Old World Tuesday: My Mother’s Russian-Jewish Meatballs

February 16, 2010 § 6 Comments

It’s Tuesday, and I am about to share with you a dish that my mother made all throughout my childhood. In fact, if I think back to my mother’s cooking, this dish is among the brightest highlights in her repertoire, along with the fried potatoes. It wasn’t until I moved to the US, however, that I asked her for the recipe.

These are not served over spaghetti however, and the meatballs themselves are quite a bit larger than what you might be used to – they are about the size of a large plum or a small apple. What makes them different, among many other things, is the fact that my mom has always served them with the aforementioned fried potatoes and not with spaghetti, and that’s what I like to do. Also, the meatballs don’t have very much in the way of sauce – just enough to flavor them, but not enough to slather over pasta. Back home my mom always encased a dried prune inside each meatball, and I have tried that as well, but I found that it added a bit more sweetness than I liked. You can try that, though, for a fully oriental experience. To this day it is one of my favorites, and today’s version turned out especially delicious. I am so lucky.

Here’s how I make them:

I start with about this much rice – it is going to be a part of our meatball mixture. In order to assure that the rice is soft and not crunchy after the dish is finished, I pre-cook the rice by boiling about this much of it…

…in about this much water.

While that is happening, let’s make the sauce (for some reason called tzimmes by my mother): we’re gonna start with an onion and two carrots,

which we are going to dice like so.

Next, melt this much oil and butter in a dutch oven over medium heat,

add the carrots and the onions,

saute them until the onions are translucent and the vegetables have barely began to brown, and stir in 2 T of tomato paste.

Now let’s make the meatballs:

We’re gonna need a pound of ground beef.

Like I said before, a meatball or any other ground beef patty-type-thing is nothing without an onion, and there’s no better way to assure that it will incorporate smoothly and add juiciness to the meat than grating it. Don’t even dream of chopping or mincing.

My grater is missing its handle – it broke off right away and I’ve used the grater without it for years, but that turned out to be serendipitous for the purposes of this photo session.

See what happened? We want the onion to go in in the form of a juicy paste.

Now I am going to add all the spices: salt, black pepper, dried dill, and the no-longer secret ingredient – cinnamon! It might seem like an unusual addition to meat dishes, but it doesn’t come out tasting like a cinnamon bun – just adds a subtle layer of flavor on the background. Come on now, don’t be shy – sprinkle it in!

Next, we are going to add our rice, which will have cooked by now.

If there’s still some liquid left in the pan, drain the rice through a sieve. It will look kind of like this.

Add the rice to the mixture, and then a bit of the other secret ingredient – plain yogurt! That’s what my mom taught me how to do.

What you really need next to make it taste like it’s from Azerbaijan is some cilantro, but if, like me, you don’t have any on hand, parsley will do in a pinch. Of course it has nothing on cilantro in terms of adding another Middle-Eastern dimension, but, as Jacob would have put it, “you need something green.”

I don’t think my mom added garlic, but at my house few things are prepared without it – so press in a clove. Again, don’t mince it – press it. You really need it nice and juicy.

Mix everything together, and we are now ready to get rolling. Rolling the meatballs, that is.

Shape the mixture into meatballs of approximately 2″ to 2.5″ in diameter, and place them directly on top of the carrots and onions in the dutch oven.

You wanna group them together snugly inside the pan, which will make them less likely to lose their shape during simmering.

Next, add enough boiling water to not quite cover the meatballs. You want to pour it gently along the walls of the pan, never directly onto the meatballs so they don’t lose their shape.

About this much water.

Now cover the pan and bring the contents to a simmer.

There they are, simmering kind of like so, not very violently.

Cook them, covered the entire time, for about an hour and a half, or until the meat is fully cooked and very tender.

Remove the meatballs to a different dish and cover with aluminum foil to keep warm while you are making the sauce,

leaving the onions and carrots back in the pot.

Now sprinkle in some flour and stir it in. You’re going to need a little more than what’s in the picture.

Simmer everything briefly, add about 1/2 C milk, more salt/pepper if necessary, and a dash of Worcestershire, until you get a sauce that looks like this.

Now return the meatballs to the pot,

and use a spoon to coat gently with the sauce, taking care not to damage the meatballs – they will be very fragile and tender at this point.

Serve with the Russian fried potatoes.

Irina’s Meatballs

For the meatballs:

  • 1 lb beef
  • 1 onion, grated (NOT minced)
  • 2-3 T chopped cilantro (parsley can be substituted)
  • a pinch of dried dill
  • a pinch of cinnamon
  • 1/2 C rice, cooked
  • 1/4 C plain yogurt
  • 1 clove of garlic, pressed (NOT minced)
  • salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce

  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • oil + butter, for sauteing
  • 2 T tomato paste
  • approximately 1/2 T flour
  • 1/4 to 1 C milk or cream or half and half
  • a dash of Worcestershire
  • salt and pepper to taste

Saute carrots and onions in butter+oil. Stir in tomato paste and turn off the heat. Make the meatballs: Mix together all of the ingredients and shape into balls about 2″ to 2.5″ in diameter. Place on top of the sauteed vegetables in the pot, grouping together. Carefully pour in the boiling water along the walls of the pot to not quite cover the meatballs. Cover, bring to a simmer, and simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the meatballs are very tender. Remove the meatballs from the pot and keep warm. Sprinkle flour on top of the liquid and the vegetables in the pot and stir it in. Simmer briefly and add the dairy. Adjust seasonings and add a dash of Worcestershire. Return the meatballs to the pot and coat them gently with the sauce. Serve with the Russian fried potatoes.

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