Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cooking this week -- Tuesday Armenian Lamb Meatballs

I do not have a story of a wizened Armenian grandmother who made countless meatballs while adults drank pot after pot of tea and talked about the old country and cousins played in the yard. I am not Armenian. But I will make a small claim of regional accuracy and not just because of my recent Armenian food jag.

Some of my recent Armenian foods include a wonderful lavosh cracker bread recipe I found and made. A week later I picked up some Armenian fig preserves "Ararat" (named after the mountain Noah's ark landed on). The enormous figs are packed in a wonderfully sticky syrup that I can only describe as "fig honey." Tonight's dinner was Armenian meatballs. Now a brief attempt to justify my recipe's authenticity.

When I was a student in Austria about 20 years ago, my Turkish friend Cem [pronounced like "gem"] made a sort of roasted hamburger on a skewer that he called shish kabob. Shish Kabob to me meant big chunks of beef interspersed with onions, tomatoes, peppers and such. According to him, "shish" is Turkish for skewer and "kabob" means "pieces of meat." But I digress . . .

What Cem prepared was similar to the way most Americans make meatloaf, only on a skewer. Remember, we were students. He used finely ground beef mixed with bread crumbs and large amounts of cumin, oregano, paprika (I just got back from Budapest), and just about any other spice accent he could get his hands on.

It was the strong cumin smell and taste that I remember most. Later, when I traveled to Turkey myself, I noticed the popularity of cumin in this region. The age old animosity between Turks and Armenians wasn't something Cem shared and I don't think it is terribly relevant to food. I've tried to preserve the heavy cumin and ignore the Turkish/Armenian mixed origin in my recipe.

As beef prices have risen, I've looked to alternatives to expensive beef cuts. I've found ground lamb a good value and savored the change of taste. When looking for recipes with ground lamb more than a few have incorporated cumin and some of them had "Armenian" as part of the moniker. Some were quite basic so I've tweaked, hybridized and mixed them with Cem's shish kabob. I was pleased with the result:

Armenian Lamb Meatballs

Serves 4 - 6

1 1/2 lbs of ground lamb
1 small onion finely diced
2 cloves garlic minced
2 slices of dry bread (or toast)
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 egg
1/2 C. milk
2 Tbsp of cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp thyme
1/2 tsp of oregano
1/4 tsp of ground allspice
1/4 tsp of ground coriander
pinch of cayenne
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Put lamb in large mixing bowl and add salt and pepper.
  2. Cut bread into 1/4 inch squares and put in a separate bowl, add milk.
  3. Add spices to the lamb, add egg.
  4. Add milk-soaked bread into the lamb mixture and work until all ingredients are well incorporated.
  5. After all ingredients are well mixed, form into 1 to 1 and 1/4 inch balls. Approximately 30 balls depending on the size.
  6. Heat oil in a large frying pan, adding meatballs when hot. Stir occasionally.
  7. Alternately, preheat oven to 425 F. Cook approximately 30 minutes.

The "Cem" method

  1. Make mixture as above, but instead of meatballs, form into a solid cylander (approx. 1 and 1/2 inch in diameter) and skewer.
  2. Cook in broiler over aluminum foil. These cook very rapidly and because it is ground meat it renders a substantial amount of oil.
Good luck, and let me know how yours comes out.

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