In France, meatballs are called boulettes, and by far the favorite versions are the spice-scented North African type. Most of the neighborhood Tunisian and Moroccan restaurants in Paris offer them, served as an appetizer or a side, or in a fragrant main-course tagine with couscous.
This recipe is an amalgam of several that I found on my bookshelf, among them one called boulettes tangéroises in an old French cookbook. Since I like things a bit spicier, my boulettes are more like Tunisian ones, in which hot pepper is more assertive.
For The Saffron Tomato Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 and 1/2 cups finely diced onion
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 inch piece cinnamon stick
- Large pinch saffron, crumbled
- Salt and pepper
- 3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
For The Meatballs:
- 1 and 1/2 cups cubed day-old firm white bread
- 1 cup milk
- 1 pound ground beef or lamb
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- ⅛ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
- All-purpose flour, for dusting
- Olive oil or vegetable oil
For The Couscous (Optional):
- 1 cup giant couscous, m’hamsa, or medium couscous
- 2 tablespoons butter
- ½ cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water to soften, then drained
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Make the sauce: Heat oil over medium-high heat in a wide, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion and cook without browning until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon and saffron, and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper, and allow to sizzle for 1 minute more. Add broth and simmer gently for 5 minutes. May be made several hours in advance, up to a day.
- Make the meatballs: Put bread cubes and milk in a small bowl. Leave bread to soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry.
- In a mixing bowl, put squeezed-out bread, ground meat and egg. Add salt, pepper, garlic, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cloves, coriander and cumin. Mix well with hands to distribute seasoning. Add 2 tablespoons each of parsley, cilantro and scallion, and knead for a minute. May be prepared several hours in advance, up to a day.
- With hands, roll mixture into small round balls about the size of a quarter. Dust balls lightly with flour. Heat a few tablespoons of oil, or a quarter-inch depth, over medium-high heat and fry meatballs until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Drain and blot on paper towel. Simmer meatballs in saffron-tomato sauce, covered, over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until tender.
- Meanwhile, make the couscous, if desired: Cook according to package directions, fluff gently and stir in butter and raisins. Season with salt and cinnamon, and toss well.
- Garnish meatballs with remaining parsley, cilantro and scallion. Serve with couscous and roasted tomatoes if desired.