Koofteh Berenji – Persian Stuffed Meatball
Koofteh is the pick for Fig & Quince’s debut cooking post by the popular demand – of our stomachs. Luckily, as a culinary creation originating in Iran, koofteh is a good choice for a blog devoted to Persian food.
What exactly is a koofteh? One may say a koofteh is a meatball but that is not saying much. Let’s say this: if a koofteh was a person, it’d be the kind of person who strikes one as ho-hum then dazzles with a disarming display of charm once engaged in an actual conversation.
A more helpful description is that koofteh refers to a genre of Persian food made from a mixture of ground meat, rice, fresh herbs, and spices, which is formed into the shape of a ball, and is usually cooked in and served with its (yummy) broth.
A typical koofteh is the size of an orange or maybe a grapefruit, but depending on its type, it can be as small as a walnut or in the case of the old-school version of koofteh Tabrizi it could be as big as a bowling ball. That is not a typo!
Kooftehs are usually stuffed with various combinations of dried apricots, prunes, walnuts, barberries, raisins, dried sour cherries; or hard-boiled eggs; or in the case of the fabulously large koofteh Tabrizi even a Cornish hen!
We made koofteh berenji (rice koofteh) this time – a tried and true family favorite.
For the filling, Mom favors a combination of prunes, raisins and walnuts seasoned with turmeric, coriander and cumin; mixed in with sautéed onions. When making this batch we used dried apricots instead of the prunes and it tasted just fine but the result paled in comparison to the luscious pillowy texture and sweet flavor of the plum combined with the grainy texture and earthy flavor of the koofteh. So we’re sticking with prunes instead of dried apricots in the list of ingredients. If you don’t like prunes, dried sour cherries (4-6 per koofteh) would make an equally yummy substitute as well.
And now without further ado,
- 1 pound lean ground beef or lamb (fatty meat will not work in this recipe)
- 1 cup rice – wash, drain, then soak for 1/2 to 1 hour until softened
- 1/2 cup of yellow split pea – wash, drain, then soak for 1/2 to 1 hour until softened
- 1 egg
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 3 onions, largish in size
- 1 bunch chives or scallions, I cup chopped
- I bunch parsley, 1 cup chopped
- 1/2 bunch dill, chopped
- 3-4 stems fresh tarragon, chopped, or use 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
- 1 teaspoon dried mint
- 3 to 4 sprigs of fresh savory, chopped, or use 1/2 tablespoon of dried savory (savory is a particularly pungent herb and a little goes a long way – err on under rather than over use)
- 2 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon plus a pinch or two more of cumin
- Pinch of coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Olive oil
- 6-8 pitted prunes, one per meatball
- 1/3 cup raisin
- 1/3 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
- Juice of one lemon
- 2-4 cups of chicken broth
- 1/4 teaspoon of ground saffron, dissolved in 2 tablespoons of hot water)
- Slice 1 large onion. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a pot roomy enough to house all the meatballs at the end. Once oil is quite hot, add onions and immediately sprinkle with some salt (this prevents onion from discharging liquid), allowing onions to cook undisturbed for one minute, then sauté and move around until translucent. Add garlic, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon dried mint, and a touch of pepper and continue to sauté for another 2-3 minutes or until golden brown.
- Add 8 cups of water (or a mixture of water and chicken broth for a heartier flavor) to your sautéed onions -this will be your broth- and set aside for now.
- In a small skillet sauté the prunes, raisins, and walnuts with 1-2 tablespoons of oil, then season with 1/2 tsp cinnamon, and a pinch of pepper. Preferred but optional: also add a pinch each of cumin and coriander.
- Optional step: In a separate skillet, sauté the medium sized sliced onion for 2-3 minutes or until translucent and mix with your sauteed prune, raisin and walnut mixture. (If you can’t be bothered to slice and sauté yet another onion, you can skip this part but you’ll also be skipping out on some yummy flavoring in the bargain. Your call.)
