(The Nosher via JTA) – For the first five years of my life, we lived in the apartment next door to my grandparents. I may have only been a toddler, but I still have vivid memories of being in that home with its many house plants overflowing in their pots, tchotchkes and art from the former Soviet Union, menorahs and other Jewish objects on display, and a welcoming coziness and warmth.
What I remember most about being at my grandparents’ home was the food. Often there was a pot of something simmering on the stove. On the best days, that pot was filled with tefteli, otherwise known as Russian meatballs. I can still see myself sitting at my grandmother’s table in front of a steaming bowl of tefteli, eagerly waiting for them to cool down so I could start eating.
What makes Russian meatballs different from other kinds?
While tefteli come in many types of variations and preparations depending on your family’s tradition, one defining feature is that they are typically made with rice. It’s likely that rice was incorporated into the dish as a means to stretch the meat, but it also adds a great texture and flavor.
Unlike the Italian variety, most Russian meatballs don’t use breadcrumbs, or much by way of herbs or spice. Some folks make them with beef, some with chicken or turkey. The nonkosher versions are often made with pork, and are cooked in a creamy tomato sauce. Some cooks dust the meatballs in flour and then brown them before adding them to the sauce. Some bake them in the oven. Some make a sauce that ends up so thick it is nearly shakshuka-like. Shredded carrot is added typically to the base of the tomato sauce, adding sweetness.
Tefteli are also meant to be eaten on their own as a main course, and they are frequently served with creamy mashed potatoes, but I also love them with a side of polenta, or even with just a slice of good crusty bread.
Every time I make tefteli I try to replicate what my grandmother made for me. Yes, I’m biased, but her meatballs are the best I’ve ever tried. This recipe is fairly simple in terms of its ingredients and steps, but the key to her tefteli’s success is one step that you can’t rush or skip: caramelizing the onions.
Caramelizing onions was my grandmother’s go-to flavor builder. When onions get golden and jammy from cooking slowly in a little fat, they add sweetness and umami to any dish.
The rest of this recipe mainly involves adding things to a large pot. Leftover rice is great for the meatball mixture, but if you don’t have some on hand, I find the timing works out well if you cook the rice while you’re caramelizing the onions and making the sauce. I prefer to use dark meat ground chicken for this, but you can definitely make this with turkey or beef.
This is the kind of dish that rarely gets a written recipe. I’ve given you specifics, but deviating from what is suggested will only make this better. Taste and modify your tefteli and sauce to your own liking. For instance, my mom actually dislikes rice in her meatballs, so instead she adds breadcrumbs or matzah meal. I like to add chili flake for subtle heat, but that can be omitted. I find that these are perfect when they’re on the larger side, but if you like smaller meatballs, go for that. In any form, these are best made in a big batch so that they can be shared with loved ones, and so that they can fill your home with warmth and the smell of good simple food.
I suggest serving these meatballs with a generous ladle of sauce, topped with chopped fresh parsley alongside mashed potatoes, your favorite side or slices of good bread.
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