Friday, February 19, 2010

Lebanese Meatballs and Lentil Bulgar Stew

Tired of the same old same old, I pulled out the Lebanese cookbook that my friend Kira gave me for my birthday last year.  I was looking for something exotic or at least a new set of flavors to excite my palate and awaken my winter-filled soul.  There are many inspiring recipes in the book but I settled on two:  meatballs with lemon yogurt sauce and lentil, bulgar, and spinach stew.

It's funny, I sort of thought I knew what Lebanese cooking was like, but I think I was simply mixing it up with Greek and other Mediterranean food.  Granted, I'm basing this on two recipes, but it seems different. The meatballs are a mixture of ground lamb,* mint, parsley, onion and garlic.  They taste good no doubt about it, but they wouldn't be half as good without the tangy yogurt sauce.  The sauce really made this dish for me.  With lots of lemon, it makes the meat come alive and is the perfect complement to the spices.  

I served it with whole grain couscous and steamed green beans.  The couscous soaks up the sauce beautifully, but I imagine rice or quinoa might also do the job.  

The next day for lunch I diced a tomato and chunk of cucumber and mixed it with two leftover meatballs, the couscous, and yogurt sauce. Delicious.

*Ground lamb is difficult to come by in Denmark, at least in my town, so I substituted ground beef.  I realize that lamb would impart an entirely different taste to the dish, but the beef had to do. I wasn't disappointed.

Adapted from The Australian Women's World Lebanese Cooking

1kg minced lamb (or ground beef)
1 large onion, chopped finely
1 egg
1/4c finely chopped mint leaves
2T finely chopped parsley
2T grated lemon zest
1.5T ground cumin
3 cloves garlic (grated or finely chopped)
1t salt
1t pepper

1.  Using hands, combine all ingredients in large bowl.  Roll level tablespoons of mixture into balls.  Place on a tray, cover, and refrigerate 30 minutes.  

2.  Cook meatballs, in batches, on heated grill or skillet until browned all over and cooked through.  

Lemon Yogurt Sauce

1c plain yogurt
2T finely chopped mint leaves
1.5T fresh lemon juice
1/2t sugar

1.  Combine ingredients in small bowl and serve with meatballs.

I'd call the stew a work in progress.  It's a very basic recipe with few ingredients but made as is, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing with every bite I took.  And that's after I dressed it up a bit.  I added fresh lemon juice, a splash of plain yogurt, and sea salt.  I was amazed that the recipe calls for no salt.  Lentils, spinach, and bulgar are wonderful foods, but to my mind, they need salt and are too bland without it.  This is an earthy stew and if I were Oprah Winfrey I might say that it tastes like eating a piece of of the earth, but I'm not so sure that this is what I'm after in a stew.  (If you haven't heard, Oprah is a big fan of rugbrød, Denmark's ubiquitous rye bread).

Nevertheless, I like and recommend this recipe.  Perhaps adding some chicken stock in place of all or part of the water would do the trick. Other ideas: red pepper flakes; sauteed mushrooms with a bit of celery and carrot added to the pot with the dry lentils and bulgar (step 2).

The first time I served it, I added a topping that was a simple mix of tahini, plain yogurt, and a squeeze of lemon juice.  I'm the only one in my family who likes tahini, but it's just as well since Alan said he thought it looked like a bird pooped on my stew.  Well be that as it may, it was tasty and added a lot of flavor to the dish.  By the way, my photo simply gives credence to Alan's bird poop comment, so you'll have to trust me on this one.

Finally, on my last attempt to get it where I wanted flavor-wise, I heated a bowl of leftover stew for lunch and stirred a couple spoons of yogurt and a spoon of tahini directly in to the sauce pan.  Mixed together and heated through, I thought, Now we're talking.  It was rich with flavor but still healthy and light.

Lentil, Bulgar, and Spinach Soup
Adapted from The Australian Women's World Lebanese Cooking

2 liters water
1c brown lentils
1c bulgar
1/4c olive oil
2 medium white onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, grated
6 cups fresh baby spinach or 3 cups frozen spinach
2T coarsely chopped parsley
2T fresh lemon juice
1.5t salt

1.  Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan or dutch oven. (This is where you can add some stock).

2.  Add lentils and bulgar.  Cook on medium-low for 45 to 55 minutes until tender.

3.  While lentils and bulgar are cooking, heat oil in frying pan and cook onion and garlic until golden (approx. 10 minutes on med- low heat).

4.  Add spinach.  Cover and remove from heat.

5.  Incorporate spinach and onion mix into stew and heat until well combined.  Add 1.5t salt or more to taste.

6.  Stir in generous 1/2 cup plain yogurt, 1/4 cup tahini, and 2T lemon juice.

7.  Serve with fresh parsley on top.


  1. Lebanese meatballs with youghurt sauce rock!!!

  2. This is funny - I've got kind of a combo meal planned for tonight - Toasted Barley Meatball Soup that uses spinach and such. I top with sour cream.

    The meatball plate is beautiful!

    Have you checked out the new "Simple Bites" blog? I'm really enjoying it - from the gal that was writing "Under the Highchair." It's at

  3. Hey Alissa - the soup sounds good. I'm a big fan of barley. I follow the Under the Highchair blog and saw that she was starting Simple Bites, but I need to add it to my follow list so I can get all the good info and recipes. Glad you like it so far.