This is your stuffing. To be divided into 5-8 parts depending on how many meatballs you decide to make.
Tip: Save two tablespoons or more of the filling to add to the broth. This subtly but surely enhances the flavor and texture of the broth.
- Separately, soak rice and split pea in water for 1/2 to 1 hour until they soften. Alternative method: instead of soaking, cook the rice and split peas until al dente -do not overcook to avoid a mushy koofteh.
- Coarsely grind rice and split pea – separately, as rice is more fragile than split pea – in a food processor. You could use mortar and pestle to get the job done.
- In a large bowl mix in the meat and the ground rice and split pea. Grate a large onion and break an egg into the mix, and season with 1 teaspoon turmeric, a smidgen of pepper, salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of cumin. Add dill, parsley, scallion, tarragon and savory.
- Knead the mixture together – for a good 5 minutes or longer until all the ingredients adhere and are evenly mixed. Don’t skimp on the kneading. Not only will you get a good arm workout you will also significantly increase the odds of having your koofteh survive its boiling broth bath intact.
- Decide how many kooftehs you want to end up with, and loosely separate the mixture into the appropriate number of segments. (With one pound of meat you can make anywhere from 7-8 orange-sized to 5-7 grapefruit sized ones. Note that whatever the size of your raw koofteh, it will expand somewhat considerably once cooked.)
- Flatten one koofteh segment in your palms as if you are making a thick hamburger patty. Make a small well in the middle of the patty by pressing your thumb, fill the well with a portion of the filling mixture. Fold back the patty to cover and roll the patty inside your palms to form a round ball shape. (Wet fingers help prevent the mixture form sticking to your hands and also help seal the outer layer of koofteh. Keep a small bowl with cold water handy for touch ups as you work your way through the mixture.) Once satisfied with the shape and confident it will not fall apart, it’s time to carefully place the koofteh in the gently boiling broth.
Which brings us to:
- Bring the broth to a gentle boil.
- With a ladle carefully place one koofteh -one koofteh at the time to prevent its falling apart – into the broth.
- Wait until the broth returns to boiling -this is important and after all your hard work, now is not the time to rush – then carefully drop the next koofteh into the broth. Repeat till you run out of koofteh!
- Taste the broth and adjust seasoning.
Optional step #1: if you have saved some of the filling, add 2-3 tablespoons of it to the broth for enhanced flavor and texture.
Optional step #2: if you do wish to use saffron, now is a good time to add it to the broth.
- Allow koofteh to cook uncovered in the continuing-to-gently-boil broth for 10-15 minutes. (Until the texture of the koofteh is no longer raw and rice grains in the koofteh look cooked and have expanded.)
- Cover the pot, and cook over medium heat for 45-50 minutes. (You’ll know the meatball is done when the cooked rice grains stick out of the koofteh.)
- Finish off with adding the juice of lemon to the broth. (We like a little acid in the broth but this step is totes optional.)
Koofteh is traditionally served with yogurt, torshi (Persian pickles), sabzi khordan (fresh herbs), and bread. Sangak bread would be the best but it is not available in the U.S. as of yet. Lavash bread, if available is best. Flatbread is a good choice as well.
You can serve the koofteh together with the broth, or you can plate each separately. It works both ways and each to his own taste. Some people also like to take bread, tear it into small bite size pieces, and drop it into the broth and eat it like that. This is called “terid kardan” and if done at all, is done strictly in informal settings and more on that at a later time.
Typical serving is one koofteh per person, but those with daintier appetites would be perfectly content with half of a koofteh, while those with heartier appetites could (and should) wolf down a couple – no judgment! Fret not if you have any leftovers, as Koofteh grows tastier after a day and can be eaten without having to reheat. You can also press it down and make a sandwich of it, and partaken along with some yogurt, it makes for a tasty lunch.
Koofteh is a comfort food that kids like and it is complex enough to amuse a sophisticated palette.
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Make it, enjoy it, and nooshe jaan نوش جان!