Kafta, a mixture of minced meat and spices, is an ancient preparation found across the Middle East, South Asia, and parts of Europe. Different cultures have adapted it to their own tastes and there are now innumerable ways of cooking and enjoying this dish (as well as pronouncing and transliterating it: you will often find it written as "kofta," which reflects a more Egyptian pronunciation; here I use "kafta," which more closely reflects how Palestinians say it).
In the Palestinian kitchen, it is one of the most versatile and easy meals to prepare. The meat is usually made with minced lamb, but it can also be made with beef, goat, or any combination thereof. It's mixed with onions, parsley, and spices, with other flavorings like herbs and nuts varying from family to family. Most people tend to finely grate or finely mince the additions like onions, tomatoes, garlic, and parsley, but I often blitz it quickly in a mini-chopper to save time and have not noticed any major difference in taste or texture.
Once the basic seasoned meat mixture is made, the possibilities for what to do with it are endless. It can be spread out in a baking dish, topped with onions and tomatoes or potatoes and peppers (or some other combination of those vegetables), and baked. It can be shaped into mini sausages and baked with potatoes in a tomato or tahini sauce. It can be made into patties and wrapped in grape leaves and cooked. It can be shaped into balls and poached in a lemony broth or other soups. And, of course, it can be grilled over a fire as well. These are but a few of the possibilities.
The key to good kafta is ensuring it is light and tender yet full of flavor. There are a few secrets to this, as my grandmother Teta Asma used to say. The first is to use a piece of day-old bread soaked in water, then drained and squeezed; this aligns with Daniel Gritzer's Swedish meatball recipe tests, which found a wet panade led to more juicy and tender meatballs than dry breadcrumbs. Rather than soaking the bread with a plain liquid as a standalone step, I work in more flavor by pulsing it together with tomato, onion, and whatever herbs and spices I am using. The juices from the tomato and onion help to soak and disintegrate the bread, providing an insurance policy against dryness when the kafta is baked.
The second is to make sure you mix the ingredients enough so that you create a texture more cohesive than the loose grind of a hamburger patty but not so much that it becomes as bouncy as a sausage. Over the years, I have taken the spirit of her wisdom and experimented endlessly with kafta until I arrived at a version that ticks all the boxes, one that is fluffy and full of flavor yet it retains its shape, is juicy throughout and crispy around the edges, and is generously seasoned with ample flavor, but the meat still shines through as the star.
Third, try to get ground meat with a generous 20% fat content if possible—that fat is essential to juicy and flavorful kafta. Without it, the results will much more likely be chalky and dry.
In many cases, I broil the kafta first on a separate baking sheet before assembling the final dish with sauces and any other additional components. This not only develops better flavor by ensuring the meat browns and crisps instead of just stewing in sauce, but also allows for better presentation: Since kafta shrinks slightly when cooked, this pre-cooking step gets the shrinkage out of the way before final assembly, so the finished dish comes out looking full, not shrunken.
The traditional spices I use are called “mixed spices” in Arabic, and essentially include allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, and cumin. Sometimes I add cardamom, cloves, coriander, and/or nutmeg as well, but it is not necessary as even with black pepper and cumin alone, the flavor is still sublime. The recipe below is one version of kafta, the most common I make at home. But once you’ve nailed the basics of it, you should feel free to try out as many renditions as you can find or invent.
For versions that include a sauce, like the one here, rice is my preferred accompaniment, though bread is the choice for some. Or, if you really want to do it Palestinian style, then triple-carb is the way to go: kafta that has been cooked with potatoes, then served over rice with bread alongside to “scoop” everything up, or at least help push them onto your spoon.
- For the Meat:
- 4 medium potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds; 680g), peeled and sliced into 1/2 inch thick rounds (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- Diamond Crystal kosher salt or fine sea salt
- 3 1/2 ounces (100g) pita bread or crustless white bread, roughly torn (about 2 loosely packed cups)
- 1 medium (6-ounce; 170g) tomato, cored and roughly diced
- 1 small (6-ounce; 170g) yellow onion, roughly diced
- 2 medium cloves garlic
- 1 fresh green chile, such as Anaheim, jalapeño, or serrano, stemmed and seeded (optional)
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
- 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves and tender stems
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)
- 2 pounds (900g) ground meat (beef, lamb, veal, or a combination), preferably 20% fat (see note)
- For the Sauce and to Assemble:
- One 28-ounce (794g) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed with their juices by hand or with a potato masher
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 medium cloves garlic, crushed
- Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 medium green bell peppers (about 5 ounces; 142g each), stemmed, seeded, and sliced crosswise into 1/4 inch thick rounds
- Vermicelli rice, cooked white rice, and/or pita bread, for serving
For the Meat: Preheat oven to 425°F (220°C). On a rimmed baking sheet, toss potatoes with olive oil and a large pinch of salt, then arrange in a single layer. Roast until nicely browned, about 35 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine bread, tomato, onion, garlic, chile (if using), coriander, parsley, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, and ground coriander along with the 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt (for fine sea salt, use half as much by volume or the same weight). Pulse, scraping down sides as necessary, until a coarse paste forms.
In a large mixing bowl, combine ground meat with the processed vegetables and spices and mix well with your hands just until fully combined.
Shape the meat mixture into 3-inch-wide by 3/4-inch-thick patties (about 15 to 18 patties), and arrange on a second rimmed baking sheet. Cook until the surface has nicely browned, about 15 minutes. Set aside.
For the Sauce and to Assemble: In a medium mixing bowl, stir together crushed tomatoes and their juices with the olive oil and garlic along with 1/2 cup (118ml) water. Season with salt and pepper.
In a 9- by 13-inch rectangular baking dish or a 10- or 11-inch oval baking dish, arrange kafta patties in an upright shingled pattern, alternating with potato slices and green bell pepper rounds (you will only need around 15 to 20 slices each of potato and bell pepper; reserve any extra for snacking). Add any accumulated juices from the katfa baking sheet, then pour tomato sauce all over.
Bake until sauce is bubbling and slightly thickened and the bell peppers are browning in spots, about 25 minutes.
Serve with vermicelli rice or plain white rice and/or fresh pita bread.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The kafta and potatoes can be roasted several hours and assembled in the baking dish with green peppers and sauce, then refrigerated for several hours until ready to bake.
I prefer russet potatoes for this dish, as they tend to smash more when you eat the kafta with bread and rice, but other varieties, such as Yukon gold, will work.
The type of meat you use is flexible. Using only lamb will provide the gamiest flavor, which works very well with the seasonings in this dish. Using only beef or veal will be more mild; veal also provides more gelatin than the other two, which can improve juiciness, though any of these meats at 20% fat will be very juicy. If you want a subtle lamb flavor, creating a 1:1 mixture of ground beef and lamb or a 1:1:1 mixture of beef, veal, and lamb will both work, as will any other ratio, depending on your flavor preferences.