There was the day when, if I wanted a new recipe, I would go through the many cookbooks we own or I would go the public library and scan the shelf looking for an interesting new cookbook. Now, of course, we all Google whatever we’re looking for and voila! up pops a recipe from epicurious, food.com, allrecipes, foodnetwork, americastestkitchen or any number of other sites devoted to food. However, when you look closely at the recipes that show up on those sites you discover that many are the exact same recipe, sometimes complete with the same typos and photos.
If you’re lucky or know how to compose a search better than I, you’ll sometimes get something closer to what you actually want. You might even end up at a blog written by someone who actually cooks, who ventures to cook off the top of his or her head, who thinks like you and who has something useful to say about the recipe, procedure or presentation of a particular food or dish.
Somewhere, a couple of years or so ago, I stumbled onto just such a blog, Conor Bofin’s One Man’s Meat. What a treat! Someone who seems to cook like I do and, better yet, who gives an interesting commentary on his cooking. What makes Conor’s commentary interesting, I think, is the way he couches his recipes and food musing inside his relationship with his family and community. He clearly thinks the world of his family but cuts them little slack when it comes to food. He also, clearly, is thoughtful about what he cooks, how he cooks and about those who will eat his cooking.
A while back, one of his posts was ostensibly about his youngest daughter’s way of getting what she wants from her dad. The end result were koftas, those middle-Eastern meatball-on-a-skewer sort of things.
Now, I had recently been thinking of trying to make kofta – I’ve had them in restaurants but had never attempted them myself. They’re basically sausage shaped meatballs that are grilled on a skewer so there’s no great cooking challenge except for keeping the meat on the skewer. When cooking Middle-Eastern cuisine, my go to reference is Paula Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, which I think is a wonderful resource and a worthy addition to any cook’s reference shelf. Ms. Roden’s recipe for kofta, however, left me wanting more. Besides the requisite ground lamb, she adds only parsley and onion. For the adventuresome, she lists variations that include mint, OR cumin/coriander, OR chili flakes OR cinnamon/allspice but certainly not all of them. Conor’s version used almost all of those options and then some including honey, tomato paste, garlic, chili flakes, cumin, caraway and mint among the more usual ingredients. All right Conor! In for a dime – in for a dollar!!
I followed his recipe pretty closely but we were out of honey so I substituted agave syrup although I only used 2/3 the amount of the honey called for. And I was a bit leery of the amount of chili flakes so I used the milder Aleppo pepper instead of the crushed red peppers that Conor used. I also added a little cinnamon for its warmth; and some ground Sumac Berries, figuring that their pleasant sourness and deep brick red color couldn’t hurt in the kofta. The sumac I used is from Turkey (via Penzey’s Spices) which is the sumac, Rhus coriaria, used in the Mediterranean region, most commonly in a table condiment mixture of sumac, thyme and sesame called Zatar. It is different from but similar to the road-side sumac of North America, Rhus typhina, but I don’t know if they’re interchangeable in cooking.
Now, to the part of keeping the meat on a skewer. The meat mix, with the grated onion, tomato paste, and agave is a bit loose or soft. Getting it to stay put on a skewer is a challenge. Conor used round bamboo skewers – I figured there was no way would they keep the meat in place. In my first attempt at these, I had some flat bamboo skewers and figured they would offer some better support but they were marginally successful. The meat was just too loose for it to stay in place on a skewer. In this, my second attempt, I just shaped the kofta and put them on the grill without any skewering nonsense.
Here is, what I think is my somewhat improved version of Conor’s recipe for Kofta.
1# ground lamb
2 Tbs. tomato paste
2 Tbs. Agave syrup (or 3 Tbs. honey)
2 medium onions, grated on the large teeth of a box grater
6 – 8 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
A big handful of fresh mint leaves (or 1 Tbs. dried mint)
1 Tbs. Aleppo pepper (or up to 1 Tbs. dried chili flakes – to your taste)
1 Tbs. Cumin seed, toasted and ground
1 Tbs. Caraway seeds, toasted and ground
1 Tbs. ground Sumac berries
Salt and black pepper
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients and shape into 6 flat football-like shapes (that would be American footballs and not soccer balls).
Clean and oil your grill then heat the grill to HOT. Turn grill down to low and grill the kofta over the low flame until they are done through. It started raining as I was preparing to cook the kofta so, instead of using my outdoor grill, I cooked them indoors on a stove top grill pan.
Serve with a watermelon/feta salad, pita and hummus. Substitute Indian flat breads like nan, paratha, etc. for the pita or a standard Greek salad for the watermelon/feta salad.