Meatballs with Pumpkin & Spice Butter

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Our June Cookbook Club selection is Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey, and we’ve been looking forward to it ever since this cookbook came out! With its location between the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia, Turkey has an amazingly rich and varied cuisine. For most of the past twenty years,  Journalist Robyn Eckhardt and her photographer husband, David Hagerman, have traveled around Turkey tasting all of the country’s most delicious dishes. Now they’re sharing them with us. They first start in Istanbul, which is home to one of the world’s great fusion cuisines. Then they travel to some of the lesser-known provinces, which feature cuisines influenced by neighboring Georgia, Syria, Armenia and Iran. These authentic and easy to follow recipes all come from local bakers, village home cooks, farmers, fishermen and café chefs. This Meatballs with Pumpkin & Spice Butter is an example of one of the many colorful and flavorful dishes found in this cookbook. We’re sure that you’ll fall in love with this cookbook just as much as we have.

From the author: “For this warming dish from Hakkâri, delicate lamb of beef meatballs studded with ground rice are laid atop a bed of pumpkin chunks and then steam-simmered in a light tomato sauce. Before serving, the dish is drizzled with sizzling tomato butter seasoned with purple basil and red pepper flakes, which play off the richness of the meat and the sweetness of the pumpkin. I ate this dish at the home of Sehmur and Baran Kurt, in Hakkâri.

A good meatball is light and tender, attributes achieved in Turkey by hand-chopping the meat, something even I am unwilling to undertake on a regular basis. But you can achieve a similar texture by spreading ground meat on a cutting board, sprinkling the seasonings over it, and cutting everything together with a knife. (This keeps the meat from turning into a paste, as it would if you mixed the ingredients in a food processor or by squeezing and kneading with your hands.) The process takes only about 5 minutes. Combine this technique with very light handling when you form the meatballs, and they’ll end up tender.

You must soak the rice for 1-1/2 hours before proceeding with the rest of the recipe, during which time you can peel, see, and slice the pumpkin and complete other prep work. The meatball mixture can be prepared ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator. Serve the dish with a simple cooked vegetable like spinach and plain Strained Yogurt. For a dinner party, give your guests an appetite-rousing preview by placing the pot in the middle of the table before pouring over the sizzling spice butter.”

Meatballs with Pumpkin & Spice Butter

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Meatballs with Pumpkin & Spice Butter


    For the Meatballs:
  • 1/2 cup medium- or short-grain rice, such as Baldo or CalRose
  • 1 pound ground lamb or beef
  • 3 tablespoons minced onion
  • 1-3/4 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground dried chiles, or substitute cayenne pepper or hot paprika
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried purple basil (or substitute 1 tablespoon dried basil plus 1 teaspoon ground anise or star anise)
  • 2 pounds (seeded) sweet pumpkin or orange winter squash, such as acorn, kabocha, or butternut, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks (about 6 cups)
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1-1/2 cups boiling water
    For the Spice Butter:
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 heaping teaspoon Turkish or other crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 2 teaspoons dried purple basil (or substitute 1-3/4 teaspoons dried basil plus 1/2 teaspoon ground anise or star anise)


  1. For the Meatballs: Place the rice in a medium bowl and add water to cover, swish the rice with your fingers, and then drain off the water. Repeat until the water runs clear, then cover the rice with room temperature water and set aside for 1-1/2 hours.
  2. Drain the rice briefly, then process, blend or grind (in a mortar) into pieces the size of coarse sand or kosher salt.
  3. Spread the ground lamb or beef over a large cutting board, forming a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick. Scatter the ground rice and onion evenly over the meat, then sprinkle over the black pepper, salt, ground chile, and purple basil (or basil and ground anise). With a large chef's knife, work your way horizontally across the meat, rocking the knife and cutting into the ingredients. Turn the cutting board 90 degrees and repeat, again cutting across the meat. Slip the blade of your knife underneath one side of the meat and bring about half of the rectangle up and over the center. Rep-eat from the opposite side of the meat, and then from the top and bottom. You should now have a small squareish lump of ground meat. Pat out the meat and repeat the cutting two or three times, until the ingredients are completely mixed into the meat. Gently transfer the meat to a medium bowl.
  4. Put the pumpkin or winter squash in a heavy lidded pot large enough to accommodate it in one or two layers. Sprinkle the salt over the pumpkin.
  5. Place a bowl of water withing reach. With wet palms and a very light touch, pinch off tablespoon-sized pieces of the meat mixture, roll them into balls, and lay them on top of the pumpkin pieces; make a second layer if necessary. Handle the meat lightly - don't squeeze or press it when you're forming the meatballs, which needn't be perfectly smooth or round. You should end up with about 26 meatballs.
  6. Stir together the tomato paste and boiling water and pour over the meatballs and pumpkin. Place the pot over high heat and bring the liquid to a boil, then cover, reduce the heat to a slow simmer, and cook until the pumpkin or squash is soft and the meatballs are cooked through, 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the type of squash. There should be a small amount of sauce at the bottom of the pot; check after 15 minutes, and if t here is not sufficient liquid in the bottom of the pot, add 1/4 cup water. Remove from the heat and set aside, covered, while you prepare the spice butter.
  7. Make the Spice Butter: Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium-low hat. When the butter begins to bubble, add the red pepper flakes and purple basil (or basil and ground anise). Swirl or stir the mixture as it sizzles for about 2 minutes, until the spices are very fragrant and darkening but not burning. Pull the skillet from the heat, pour the butter over the meatballs and pumpkin, and serve immediately.


PREPARATION TIME: 1-1/4 hours plus 1-1/2 hours for the rice to soak

Excerpted from Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey  © 2017 by Robyn Eckhardt. Photography © 2017 by David Hagerman. Used by permission of Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. 
Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey is the June 2018 selection for the World Spice Cookbook Club. Istanbul and Beyond: Exploring the Diverse Cuisines of Turkey is currently available for purchase at our retail store and online.

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