Meatball Soup with Pasta & Herbs (Cheat’s Gushbara) – updated

This meatballs and pasta soup recipe is probably very different from any you’ve ever tried so get yourself prepared for a whole new flavour combination! There is a lot of coriander, garlic and mint in the broth for this soup that give it it’s fabulous aroma and set it apart from other meatball and pasta soups.

This is my cheat’s version of a moreish soup called by a myriad of names all over Iran, Central Asia and the Caucasus.  Each one of these soups is a bit different from the others but they are all made with pasta shaped like tortellini or ravioli. My version is close to one made in northwest Iran and the neighbouring Azerbaijan.

meatballs-and-pasta-soup-recipe
Same soup with different type of pasta

I learnt to make the original version of gushbara from my mother-in-law who is a fabulous cook. Her skill in making pasta dough, rolling the dough and filling small dumplings for the soup has always fascinated me. Hers is finger-licking delicious but takes a lot of time to prepare. But I loved this soup and had to find a way to make something that tasted similar but was easier to make so I came up with this recipe.

Herby soups are part and parcel of Persian cooking. No wonder the word for cook in Persian (ashpaz) is derived from the word for soup (ash, a is pronounced as in art). So a cook is one who makes soups! There are literally hundreds of types of soups with all kinds of flavours, from savoury to sweet and sour, completely vegetarian or with different kinds of meat. Some are thickened with flour, others with noodles, rice, whole grains like wheat and barley or bulgur.

Persian-tomato-soup
A sample of herby Persian soups made with loads of fresh tomatoes.

There are also some soups that are made with pieces of pasta dough like the one from which I’ve taken the inspiration for my cheat’s gushbara. Gushbara translates to “earring” or “like ear lobes” in Persian, because of the shape of the tiny dumplings in the original version.

You may call my gushbara a “deconstructed” version of the real thing. I make it with shop-bought Italian pasta shapes like orecchiette, creste di gallo, farfalle or cappelletti but any kind of pasta shape or even little squares of homemade pasta dough can be used instead. Using dry pasta cuts the preparation time but flavour-wise the end result is quite similar to the original. Critic No 1 (my lovely son and my best food critic) approves of my cheat’s version and is always begging me to make it for him. He is quite a soup expert!

Ingredients for the tiny meatballs
Ingredients for the tiny meatballs
Tiny meatballs ready to be fried
Tiny meatballs ready to be fried
Meatballs almost ready to cook in the broth
Meatballs almost ready to cook in the broth

This curious pasta soup has a long and interesting history too. There are many versions known as gushbarajushpara, jushbaratushbera, dushbara and chuchvara in some regions of Iran, former soviet republics of Central Asia, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Afghanistan. A friend from Jordan told me her grandmother made jushbara too but had no idea where it came from.

I’m not going to debate the origins of the dish. My best guess is that it was brought to Iran and all adjacent countries by nomadic Turkic tribes centuries ago and they may have adopted that from an earlier Chinese version. I found a recipe in a 16th century Persian cookbook but the book doesn’t say where the soup originated. It’s fascinating how the dish evolved over the centuries in all these places and how each nation now has claims to its origins.

Today many versions are enjoyed in various parts of Iran where the fillings and flavourings can vary hugely. In some places the pasta parcels are filled with lamb, in others with lentils. Some are made with broth, others with sauce, much like ravioli. I made one recently from eastern regions of Iran with spinach and walnut dumplings. If there could be a cheat’s version of that I’d make it all the time.

In our family gushbara is served with torshi (chopped vegetables pickled in vinegar and spices). When there isn’t any torshi we use lime/lemon juice or good wine vinegar flavoured with garlic paste.

