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Koofteh berenji, a Persian meatball dish, is made of a kneaded mixture of ground beef or lamb, rice, aromatic herbs, yellow split peas and spices. The meat mixture is usually stuffed with dried fruits and nuts, firmly shaped into orange-sized balls and simmered in a rich tomato sauce. As with all recipes, there are many variations of this dish. Although the main ingredients are ground beef and rice, various combinations of herbs, fillings and spices are used in the recipes. Some of the most common herbs used are fresh or dried parsley, tareh (chives), marzeh (savory), dill, cilantro and mint. The meatballs are stuffed with fried onion, zereshk (barberries), walnuts, dried plums, dried apricots, dates, raisins, whole cooked eggs or a combination of these ingredients. The sauce is flavored with saffron, turmeric, cinnamon, rice advieh (rice seasoning), cumin or coriander.

Koofteh Berenji (Rice Meatballs)

Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: 1 hour 30 min
Ready in: 2 hour
Yields: 4 to 6 servings


INGREDIENTS For meatball

Rice:
½ cup long grain basmati rice, rinsed
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt

Split Peas:
½ cup yellow split peas, rinsed
1 cup water
¼ teaspoon salt

Herbs cleaned and finely chopped:
1 small bunch fresh parsley leaves, about 1 cup
1 bunch fresh green onions, 8 to 10
¾ cup fresh tarragon leaves or ¼ cup dried
¾ cup fresh marzeh (summer savory) or ¼ cup dried

1 pound ground beef 85% lean
1 medium onion, peeled and grated
2 eggs
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

For Sauce
4 tablespoons oil
1 large onion, peeled and diced
4 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon saffron (optional)
4 cups water

INSTRUCTIONS

To make the meatballs:

Bring the rice ingredients to a boil in a small pot. Lower heat to medium low. Cover and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. Set aside to cool. Steaming rice “kateh” keeps the flavor and nutrition intact and helps bind the meat ingredients together.

Bring the yellow split pea ingredients to a boil in a small pot. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or until the peas are almost tender. Strain and set aside to cool. Split peas used in this recipe are the “slow cook” type available at Middle Eastern markets or online. Regular split peas, found at most supermarkets, tend to cook faster and fall apart in Persian dishes. If using “regular” split peas adjust the cooking time.

When rice and peas are cool enough to handle, combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl. Using your hands knead the mixture as you would a dough until it’s pliable and easy to shape. Divide the mixture into 8 equal portions. Using wet hands firmly shape each portion into a ball. Place meatballs on a large platter.

If your meat mixture is too dry to handle and falls apart, try working it longer. The heat from your hands and the starch released by the broken rice grains help bind the ingredients better. If that doesn’t work add one more egg. On the other hand if the mixture is too wet and loose to handle, either chill in the refrigerator for up to an hour or add rice or chickpea flour (just enough to absorb the moisture). Using fresh and fattier meat and making smaller meatballs also help. Mixing all the ingredients prior to adding ground beef and eggs incorporates them evenly.

To make the sauce:

Heat oil in a pot large enough to hold the meatballs. Add chopped onions. Cook over medium-high heat for about 7 minutes or until slightly golden, stirring occasionally to keep from burning. Add tomato paste and cook for 2 to 3 minutes to create deeper flavors and color in the sauce. Stir in turmeric, salt, pepper, lemon juice, saffron and water. Cover and bring to a gentle boil.

To assemble the dish:

Gently slide the meatballs into the simmering sauce, one at a time. Don’t overcrowd the pan. The meatballs expand as they cook. Lower the heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for 1 hour. Spoon the sauce over the meatballs occasionally to keep the meatballs moist.

Taste and adjust the seasoning to your taste. To serve, place the meatballs in a bowl and pour the sauce over them.