I love Morocco and Marrakesh is one of the most exciting cities I’ve been to. I can’t eat Moroccan Meatballs in Tomato Sauce without thinking of a wonderful train journey from Marrakesh to Fez about ten years ago. We’d been staying in a small riad in the Medina in Marrakesh where we’d been looked after by Aziz – our ‘houseboy’. Aziz was rather more than a ‘boy’ and a gracious, friendly and welcoming host who looked after the riad, made our breakfast (including freshly made pancakes to be put straight from the pan to our plates), and would cook evening meals on request.
His meals were the very best food we enjoyed during our stay, despite visits to ‘top’ restaurants, and when we were due to move on to Fez, he offered to prepare a picnic. In those days you could only get from Marrakesh to Fez by road or train – although nowadays you can fly. We opted for the train, which seemed a better bet; seven or eight hours in a train rather than a car. I don’t remember all the food Aziz prepared for our journey, but I do remember the wonderful small meatballs in tomato sauce that we could pop straight into our mouths. I guess we ate them cold or lukewarm, I don’t remember; but I do remember their exquisite spicy taste. Perhaps it was enhanced by the experience of being in a train hurtling through the Moroccan landscape and beautiful Atlas Mountains. Whatever it was, it’s always a pleasure to bring back the memory of Aziz’s cooking and that journey when I make meatballs at home.
Now, I have to confess before I go further that this recipe is my son’s and not mine. Before making the meatballs a couple of nights ago I looked through a few books to compare Jonathan’s recipe with others – that proved to be very similar – and decided to stick with his, nicely typed out for me a few years ago and now a well practised dish. Here it is:
Moroccan Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
Mix together the ingredients for the meatballs in a bowl: 500g lean minced beef, 1 small onion very finely chopped, 1 fat clove garlic crushed, 1 level teaspoon ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, a handful of fresh breadcrumbs (about 1 slice), 1/2 egg, salt and black pepper. Mix everything together with your hands. Don’t be tempted to use a food processor as you will end up with a paste rather than the right consistency. But knead it all together well so all the different flavours are well incorporated. Then shape bits of the mixture into small balls; it doesn’t really matter what size but mine were about the size of golf balls and made 16 meatballs. It’s a good idea to rub a little oil in your hands as you go so the mixture doesn’t stick to your hands. Put them on a plate and leave in the fridge for about half an hour to firm up.
Meanwhile, make a tomato sauce by putting 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes in a saucepan with 1 tablespoon tomato puree, 1 heaped tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, 1 heaped tablespoon chopped fresh mint, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 2 level teaspoons sugar, 1 level teaspoon salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Bring the sauce to bubbling point and gently simmer for about 5-10 minutes.
Heat a small amount of oil in a frying pan (about 1 tablespoon). When the oil is hot, add the meatballs and briefly and gently fry to just brown them on the sides – both to hold them together and add a nice caramel flavour. You may have to do this in two batches; don’t overcrowd your pan or the meatballs will steam more than fry. Now put them in a roasting dish, cover with the tomato sauce and cook at 180 (160 Fan) for about 30-40 minutes, stirring gently about halfway through.
Serve with some flatbread or garlic bread – though you could also serve with rice or couscous if you prefer – and a green salad. Enjoy!