Lamb Meatballs with Cinnamon & Sour Cherries

I went to the Young Vic on Wednesday and saw a wonderful production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Whenever I head in that direction from Waterloo station I can never resist popping into a Book Warehouse store on the corner of Waterloo Road and Baylis Road, diagonally opposite the Old Vic. Of course, I head straight for the cookery book section at the back and I’ve picked up a number of bargains there over the years. Wednesday evening my eyes alighted on The Middle Eastern Kitchen by Ghillie Basan.

Published in 2010 by Kyle Cathie at £19.99 for the hardback, I was pleased to pick it up for the bargain price of £6.99. It’s a beautifully illustrated book with enticing photos not only of the food Ghillie cooks but glorious landscapes and markets and people – like a Bedouin shepherd,  a Syrian orange-seller, a teaboy in Istanbul. All the colourful and exotic flavours and sounds and sights of Jordan, Eygpt, Turkey, Lebanon and that entire Middle Eastern region sing from the pages and looking through it kept me well occupied and happy as I sat in the Young Vic’s bar waiting for my friend.

Ghillie’s book, Tagines and Couscous has been a favourite of mine for a while and is much used. The book I bought on Wednesday is slightly different in that it’s a cross between a recipe book and a reference book. Rather than simply giving recipes the book describes ingredients popular in the region and is divided into sections like Meat and Fish, Fruit, and Flavourings, Herbs and Spices. Ghillie gives a history of each ingredient, tells us how and where it grows, how it’s been used in history, appearance and taste; where to buy it and how to store it; and finally she gives recipes. There are already a number of my little coloured stickies peeping out of the book, marking recipes that particularly appeal to me and I want to try. However, last night I began with some lamb meatballs – Lahma Bil Karaz – which, Ghillie tells us, is a medieval Arab dish.

Lamb Meatballs with Cinnamon & Sour Cherries

I wasn’t sure I was going to manage to source fresh sour cherries anywhere but I immediately remembered when I saw this recipe that I’d found dried sour cherries recently – and used them in my Chocolate & Sour Cherries Biscotti. So I headed back to the same shelf in my local Waitrose – and came home with two packets, even though I probably only needed one. I can see this might become an ‘ingredient of the moment’ for me. What follows is pretty much Ghillie’s recipe with slight adjustments to seasonings and chicken stock instead of water for the sauce.

First soak a 70g pack of dried sour cherries in warm water for a few hours to soften. Then mix together 400g minced lamb, 1 level teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 level teaspoon ground cloves and some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Now knead the lamb and spices together until you have quite a pasty, smooth consistency. Don’t be tempted to use a food processor. Form the mixture into small balls, about the size of a walnut. I like to rub a little oil on my hands before I start, which makes the mixture easier to handle.

Now heat a little light olive oil or sunflower oil in a pan and fry the meatballs until nicely browned. Remove to a plate and drain on kitchen towel. Wipe the pan clean and add about 25g butter. Add the drained cherries, turn them in the melted butter and add 2 teaspoons sugar and 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Stir for a minute or two and then add 200ml chicken stock. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 15 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through. Remove the meatballs to a warm serving dish and then turn up the heat and let the sauce and cherries bubble for a couple of minutes to thicken. Then pour over the meatballs.

I served this with a crisp salad with thinly sliced fennel added for a lovely, clean aniseed taste. We also had rice with a big knob of butter in it and I also added freshly chopped parsley and mint.

It was a lovely supper. The meatballs and sauce were delicious; richly fragrant with the spices and the fruity cherries. The warming cloves married well with the cherries; there was the sweetness of cinnamon and deep earthy cumin to give a base. Traditionally, the meatballs are served with flatbreads so you could make a great picnic treat and fill pittas with them.

We drank a delicious Argentinian Malbec – Vinalba – with the meal; the wine’s rich black fruit, slightly smokey, notes going wonderfully with the fruity lamb. This is a meal to definitely be repeated!

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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