Laurie Anderson has a song–more of a performance piece–called “Only An Expert Can Deal with a Problem.” It’s a dark, satirical look at the way Americans defer so willingly to experts; whether it’s the talking heads on Fox News, hyper-judgmental celebrities on Fashion Police, or mental health gurus like Dr. Phil. And nowhere is this more evident, really, than the way Americans cook from cookbooks. I know because I’m an American and for the larger bulk of my cooking life, I was such a slave to whatever recipe I was following; if I didn’t have precisely 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda left in the canister, I’d throw everything away. Julia Child wouldn’t approve; on her show, once, I heard her say, “Anyone who doesn’t finish a recipe because they don’t have all the ingredients will never be a cook.” It took me a long time to get there but now I cook much more loosely, much more confidently, and cookbooks function less as sacred texts and more like casual idea-generators. Which is how this terrific dinner came about.
I was thumbing through a very handsome man’s cookbook, Secrets of the Best Chefs, when I stumbled upon a recipe I hadn’t thought about in a while; Susan Feniger’s lamb meatballs with pomegranate molasses. When I cooked with her at her former restaurant Street, that combination of deeply caramelized, meaty lamb with the fruity and incredibly tart pomegranate molasses took me over the moon. She pairs hers with baked feta cheese, but on this particular night I decided to pair it with hummus.
Enter another cookbook (Jerusalem) via another expert (Yotam Ottolenghi). I’ve been making hummus for a long time in a variety of different ways (see here, here, and here). But, as the lyric goes, it took an expert to help me see the light: Ottolenghi’s is the best I’ve ever made.
What made it so good? It’s all about the technique. The ingredients are essentially the ones I’ve always used (chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, tahini) it’s just how Ottolenghi has you combine them. To wit: you grind chickpeas in the food processor until you get a stiff paste. Then you work in the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and salt. Instead of using the chickpeas cooking liquid, you add ice water and blend that all together for five minutes. The results speak for themselves.
Then, for the lamb meatballs, you combine ground lamb, onion, garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, paprika, Aleppo pepper, egg, and–just for kicks–I added pine nuts. Make a test meatball to check for salt and when it’s good, fry ’em up in a cast iron skillet.
If an expert had monitored this process, they might’ve told me to stick the meatballs into the oven to finish cooking after frying in the skillet; as they were, they were slightly underdone. No matter: piled on to a pile of that creamy hummus, and topped with a sprinkling of more toasted pine nuts and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses (available in most supermarkets or online), this is one of my favorite meals I’ve made in a while.
And it doesn’t take an expert to make it happen.
Recipe: Lamb Meatballs on Ottolenghi’s Hummus with Pomegranate Molasses
Summary: Two recipes combine for a zesty, flavorful dinner.
- 3 2/3 cups cooked chickpeas (ideally cooked yourself, but drained from a can is fine too)
- 1 cup plus 2 tbsp light tahini paste
- 4 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 6 1/2 tbsp ice-cold water
- 2 tablespoons canola oil (plus more for later)
- 2 cups diced white onion (from 1 onion)
- 3 cloves chopped garlic
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1/3 cup chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika (smoked paprika is nice too)
- 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
- 1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (some reserved for sprinkling on top)
- 1 egg, mixed with a fork
- A drizzle of pomegranate molasses
- Start by making the hummus. Place the drained chickpeas in a food processor and process until you get a stiff paste. Then, with the machine still running, add the tahini paste, lemon juice, garlic, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Finally, slowly drizzle in the iced water and allow it to mix for about 5 minutes, until you get a very smooth and creamy paste. Adjust to taste with more salt and lemon juice.
- Transfer the hummus to a bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap, and let it rest for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 425. Now let’s make the lamb meatballs. Preheat a large skillet, and when it is hot, add the oil. Add the onions and cook over high heat with a pinch of salt. When the onions start to soften and brown, add the garlic–lower the heat a bit–and cook for another minute until the garlic is just cooked but not at all brown. Set aside and allow to cool before adding the mixture to the meat.
- In a large bowl, using your hands, combine the lamb, parsley, salt, pepper, paprika, Aleppo pepper, egg, the cooked onions and garlic, and most of the toasted pine nuts. You can be aggressive here; you want to work it a little so the meatballs hold together. Make a test meatball by frying a small clump of this meat mixture in hot oil to see how it tastes. Adjust for seasoning.
- In large clean skillet, heat another splash of oil until hot. Shape golf-ball sized meatballs and add them to the pan (be careful not to crowd things). Cook the meatballs until brown on all sides and then remove them to a rimmed cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Pop into the oven for 3 to 5 minutes and then test one by cutting into it; if it’s cooked all the way through, they’re ready.
- To plate, spoon hummus on to your plates, starting at the center, then using the back of a spoon to create a landing pad for the meatballs. Place your meatballs in the center, sprinkle with more parsley and more pine nuts and some Aleppo pepper too, and then drizzle with pomegranate molasses. Eat right away.
Preparation time: 1 hour(s)
Cooking time: 15 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 4