spiced lamb meatballs with basque-style smothered okra
This has been a hard week, hasn't it? Trying to make sense out of situations where sense never existed in the first place...it's difficult to keep living your life normally when you know so many others no longer have that option, and the guilt hangs so heavy. There are a lot of feelings and a lot of things to say, or perhaps to dance out, since words don't seem to get us anywhere these days. None of it feels even remotely adequate, and we are somehow always here again. Ouroboros forever doomed to eating its own tail.
This is where food comes in. Every person among us needs it to survive, and whether we like it or not, it makes us the same. If nothing else, we all share this one quality that has the remarkable ability to build bridges where words and other, lesser deeds often fail, and it binds us. Our need for it is so ubiquitous that we don't even notice it until we lose everything else. To that end, reading this article from Lucky Peach, Love in Times of War threw me for a loop--because of its honesty and its immediacy and its universal truth. They interviewed a man who established a "culinary training program that teaches refugee women how to market and sell the foods they've been cooking and eating their whole lives". He says "it's a source of income, and it builds a bridge between the past and future; their Syrian homeland and their new life in Lebanon." It's not all roses, of course—nothing ever is—but I have not been able to get his words out of my head:
When we do any of our capacity-building programs, the first session is always very, very tense. Like one time, we were in Tripoli—on a warfront with people from both sides—with widows or those who had lost a son or a daughter. And you’re talking about nothing—cutting techniques, knives, on and on. You should have seen those people at the end. Everyone didn’t stay; some people left. But you should see the results in those who stayed.
They discovered the other was the fucking same. They discovered that the other had the same fears, the same expectations, the same problems. I’m the reason for your problems—and you’re the reason for mine. Can both of us move on to something different, rather than “I’ll hit you, you hit me; I’ll hit you, then you hit me?” Then what? We’ll both kill each other, right? Or we’ll both stop at the same time and say, “Okay, let’s move on.”
People have different traditions, different skin color, different shapes, but people are always the same, with the same fear, with the same expectation, with the same love.
It's okay if we don't agree, as long as we don't let our differences pull us further and further apart, until we no longer recognize our shared bonds. And even though these words on a food blog in the black morass of the internet are not likely to have much of an impact, what can make a difference are the choices we make in our ordinary, every day lives. Our words, our actions, and even something as small as the meals we make for ourselves and others can be affirmations that, indeed, we all have the same fears, the same expectations, and the same loves.
To that end, I have married lamb meatballs, made using kibbeh-style middle eastern spicing, with a Basque style okra dish adapted from Alex Raij's fantastic new cookbook, The Basque Book. Not only is the book full of incredible food, it's also full of lessons we could all stand to hear repeated. Alex is from Minneapolis, the American daughter of Argentinian Jews, and married to Eder Montero, a native of the Basque country. Together they own three influential Spanish restaurants and are a vivid reminder that our perceived differences should never be used as an excuse to keep ourselves apart. The flavors in these two dishes come from such different parts of the world but could not feel more right together, furthering my belief that food is the closest thing to magic that we have.
This may sound like a lot to do, but it's actually incredibly easy and negates the need for any additional sides. The tomato sauce can be made and kept on hand for pasta sauce (I always have a jar in my fridge); the meatballs can be made ahead and frozen, plucked from the freezer when needed; the yogurt comes together in about a minute; and the okra takes all of 2 minutes to prep and get in the oven. Each is also highly delicious on its own, if you still don't believe me. If you're working from scratch on this, I would get your tomato sauce going and then prep the okra and get it in the oven. Then work on your lamb meatballs, and assemble the yogurt when you have a spare two minutes.
To plate, create a layer of okra, then dollop the tomato sauce all over. You want to be generous here but don't actually "smother" the okra--you want to make sure you taste it and are still able to notice its texture. Then dollop some yogurt in the same way, place two patties on top, then garnish with the reserved green onion tops and/or shredded mint on top. Most importantly, don't forget to tell your dinner guests how happy you are to feed them and how much they mean to you. Where love and fellowship and food are concerned, more is always more.
The meal as described serves 4.
spiced lamb meatballs
makes 10 meatballs
- 6 scallions, roughly chopped, 2 Tbsp dark greens reserves
- 3 fat garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp smoked sweet paprika
- 3 slices bread, toasted and cooled (I used leftover sourdough sandwich bread here)
- 1/2 lb ground lamb
- 2 Tbsp EVOO, plus extra for sauteeing
Roughly chop the scallions and garlic. Add to the bowl of a food processor, along with the salt, cayenne, cinnamon, allspice, pepper, paprika, and bread. Pulse until combined and the bread is to the crumb stage. Tip it into a bowl, drizzle with EVOO, and add the lamb. Gently fold and combine thoroughly, taking care not to work the meat too much, and roll into patties (I like to flatten mine, as it's easier to crisp up two sides of a patty).
Drizzle a tablespoon of EVOO into a medium saute pan over medium high heat. Add the meatballs 5 at a time, taking care to space them out so they don't steam. When they release on one side, it's time to flip. When the second side releases from the pan, transfer to a paper towel lined plate. If your lamb is very fatty, feel free to drain some of the grease off. Repeat with the second batch.
roasted okra with tomato sauce and minted yogurt
adapted from Alex Raij/Eder Montero
To make the okra: Preheat the oven to 400' and slice 2 lb of okra crossways into 1/4" slices. Drizzle with EVOO and salt, mix up to evenly coat, then baked on a lined sheet for 15-20 minutes, until starting to take on some color (they'll start to shrivel if you overcook them). Let cool to room temp.
To make the tomato sauce: This is a sauce I make quite often for all kinds of things, with a few variations depending on its intended use. Alex has a Basque version in her book that incorporates marjoram and roasted peppers, but I decided to stick with my own go-to tomato passata. I finely chop a small onion and saute it in olive oil until translucent (sprinkle it with salt when you add the onion to the pan), then add a 28 oz. can of Muir Glen brand fire roasted diced tomatoes along with a bay leaf or two. Let it slowly simmer together for at least 15-20 minutes (you can even go up to an hour if you have the time!), then turn the heat down to low and incorporate a few tablespoons of EVOO to add some body and silkiness.
To make the yogurt sauce: Alex calls for smashing a garlic clove and heating it over low in some EVOO to infuse; I already had some garlic confit hanging out in the fridge, so I used that instead. Mix 1 Tbsp of whichever oil you have with 1/2 cup goat yogurt (or full fat Greek), season with salt, and shred 4-6 stalks of mint leaves in it with your hands (cutting it with a knife causes bruising). Stir and let it hang out while you make everything else.