. Garnish with the remaining parsley, cilantro, and scallions.
Note: Regarding the browning of the meatballs, dusting them in flour before lightly frying helps keep them tender and thickens the sauce, but they can be browned without flour if desired. Or, instead of frying, they can be briefly broiled before simmering. And if you don’t want the sauce, just finish the cooking in the skillet and serve the panfried meatballs crisp and hot.