If you're looking for a variation on the standard meatball, it's time to consider kofta. It is essentially a spiced meatball with many versions that can trace their origin across the Eastern Mediterranean and Central and South Asia. Depending on the region, kofta can be made with any number of ground meats or seafood. This version of kofta takes a page from the Mediterranean preparation, where they're traditionally made with lamb or beef and often served with flatbread and tzatziki.
A fragrant mixture of aromatics like onion, ginger, and garlic give this kofta its flavor, along with spices like cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and cloves. These ingredients are blended into a purée that keeps the kofta moist, along with the higher fat percentage in the beef. If I'm low on time, I find it easiest to combine the onion, garlic, ginger, and herb leaves in a food processor to purée them into a paste. Not only is it much faster, but it also saves your hands from reeking of garlic and onions. Otherwise, the often-underused box grater does the trick.
Some recipes will tell you to use olive oil for this, but don't bother — all the flavor of olive oil gets cooked out at high heat and it is more likely to burn. Vegetable oil has a higher smoke point and is better suited for this task.
Serve the kofta with grilled pita or naan. (Although, they would be equally as delicious stuffed into a crusty roll and topped with tzatziki or enjoyed over a bed of lettuce.)
Beef Kofta with Tzatziki
For the tzatziki (makes 1 1/4 cups):
1 medium English cucumber
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 to 3 medium lemons
1/2 clove garlic
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup fresh dill
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the kofta:
1/2 medium yellow onion
1 (2-inch) piece of ginger, peeled
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1 pound ground beef (75% lean/25% fat)
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 small pinch red pepper flakes
Vegetable oil, for oiling the grill
Naan or pita, for serving
Make the tzatziki: Peel and grate the cucumber on the large holes of a box grater. Place in a medium bowl, toss with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and let sit for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, finely zest the lemons on a Microplane until you have 1 tablespoon. Transfer to a medium bowl. Juice half of a lemon and add 1 tablespoon of the juice to the bowl. Grate the garlic on the fine holes of the box grater or Microplane and add to the bowl of lemon zest.
Finely chop the dill and and mint and add to the bowl of lemon zest. Add the yogurt, oil, remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper and mix to combine.
Using your hands, squeeze the excess liquid out of the cucumber. (This is an important step, otherwise you will end up with watery tzatziki.) Add the cucumber to the yogurt mixture and mix to combine. Refrigerate at least 1 hour. Make the kofta while the tzatziki is chilling.
For the kofta: Grate the onion on the large holes of a box grater and place 1/4 cup of it in a large bowl. Grate the ginger on a Microplane and place 1 tablespoon of it in the bowl. Grate the garlic on the Microplane and add it the bowl. Finely chop the parsley and mint and add to the bowl.
Add the ground beef, salt, and spices and mix quickly and gently with your hands to combine (do not overwork the meat or it will be tough). Form into 30 (2-inch balls) and place on a baking sheet. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Heat a grill pan lightly coated with vegetable oil on medium-high heat. Add the meatballs in batches. Do not overcrowd the pan, or the grill pan will cool down, the meatballs won't brown properly, and they will stick and break. Grill, turning occasionally, until brown all over and cooked through, about 6 minutes. Remove to a serving platter.
To finish, lightly grill the pitas or naan in the grill pan for about a minute to toast and warm through. Top with kofta and some tzatziki.
- Food processor prep: Utilizing a trick I learned from my mother, you can combine the onion, garlic, ginger, and herb leaves and purée them into a paste using a food processor. It is much faster and it saves you from having hands reeking of garlic and onions.
- Outdoor grilling: The kofta can also be grilled on an outdoor gas or charcoal grill. Cover the meatballs while they are grilling.