Meatballs with a bounce of Turkish zeal

March 02, 2018
  • By David Tanis
  • The New York Times
David Tanis prepares lamb meatballs in New York, Jan. 31, 2018. Made with ground lamb, this version of a beloved dish is spiced with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and a touch of cayenne. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

What kind of meatballs are these? It’s a fair question: Meatballs come in countless variations. You could make them every week for a year, never repeating a recipe. It is a culinary common thread that runs through albondigas, polpettini, boulettes, kofte — all spherical morsels of finely chopped meat.

The origin of the meatball is hardly a mystery. When an animal is butchered, there are a limited number of primal cuts, the tender parts that are turned into chops, steaks and roasts. The rest of the beast is used for stewing or put through the meat grinder to become burgers, sausages, meatloaf or meatballs. For many cooks and diners, the bite-size meatball is the most appealing.

All meatballs begin the same way. Freshly ground meat is mixed with seasonings and a bit of bread or rice before being rolled into balls. (Nearly all recipes advise forming them with wet hands.) They are then browned on the stovetop or in the oven, to be eaten as is, simmered in a sauce or added to a soup.

This recipe, made with ground lamb, has a Turkish feel, spiced with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and a touch of cayenne. The meatballs are browned in olive oil — though flattening them into patties to be griddled or grilled would be another good choice — and served with a traditional yogurt sauce.

Some cooks braise their meatballs after browning, which renders them exceedingly moist, soft and tender. In this rendition, I like them straight out of the frying pan, crisp on the outside and juicy inside.

The warm, tart yogurt sauce adds tang and richness, especially when made with whole-milk yogurt. It is prepared at the last minute, just before serving. A beaten egg and a little cornstarch are added to prevent the yogurt from curdling when heated.

Don’t bathe them in the sauce. Instead, pile the meatballs on a platter and pour the sauce over them. For more flavor and visual appeal, add crumbled feta, and sprinkle with sour sumac powder and crushed red-pepper flakes. (Turkish Aleppo pepper is delicious and not too spicy. Korean red-pepper flakes are a good substitute.)

To finish, give it all a shower of chopped mint, cilantro and dill. Pinches of bright yellow turmeric to finish make the dish a showstopper.


Spiced Lamb Meatballs With Yogurt and Herbs

Yield: 5 to 6 servings

Total time: 1 hour


1 1/2 pounds ground lamb, not too lean (from a cut like shoulder or breast, not leg)

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 cup finely diced red onion

1 teaspoon toasted ground cumin

1 teaspoon toasted ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of cayenne

3 eggs

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup chicken broth

1 cup plain, very tart yogurt (if using Greek-style yogurt, thin it with milk and lemon juice)

1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

2 ounces crumbled feta cheese

1/2 teaspoon sumac

Crushed red-pepper flakes, to taste

Turmeric, for garnish (optional)

3 tablespoons chopped mint

2 tablespoons chopped dill

Cilantro sprigs


1. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine lamb, breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, onion, cumin, coriander, cinnamon and cayenne. Beat 2 of the eggs and add to meat, mixing until incorporated. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 24 hours to allow the seasonings to permeate the meat.

2. Using wet hands, break off walnut-sized pieces of lamb mixture, roll into spheres and set aside on a baking sheet. You should have about 30 1-ounce meatballs.

3. Heat oven to 225 degrees. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat. When shimmering, add meatballs in one layer and brown for 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and cook for 4 to 5 minutes more. (Work in batches, if necessary, to avoid crowding the pan.) Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet to blot any extra oil, then pile meatballs on a heatproof serving platter and keep warm in the oven.

4. Pour off any excess oil from skillet and turn heat to high. Add broth and bring to a simmer. In a bowl, whisk together yogurt; 1/2 teaspoon salt; remaining egg, beaten; and cornstarch. Pour yogurt mixture in a thin stream into the hot broth, whisking constantly. Turn heat down slightly and continue whisking until yogurt is heated through and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Do not let mixture boil.

5. Pour hot yogurt sauce over meatballs. Sprinkle crumbled feta, sumac and crushed red pepper on top. Finish with pinches of turmeric, if using, and sprinkle with mint, dill and cilantro. Serve immediately with rice, orzo, pita bread or potatoes.