Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Armenian Meatball Soup

What defines a comfort food? Does it contain chocolate? Is it wrapped in pastry crust? Filled with cheese? Is it something you grew up eating, or only recently discovered and have since looked to in times of stress? I have a pretty long list of comfort foods, and what I crave really depends on that specific occasion. While a piping hot chicken pot pie will complete me on particular days, a small paper cup filled with tart, original-flavor Pinkberry topped with pineapple, chocolate chips, chocolate crunchies, and coconut will quiet my emotions under other circumstances. Neither of these comforts (among many other foods that can fill the void) were things I grew up eating, but comfort can derive from anywhere. And you could discover a new comfort food today.

Manti is easily one of the most comforting foods that I grew up eating. There are many others that have been passed down to me from my mom, her mother, her mother's mother, and so on and so forth. Some of these recipes date back many generations. It's what makes me who I am, and how your family recipes make you who you are. These recipes help define us. When we're long gone, our children and our children's children will hopefully find comfort in some of these same things.

I remember seeing Ratatouille in theaters when it was first released. One of my favorite moments in the film is when the evil food critic Anton Ego takes a bite of ratatouille and is immediately brought back to his humble beginnings, eating his mother's ratatouille as a young child in the French countryside. It's the first sign of humanity we see in the character, and I'm sure we can all relate to how food can have this transcendent effect on people. This soup does it for me. I've enjoyed it since I was very young, and the original recipe dates back for generations in my family (though adapted over the years and finally measured by yours truly). The lemony tomato broth is a perfect compliment to these tiny bulgur-infused meatballs. I hope you find it as comforting as I do.

Armenian Meatball Soup
Serves 8

1 cup #1 grade fine bulgur
1 pound ground beef
1/2 small onion, minced
1 T. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
2 tsp. paprika
About 1/2 cup water

1 T. unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
6 cups water
1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce or ground peeled tomatoes
1 (14.5 oz) can chicken broth or beef broth (or an equivelent amount of water)
1 T. + 2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. paprika
1/4 cup + 1 T. lemon juice
1 (15.5 oz) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (optional)
1 T. rice (optional)
1 T. dried mint leaves

Fill a small bowl with some water and place next to the mixing bowl. Add the bulgur, beef, onion, salt, pepper, and paprika to the bowl and mix well with your hands, adding water a handful at a time until it becomes cohesive and firm (you may need to wet your hands with the water in the bowl as you mix). Constantly wetting your hands, make little meatballs by rolling small bits of the mixture between your palms. They should be about 3/4-inch to 1-inch in diameter. Place the small meatballs on a tray or baking sheet until ready to cook. You will have about 130 meatballs.

In a pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter, add the onion, and sauté until softened. Add the water, tomato sauce, broth, salt, pepper, and paprika and bring to a boil (raise the heat to high). Add the lemon juice and carefully drop the meatballs several at a time into the liquid, mixing in between additions to make sure the meatballs do not stick together. Add the chickpeas or rice, if desired. When the mixture comes back up to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through (they will plump up). Adjust the seasonings if needed, and add the dried mint just before removing from the heat. Serve immediately.


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