Republic of Armenia
Good stock can only come from good bones. If you saw my post on Andorra, this is probably abundantly clear. To ensure the quality of my kololik, an Armenian stuffed-meatball soup, I went to my usual halal butcher at Trade Fair, Sahan-Ibdal, to procure some top-shelf mutton femur.
I only learned Sahan-Ibdal’s name very recently. I doubt he knows mine (I’ve told him twice), but he always recognizes me as the white guy who is asking for strange stuff. “My friend! How are you?” He always exclaims, once his eyes focus on me through his blood-spattered, coke-bottle glasses. “You need something?”
This time, I told him I needed bones. As usual, he suspiciously looked left and right down the aisles, then, seeing the coast was clear, ordered me to come into the back room through a heavy swinging door that couldn’t be more clearly marked “Employees Only!!!” He casually pulled out a few lamb feet, remembering our adventure a few weeks prior, and I waved them off. “No no no, I need marrow bones, bigger.” He thought for a moment, entered the walk-in refrigerator, and emerged holding a massive sheep leg bone. “Yes!” I practically yelped. “Perfect”.
As he approached me with the bone, he laid down the rules, unbeknownst to me up to this point. “This one, I save for my friend. But you, BIG friend. So I give to you.” I was genuinely flattered, and thanked him profusely. It really was a wonderful tube of marrow. He fired up the bone saw, expertly sliced the femur into a few big pieces, and threw them on the scale. “$3.00 a pound, ok?” This was an actual bargain. I agreed, and he handed me the price-stickered bag with a smile. I thanked him again, but he looked down at the ground, quietly. Something was wrong.
“Nothing?” He murmured, shyly. “One dollar, two dollar… for coffee? Nothing?”
“You know, one dollar, two dollar… you are my friend.”
“OHHHHHHHHHHHH, I understand,” I blushed. He was shaking me down.
I looked in my wallet. One ten-dollar bill, nothing else (of course). I had somehow found myself in the awkward situation of being engaged in an apparently illicit transaction in the back room of a butcher shop in Queens with no singles, and that was that. I weighed my options and fumbled with the contents of my pockets as Sahan-Ibdal watched quietly.
I thought it over. Then, with a sigh, I handed him the ten. I was his big friend, after all.
“Coffee for one month, OK?” I bargained, raising one eyebrow.
He smiled and laughed, grabbing my hand and shaking it. “BIG FRIEND!”
A quick, muttered prayer on his part asking Allah to protect me (which was honestly worth the ten-spot) and I was on my way, scores wiser, even if a little lighter in the pocket.
I decided to roast the bones first to render off some fat and also to produce an eventually darker stock. Once they were toasty, I dropped them in cold water and set them to simmer for a few hours.
As accompaniment for this soup, I chose the Armenian version of tabouleh, known as eetch. Like its cousin, it is made from bulgur wheat, but this is where the similarities mostly end.
It’s thickened with crushed tomatoes and pomegranate molasses, and tossed with a good amount of fruity olive oil and herbiage (I’ve decided this is a word). It cooks a lot like instant couscous – after heating some onion and the tomatoes, you simply turn off the heat, add the dry bulgur along with everything else except the herbs, and let it sit, covered, for an hour.
While that was cooling, I mixed up the filling for the meatballs – just some cooked rice, butter, a little sauteed onion, and an Armenian touch of pure class – tarragon. Usually one of those herbs that gets pigeonholed with tuna and slammed into a stale focaccia at some strip-mall sandwich chain, tarragon forever pines for its ideal match: lamb. I was only too happy to play Cupid here.
The meatballs themselves are pretty standard but are bound with semolina, which is something I’d not seen before. Once they are mixed, formed, and slightly chilled, here’s how to stuff them:
(NB: Not being too proficient in web design, getting these step-by-step photos to line up like this was a minor miracle.)
At this point, the eetch, to be served at room temperature, was cool enough to knead with my hands, so I worked in a couple of handfuls of chopped parsley and mint. A glug or two of olive oil, and it was ready.
OK, I have to come clean for this last step – I actually made the lamb marrow broth the night before I cooked the soup. I cooled it in the fridge overnight, causing the fat to solidify, and then strained all the solids out in the morning, leaving me with a much clearer, leaner stock. Now, back on the boil, I threw in a squirt of tomato paste, some diced potato and, gently, the cargo-laden meatballs. After a good simmer, it was time to finally eat.
These meatballs were really a revelation – you can see below how well the pocket inside held closed.
The tarragon and lamb mingled flirtatiously, and I really savored every bite of them, along with each sip of the salty, meaty broth (which somehow had tons of flavor despite being devoid of all aromatic ingredients). Sneaking in a spoonful of the fresh, sweet-sour eetch every now and then made a great contrast, with the pomegranate molasses standing out (more than I had expected, actually) and the bulgur providing a pleasingly soft texture.
I love you, Armenia, even if absolutely all of your last names seem to end in the letters -an. What’s that about?
Now you go:
1 lb. ground mutton (or lamb)
1 lb. mutton (or lamb) marrow bones
6 tbsp semolina
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 lb. potatoes, cubed
3 tbsp rice, cooked
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp parsley
3 tbsp tarragon
1 tsp black pepper
2 large onions, finely diced and fried until golden
Make stock from the bones and strain. Chill overnight, then drain again to remove solid fat.
Mix ground lamb with semolina, eggs, salt
and half of the pepper and knead until well mixed. Form egg-sized
meatballs. Chill on a sheet pan until firm.
Mix the cooked rice, fried onions, tarragon and butter in a bowl. Add salt.
Make a cavity in each meatball, then carefully press the filling into the center of the meatballs. seal tightly and roll between palms.
Boil stock, add the potatoes and tomato paste. Lower to simmer, and add the meatballs and the rest of the herbs and spices. Cook until the meatballs float and the potatoes are fork-tender. Serve hot. Makes appx. 8 meatballs.
adapted from Swirl & Scramble at PtitChef.com
One large onion, diced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
1 cup bulgur
Fresh mint and parsley, minced
Saute the chopped onion in half of the olive oil. Add crushed tomatoes, bring to a boil and remove from heat. Add all remaining ingredients (except the oil, parsley and mint). Stir well, cover pot and leave to rest for one hour.
After one hour, mix well and drizzle with remaining olive oil. Transfer to serving dish and garnish with lots of chopped mint and parsley.