These lamb and apricot meatballs are so delicious that I have made them three times in three weeks. They have a light texture with a touch of sweetness, complemented by earthy, toasted fennel seeds and fresh, chopped dill. Called koofteh in Iran, kofta or kefta elsewhere, the word means to punch or to pummel, which is how you treat the mixture, squashing and punching the meat until the fibres all but dissolve, blending with the apricot and onion for a more airy result. The cooked meatballs are finished with a yoghurt sauce, a drizzle of pomegranate molasses and a handful more dill.
I learned the recipe at a cooking class in London with Sabrina Ghayour. Her food was a modern take on the traditional Iranian, fresher and lighter. One thing we learned was that Persian food often contrasts fruit with meat; she made an incredible lamb and quince stew too. You can read her writing in the Guardian, which has an alternative meatball recipe with dried cherries or cranberries instead of apricots.
Serve these koofteh as party snacks – with kebab sticks making them into ‘lollipops’ as Ghayour calls them – and they will disappear in minutes. Equally nice for a meal with rice (Persian-style with a crispy bottom layer, or tah dig) or with flatbread and a simple salad.
Persian lamb, apricot and fennel meatballs
from Sabrina Ghayour – her book Persiana is out now. She recommends using latex gloves for this recipe as you need to bring the mixture together by hand, and the turmeric can temporarily stain your fingers. And it seems like a lot of fennel seeds but it works!
makes 30-40 depending on size – serves 6 with other dishes alongside
500g minced lamb
1 small onion
150g dried apricots
50g fennel seeds
2 tsp turmeric
20g fresh dill, chopped
2 tsp flaky sea salt
ground black pepper
to serve: yoghurt, pomegranate molasses, nigella seeds/black sesame seeds, more chopped dill
If you have a food processor, use it to finely chop the onion and dried apricots. Otherwise, do so by hand. Toast the fennel seeds in a dry frying pan until golden and fragrant. Grind in a mortar and pestle (or my home equivalent, a thick mug and a rolling pin).
Tip all ingredients into a large bowl and squash together with one hand. (Use latex gloves if you have some.) Punch the mixture until the meat almost disintegrates. Taste to check the seasoning – add more salt and pepper if necessary. (You can fry or microwave a small amount if you don’t want to test raw meat.) Roll into even balls. At this point the meatballs can be refrigerated to fry up later.
Heat a large frying pan with enough olive oil to cover the pan. When a drop of water sizzles in the oil, add the meatballs, trying not to crowd them too much. Fry the meatballs to a nice brown on one side, flip them all carefully and carry on, shaking the pan once or twice so they cook evenly. Cut one open to see if fully cooked. If you are making a big batch, brown the meatballs and arrange on a baking tray to finish off in the oven.
To serve: thin some yoghurt down with some water or olive oil to the texture of thick cream. Arrange the meatballs on a platter and drizzle the yoghurt sauce on top. Follow with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses (or sweet tamarind sauce or even honey) then shower with chopped dill and nigella or sesame seeds for colour.
If serving as a snack, stick wooden kebab skewers or toothpicks in each one. If it is part of a meal, serve with a salad, flatbread and extra yoghurt sauce.