Recently, I ate at a great Greek restaurant in Forest Hills, Agora Taverna, based on the recommendation of a friend.
The food was tremendous, from the bread and the seafood appetizers to the wine and the excellent servers.
But one dish stood out, the soutzoukakia, a meatball dish with rice pilaf and crumbled feta cheese. It was so good that I was glad I had leftovers so I could enjoy it for a second day.
This recipe is an attempt to put my own spin on that delicious dish. The meatballs are flavored with mint, oregano and cumin and the brine of olives. The whole thing gets a lift from some lemon zest.
The meatballs are slow-simmered in a rich tomato sauce and served over rice with a tangy yogurt sauce and crumbled feta.
You may not be in Thessaloniki, but at least you can eat like a Greek god.
Here's how to make this tonight:
1-1/2 lbs. ground beef (better lamb if you can get it)
1/4 cup mint leaves chopped (better fresh)
2 tbs. oregano chopped (better fresh)
Zest of a lemon
1/2 cup olives chopped (green, black or mixed)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 red onion finely chopped
1 tbs. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (or more if you like it hot)
2 tsp. kosher or sea salt
1 tsp. cracked black pepper
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
For the yogurt-mint sauce:
1 cup Greek yogurt
Zest and juice of one lemon
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
Feta, crumbled and more herbs for garnish
1. Combine all of the meatball ingredients (including half the garlic) well in a large mixing bowl. Form the meatballs (a heaping spoonful should make balls about 1.5 ounces each).
2. Heat a large pot on medium heat. When it is warm, add olive oil to coat the bottom. Add half the meatballs, keeping a good amount of space between them. Brown well on one side and then flip over to brown the other side. When both sides are brown, give the pot a shake or two to brown the rest of the meatball surfaces. Turn the heat down to medium low to avoid smoking.
3. When the meatballs are nicely browned, put them on a plate and repeat with the rest.
4. When the second half of the meatballs is finished, add the other half of the garlic, the crushed tomatoes and 1 tsp. of cumin, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pan and combining well. Add the meatballs again, drizzle in some olive oil, season with salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Then turn the heat down to low. Cook with lid slightly open for about an hour. Shake the pot and scrape the bottom every once in a while to prevent burning.
5. Meanwhile, make your rice.
6. Combine the yogurt sauce ingredients and reserve.
7. The meatballs are done when the tomato sauce has thickened. Serve on top of some rice. Spoon yogurt sauce on top and then crumble feta over. Garnish with herbs and some olive oil.
8. Dig in!