Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Middle Eastern Meatballs in a Tomato Sauce Infused with Warm Spices

Middle Easterners love meatballs. They eat them grilled on kebabs, baked in the oven and simmered in fragrant tomato sauce. You'll see a lot of meatball recipes on this blog. There are endless ways to prepare these succulent little treasures. This happens to be one of my healthy and incredibly satisfying favorites.

Whenever I make this recipe, I travel back in time to my grandmother's tiny, yellow, Brooklyn apartment kitchen. She lovingly prepared many delectable Lebanese meals there. Lots of rice pilafs, stuffed chickens, triangle-shaped vegetable pies and meatballs came out of her galley kitchen. The faint aroma of cinnamon and allspice wafting through the air.

My Polish husband asks for this dish regularly. He loves Middle Eastern food. Who doesn't love meatballs in sauce? Not many people I know. The flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean make this version special. The tomato sauce is light and fresh. It's scented with a wee bit of warmth from a pinch of cinnamon and allspice. These spices are key to many Lebanese dishes. You may not be able to identify them in the sauce, you'll only know that it tastes inviting and savory. The aromas in your kitchen will be wonderful too.        

Middle Eastern Chicken or Turkey Meatballs  

Some Notes:

They key to making this dish taste both authentic and fresh is using restraint with the spices and using the best tomato products you can find. I turn to Muir Glen Organic tomato products for this recipe.

The spices in this dish are common to Lebanese cooking and lend very soft warm notes against the freshness of the tomato sauce. The spices should be subtle, not overpowering. If you're not sure what a pinch or dash is, I've seen measuring spoon sets that have these tiny measurements. This kind of cooking will have you thinking intuitively. Make this recipe your own, adding more spice or less to your liking.  

Also, resist the urge to overcook the meatballs. They're very small and light. They cook quickly.
You can use ground chicken, ground turkey or lean ground beef in this recipe.

I like using a jalapeno in the meatballs because it adds a bit of heat and a fresh chili flavor. It also works well against the subtle warmness of cinnamon and allspice in the sauce.

Sprinkle some toasted pine nuts over the dish or even include some in the meatball mixture if you so desire.

Makes a large pot full. Reheats well.

You'll Need:
  • 2 16 ounce packages of ground chicken, ground turkey or lean ground beef. 
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and quartered.
  • 1 jalapeno chili (optional, see notes)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/4 cup of chopped Italian flat leaf parsley for the meatballs
  • 2 28 ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes I used Muir Glen Organic (see notes)
  • 3 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoon of plain bread crumbs 
  • Couple of drizzles of honey or pinches of sugar to balance the acid in the tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves, optional (remember to remove the bay leaves before serving)
  • A couple of good pinches of dried oregano and/or marjoram  
  • A few small dashes of ground cinnamon in the sauce and in the meatballs  
  • A teeny pinch of ground allspice in the sauce and in the meatballs 
  • Sea salt or kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
  • Olive oil
  • 1/3 cup of water
  • Some toasted pine nuts (optional, see notes) 
  • Serving Suggestions: my Middle Eastern Rice Pilaf, warm pita bread, crusty bread, chopped fresh parsley, my Persian chopped salad

The Rundown:

Place the onion, garlic and chili in a food processor and whiz until it becomes a soft paste. Place this chili, garlic and onion paste into a large bowl.

Place the tomatoes into the bowl of a food processor and whiz until they're pureed. Place this tomato puree into a large dutch oven or oven-safe pot. Add the tomato paste, water, a drizzle of olive oil, a few drizzles of honey or sugar, some salt, pepper, the dried bay leaves, oregano/marjoram, two dashes of cinnamon and a small pinch of allspice. Stir everything to combine. Heat on medium low. Cover the pot, bring to a gentle boil. Simmer on low heat. Keep an eye on it and stir on occasion.

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the meatballs. Preheat the oven to 350. Place the ground chicken or ground turkey in the bowl with the chili-garlic-onion paste prepared earlier. Add some salt, the chopped fresh parsley, breadcrumbs, a dash of cinnamon and a small pinch of allspice. Mix to combine, but don't overmix.

Roll the meat mixture into meatballs the size of large marbles or small walnuts. Place them in the simmering tomato sauce, making sure it's at gentle boil. Put the pot with the meatballs and sauce into the preheated oven and continue cooking for 10 minutes or so. Once they're done, the meatballs should be cooked through but still juicy. Be careful not to overcook or they'll become dry. Remove the bay leaves. Serve the meatballs and sauce with lots of chopped parsley and/or any of the other suggestions. Enjoy!    

Note: This recipe has been revised to make it easier to cook

Persian Chopped Salad with a Lime Dressing

Middle Eastern Rice Pilaf with Toasted Orzo


  1. This looks so healthy and appetizing. I can feel your passion towards creating delicious meals that are good for the body. I’m sure many health buffs follow your blog. They can get a lot of interesting and useful food thoughts here. Keep on sharing fresh and new recipes!
    Jessica Stewart @ She’s FIT

    1. Thanks so much Jessica! Mediterranean food tends to be both tasty and healthy. It try to make healthy Thai and Indian too. I love to cook this way and others seem to like it too. I have a terrible chocolate addiction, so it keeps me balanced. Thanks again for posting such a kind comment!