(The Nosher via JTA) – For the first five years of my life, we lived in the apartment next door to my grandparents. I may have only been a toddler, but I still have vivid memories of being in that home with its many houseplants overflowing in their pots, tchotchkes and art from the former Soviet Union, menorahs and other Jewish objects on display, and a welcoming coziness and warmth.
What I remember most about being at my grandparents’ home was the food. Often there was a pot of something simmering on the stove. On the best days, that pot was filled with tefteli, otherwise known as Russian meatballs.
What makes Russian meatballs different from other kinds?
While tefteli come in many variations and preparations depending, on your family’s tradition, one defining feature is that they are typically made with rice. It’s likely that rice was incorporated into the dish as a means to stretch the meat, but it also adds a great texture and flavor.
Most Russian meatballs don’t use bread crumbs, or much by way of herbs or spice. Some folks make them with beef, some with chicken or turkey. The non-Kosher versions are often made with pork, and are cooked in a creamy tomato sauce. Some cooks dust the meatballs in flour and then brown them before adding them to the sauce. Some bake them in the oven. Some make a sauce that ends up so thick it is nearly shakshuka-like. Shredded carrot is added typically to the base of the tomato sauce, adding sweetness.
Tefteli are also meant to be eaten on their own as a main course, and they are frequently served with creamy mashed potatoes, but I also love them with a side of polenta, or even with just a slice of good crusty bread.
Every time I make tefteli I try to duplicate what my grandmother made for me. This recipe is fairly simple in terms of its ingredients and steps, but the key to her tefteli’s success is one step that you can’t rush or skip: caramelizing the onions.
Caramelized onions was my grandmother’s go-to flavor builder. When onions get golden and jammy from cooking slowly in a little fat, they add sweetness and umami to any dish.
The rest of this recipe mainly involves adding things to a large pot. Leftover rice is great for the meatball mixture, but if you don’t have some on hand, I find the timing works out well if you cook the rice while you’re caramelizing the onions and making the sauce. I prefer to use dark meat ground chicken for this, but you can definitely make this with turkey or beef.
This is the kind of dish that rarely gets a written recipe. I’ve given you specifics, but deviating from what is suggested will only make this better. I find that these meatballs are perfect when they’re on the larger side, but if you like smaller meatballs, go for that. In any form, these are best made in a big batch so that they can be shared with loved ones, and so that they can fill your home with warmth and the smell of good simple food.
I suggest serving these meatballs with a generous ladle of sauce, topped with chopped fresh parsley alongside mashed potatoes, your favorite side or slices of good bread.
Note: Meatballs can be made several days in advance, and they freeze and reheat well.
Tefteli (Russian Meatballs)
For the sauce:
1 large yellow onion, diced small
3 tablespoons oil (sunflower, avocado or canola)
1 large carrot, peeled and shredded
2-3 cloves garlic, minced fine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 (15-ounce) cans plain tomato sauce/pureed tomatoes
2 tablespoons maple syrup or 1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
2 teaspoons dried oregano or thyme
Pinch of red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 (28-ounce) can filled with water (about 3 1/2 cups)
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the meatballs:
2 pounds dark meat ground chicken or turkey
2 cups cooked Basmati or Jasmine rice (about 3/4 cup uncooked)
1 large onion, minced very fine
1 large clove of garlic, finely grated or minced
1 large egg
2 1/2 teaspoons Kosher salt
Ground pepper, to taste
Chopped flat leaf parsley, for garnish
To make the sauce:
Add oil to a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the diced onion to the pot. Allow the onion to soften and caramelize until golden, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes (you can go for longer if you want the onion to caramelize more deeply).
Add grated carrot, minced garlic and a big pinch of salt to the pot. Stir and sauté for 3-4 minutes, or until the carrot has softened and the garlic is aromatic. Add the tomato paste and stir until everything is coated, about 1 minute. Add the crushed tomato, tomato sauce, maple syrup, herbs and chili flakes to the pot. Fill the empty 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes with water and add that water to the pot. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Let the mixture come up to a simmer.
To make the meatballs:
In a large bowl, combine the ground chicken, cooked rice and onion. I like to use a microplane to grate my garlic straight into the bowl. Add the salt, pepper and egg.
Combine everything until well incorporated, but make sure not to overmix or the meat can become tough. Clean hands work best for this. Before I cook the meatballs, I like to take a spoonful of the mixture and cook it in a small pan to taste for seasoning. I add more salt or pepper accordingly.
Form the ground meat mixture into even-sized balls. I prefer my tefteli slightly larger than a golf ball, but make them according to your own preferences. Drop the formed meatballs into the simmering sauce.
Make sure the sauce returns to a simmer, then lower the heat and partially cover the pot with a lid. Simmer the meatballs for 35-45 minutes or until cooked through. If you find the sauce is too thick, you can add more water. If you want the sauce thicker, you can simmer it for longer. Serves 4-6.
SONYA SANFORD is a chef, food stylist and writer based out of Los Angeles. The Nosher food blog offers an array of new and classic Jewish recipes and food news, from Europe to Yemen, from challah to shakshuka and beyond. Check it out at TheNosher.com.