A Sephardic twist on the underappreciated meatball

Sephardic meatballs
Sephardic meatballs (Jessica Grann)

By Jessica Grann

Every food culture has its version of meatballs, a food that tends to be highly underrated. Meatballs are often known as kofte or boulettes in Mediterranean culture, and they are an excellent way to bring a flavorful but affordable meal to the table.

Although I love traditional Moroccan meatballs made in a tomato sauce, I have experimented with melding the spices and sauces of well-loved recipes into new creations that my family devours.

Ras el Hanout spice, cumin, fresh lemon juice and parsley create a beautiful aroma. This recipe takes a little extra prep time because you are hand-forming the meatballs, but it’s simple to cook on a weekday night.

Koftes: Sephardic meatballs

Serves 4-6

For the meatballs:

  • 2 pounds chopped meat
  • 3 tablespoons matzah meal
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons water or club soda
  • 3 teaspoons Ras el Hanout spice
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or hot paprika
  • 2 tablespoons finely diced onion (buy one large onion; the remainder will be used for the sauce)
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
  • ¼ cup olive oil or avocado oil for pan-frying; I use ⅛ cup of each oil

For the sauce:

  • Remainder of the onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1½ teaspoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 2 cups chicken stock, storebought is fine
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt to taste

Fresh parsley for garnish
Lemon wedges for extra flavor

Place the chopped meat in a large bowl and, using a spoon, form a well in the center.

Put the matzah meal and water (or club soda) into the well and stir quickly with a fork.

Let rest on the counter at room temperature for about half an hour. The meat will cook better and stay softer if it is not right out of the fridge.

Finely dice about ¼ of a large onion and measure 2 tablespoons of it into the bowl along with 2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley. Both the onion and parsley must be finely chopped; otherwise, the meatballs will break apart.

Sprinkle spices and salt over the top and add 1 large egg.

Gently mix with your hands, being careful not to overmix.

Form small meatballs that are about 1.5 inches in diameter. Two pounds of meat should make about 40 meatballs.

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat.

Cook the meatballs in batches for a few minutes on each side, until nicely browned. When I form the meatballs I place them on a small sheet pan and put them back in the same pan once browned until I finish cooking the entire amount.

Using the same pan you used to cook the meatballs, lower the heat to medium-low and add the diced onion and celery.

Cook for about 8-10 minutes. There will be dark brown pieces left from the meat, and that’s great — it will add flavor to the sauce. I use a wooden spoon to gently lift anything sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Add the sliced garlic, turmeric and cumin, and stir constantly for 1 minute to avoid burning.

Pour in the chicken stock and bring to a soft boil. You may want to turn the heat back up to medium until the broth is bubbling.

Add the lemon juice then reduce the heat back to a low simmer, and gently add in the browned meatballs.

Cover with the lid slightly ajar and let the meatballs simmer for another 20-30 minutes.

Add salt to taste.

Ladle the meatballs and sauce over couscous or rice, which soak up the flavors beautifully. As an alternative you could add in about a cup of frozen peas before serving — they only take a few minutes to cook, and it’s a good way to add in an extra vegetable.

Garnish with chopped parsley, and squeeze fresh lemon juice over the meatballs at the table.

Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh. This originally ran in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here