Saturday, 7 February 2009

Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato and Yoghurt Gravy - with toddler variation

About 12 years ago I saw this brilliant recipe - little meatballs simmered in a rich, fragrant gravy - demonstrated on TV. I jotted it down on the back of an envelope, which sat in my recipe file for at least a decade, and then the envelope vanished and I had to make the dish from memory. It's probably changed a bit as a result - and I've added onions and brown breadcrumbs to the meatballs, to make them healthier and more economical - but it's still one of my all-time favourite family meals. I'm sorry I can't recall whose recipe it is, because I'd like to shake her by the hand. I still use her basic formula for family meatballs; it's the yoghurt, I believe, that makes them so tender.

This is a fabulous meal for toddlers, if you omit the onions and coriander from the meatballs and add just a wee hint of spice to both meatballs and gravy. As time goes on and the kids get addicted to the dish, you can increase the amount of spicing in tiny increments so that, by the time they're nine or ten, their palates will be begging for spicy food, and you will have given them the fine gift of a life-long lust for curry!

The original recipe called for lamb, but I usually make it with minced pork, which - if you have the right butcher - is lean, clean and inexpensive. Beef works just as well.

There are lots of ingredients here, but it is quite quick to make if you have a food processor fitted with a strong metal blade. My instructions presume that you have such an appliance: if you don't, you'll need to chop everything finely by hand (or grate the ingredients).

Meatballs in a Spicy Tomato and Yoghurt Gravy

For the meatballs:

3 slices brown bread
a handful of fresh coriander leaves
1 small onion, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 kg lean minced pork, lamb or beef
10 ml (2 t) ground cumin
10 ml (2 t) ground coriander
5 ml (1 t) garam masala
a fresh green chilli, finely chopped [entirely optional]
45 ml (3 T) plain white yoghurt
1 egg
salt and freshly ground black pepper

First make the meatballs. Tear up the bread, place in the food processor and whizz to fine breadcrumbs. Add the fresh coriander and pulse until finely chopped. Tip into a large mixing bowl. Put the onion and garlic in the food processor and process until very finely chopped, but not slushy. Tip this mixture into the bowl containing the breadcrumbs, and add all the remaining meatball ingredients. Using your hands, squish and squash the mixture so that it is thoroughly combined. Form into small round balls - bigger than a litchi; smaller than a golf ball - place on large plate, and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up.

For the gravy:

2 T (30 ml) vegetable oil
two onions, very finely chopped
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, finely grated
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
10 ml ground cumin
5 ml ground coriander
2 cardmom pods
1 stick cinnamon
8 ripe tomatoes, peeled (see note below)
400 ml water
1/2 cup (125 ml) plain white yoghurt
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions. Cook over fairly high heat, stirring often, until they are a rich light brown colour. Add the ginger, the garlic and all the ground and whole spices, and allow to sizzle for two minutes, without allowing the garlic to burn.

In the meantime, roughly chop the tomatoes, put them in the food processor and whizz to a purée. Don't over-process them: you want a slightly textured purée, with not too much foam. Add the tomatoes to the pot and cook over a high heat for five minutes, stirring often. Add the water. Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that rises to the top. Now add the yoghurt, a tablespoon at a time, stirring briskly between each addition, to prevent curdling. Season with salt and pepper.

Remove the meatballs from the fridge and place them one by one, using a large metal spoon, into the simmering gravy. Don't be tempted to stir or poke, which will break up the meatballs. It doesn't matter if some of them are sticking up above the gravy line: give the pot a very gentle shake so that the gravy coats each ball. Cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes. Now take the lid off and give the pot a good shake - the meatballs will have firmed up. Simmer for another 25 minutes, uncovered, or until the gravy is slightly thickened and reduced. Check seasoning and serve hot with rice, plain yoghurt and chopped fresh coriander.

Serves 6 to 8.


* Peel the tomatoes by dipping them in boiling water until their skins begin to split. Or halve the tomatoes, press the cut side against the coarse teeth of a grater, and grate vigorously until the empty tomato skin is flattened against your palm.

* You can fry the onions for the meatballs first, if you like, but I love the subtle crunch of onion.

* You can use chopped tinned Italian tomatoes instead of fresh ones if you are in a hurry, but... oh, hell, use fresh tomatoes, or it just won't taste the same.
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