By far my favorite cookbook author in Israel is Benny Saida who has produced more than half a dozen cookbooks drawing from his extensive knowledge of ethnic foods from Israel and around the world such as French, Syrian and Balkan cuisine. Although I have more than one hundred and fifty cookbooks I use his regularly because his recipes are easy to reproduce, are diversified enough to add interest to the table and use ingredients easy to obtain. He collaborates with food photographers and stylists to produce complementary photographs which are modern but not so fanciful and over imaginative that it looks nothing like the actual final dish. His recipes are concise, clear and make no assumption on the ability of the chef. Most of all he checks and edits his recipes which seem an obvious thing to do but often pretentious chefs omit this tedious part because they can sell their books just based on their names. I lose a lot of respect for celebrity chefs who do not bother reviewing their recipes and put their name on books with easy to avoid mistakes, such as ingredients listed which are never used, ten- fold mistakes in quantities and wrong, completely wrong directions which leaves the poor unsuspecting cook with no option but to throw the entire thing out. In short, Benny Saida’s cookbooks are meant to be used; the pages splattered with a bit of sauce, smudged with oil and dog eared. These are the best cookbooks of all.
One of my favorite cookbooks written by him is called קציצות which can’t be translated exactly into English. The Hebrew word is used for both meatballs and vegetable fritters, in fact it is used to convey any recipe which the ingredients are chopped up and combined into round or oval patties before cooking. I used his basic recipe for meatballs but with slight changes to incorporate the flavors I love.
In Benny Saida’s recipe he fries the meatballs in vegetable oil until fully cooked before adding them to various sauces. I tried frying them in a few tablespoons of lamb tail fat for the extra flavor. Before the advent of flavorless cooking oils food was normally fried in animal fats such lamb tail fat or clarified butter (samneh) and in the Middle East these fats were used more often than olive oil.
This recipe was inspired by several Greek meatball recipes I read about but because I lack a Greek mama I can’t vouch for my version’s authenticity. I am currently trying to adopt a Greek mother and even contacted a friendly fellow named Tolis whose mother lives in Athens. Hopefully she can supply me with a steady supply of delicious and authentic ethnic Greek recipes and if Tolis ever comes to visit me hopefully I can surprise him with a touch of home.
The use of white wine would not be used by Muslims because of their dietary laws, called halal. I used baharat seasoning which I bought at my local spice store, heavy on cinnamon and cloves.
600 grams ground beef or lamb, such as chuck, neck or rib at least 20% fat
1 onion, coarsely grated
1 zucchini coarsely grated (some use finely grated potato but I prefer zucchini because it softens up faster)
2 pieces of bread, crusts removed, soaked in white wine and squeezed dry or 2-4 tablespoons bread crumbs
1/3 cup each parsley and oregano
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon,
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons of lamb tail fat for frying (in Israel lamb tail fat can be bought frozen at the butcher’s)
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
4-5 tomatoes, liquefied in a food processor (if none is available with a sharp knife make a shallow x on the bottom of the tomatoes and submerge in hot water for a few minutes to loosen skin. Plunge in ice water and remove skin easily. Chop them up.
2-3 tablespoons tomato paste (if the tomatoes are vine ripe and red tomato paste does not need to be added)
A splash of white wine
Combine all the ingredients for the meatballs and knead well to form a uniform mix. It should be neither watery nor stiff, but the consistency of soft playdough. Let rest in the refrigerator.
Meanwhile for the sauce add a tablespoon of lamb tail fat to a medium sized pot and melt it. Add the onions and sauté them on medium heat until they are just beginning to brown, add the garlic and mix for a few moments being careful to burn them. Add the purified tomatoes or peeled chopped tomatoes, tomato paste and cook on low heat until the sauce thickens, about 30 minutes.
Take the meatball mix from the refrigerator and form 15-18 balls out of them, flattening them slightly. In a cast iron skillet or other heavy frying pan add a tablespoon or two of the lamb tail fat and add the meatballs, frying on high heat to brown both sides nicely. Fry in batches to avoid crowding because that will cause the meatballs to weep. The meatballs will continue cooking in the sauce and shouldn’t be fully cooked at this point. Transfer to a plate. Add a splash of white wine to the frying pan and scrape all the brown bits off with a wooden spoon and pour into the sauce. Add the meatballs to the sauce; don’t worry if the sauce doesn’t cover them completely. There should be just enough sauce to come half way up the top layer. Cook on low heat, at a simmer, covered for 20-30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings. I served them with rice and souri olives instead of traditonal Greek kalamatas.