To serve four persons you will need the following ingredients:

  • 250g lean beef mince
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tbsp dried mint
  • 1/2 tsp Aleppo pepper or mild chilli flakes
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 medium onion, grated
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or grated
  • 20g butter (or 4 tbsp of olive oil)
  • 1 1/2 litre boiling water or stock (beef, lamb or chicken)
  • 150g pasta (creste di gallo, farfalle, cappelletti, orecchiette or other pasta shape)
  • 50g coriander, roughly chopped (or more if you love coriander like I do)

Method: 

  1. Squeeze the grated onion with the back of a spoon to extract most of the juices. Discard the onion juice.
  2. Put the mince, spices, salt, mint, grated onion and grated garlic in a bowl. Mix and knead for a couple of minutes. Take small pieces of the mixture and shape into small meatballs.
  3. Melt the butter in a medium-sized frying pan over medium high heat and add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs until lightly browned.
  4. Transfer the meatballs to a medium-sized saucepan. Deglaze the frying pan with some of the boiling water (or stock) and add the juices to the meatballs. Top up with the rest of the water or stock. Bring to the boil. Taste and add salt if required.
  5. Add all the pasta and stir. Cook for at least 15 minutes. Forget about al dente, the pasta should become very soft and thicken the broth a little. Taste and adjust the seasoning again. If there is too little broth to your liking dilute the soup with a little more boiling water or stock.
  6. Add the chopped coriander and cook for a couple of minutes until the coriander is a little wilted. Serve immediately with lime/lemon wedges or vinegar and more chopped coriander if you wish. Enjoy!

Best-Ever Almond & Lemon Holiday Cookies (Gluten & Dairy Free)

This recipe for almond and lemon holiday cookies is a new one in my cookie repertoire but I’ve made it several times and every time they have vanished in a matter of hours. I must confess I hadn’t even seen or heard about these incredibly delicious cookies until a few months ago when I first tasted them at a friend’s house.

The cookies were lacy, crisp and crunchy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside. What makes the recipe for these lemon-scented almond cookies even more special is that they are made with only four ingredients and are both gluten-free and dairy-free. This makes them perfect for holiday entertainment when people with food intolerances are more likely to be around.

My friend Sima Morshed who gave me the recipe is from Kerman, one of the Iranian cities famous for it’s very fine sweets. She had written the recipe in her neat and beautiful Persian handwriting on the yellowed pages of an old, well-used recipe book. It came from one of her Kermani relatives who is a wonderful baker, she said.

gluten-free-dairy-free-cookies-recipe
The recipe for these almond and lemon cookies has only four ingredients.

Sima’s little notebook held a treasure of family recipes handed down for generations.  I was a very lucky girl to get one of the recipes in her notebook, probably one of its most unique. I searched in my cookbooks and on the net but couldn’t find none similar to her recipe.

Kerman (Carmania of ancient historians) is a city on the edge of a huge desert with fabulous architecture and a very long tradition in making sweets. Karnameh, a Persian cookbook written in late sixteenth century, has a very curious baklava recipe called Kerman baklava that uses lentils in the place of nuts.

The city has a beautiful covered bazaar where exotic spices and spice blends, gorgeous Persian carpets, handmade copper pots and pans and delicious sweets are sold in tiny shops. If you have a Persian carpet under your feet there’s a big chance it came from one of the dimly lit small shops in that bazaar where piles of carpets are as high as the ceiling.

Beautifully shaped spiced date-filled kolompeh made by Zozo Baking.

Beside baklava Kerman is also famous for a very tasty, subtly spiced date-filled hand pie called kolompeh. My blogger friend Fariba from zozobaking.com is a master kolompeh maker. Her gorgeous cookies, shaped by hand and stamped with hand-carved traditional wooden stamps made in Kerman, look almost too good to eat.

Sima’s almond and lemon cookies take only minutes to prepare. I was surprised to hear that she puts the ingredients in a bowl and mixes them with a spoon. No beating or kneading at all! One needs to be careful with the oven temperature though. These cookies need to bake at higher temperature for a few minutes to set and then at lower temperature to allow the egg whites to dry.

These cookies will be very soft when they get out of the oven. You must allow them to cool perfectly before peeling them off the non-stick baking sheet. Don’t panic if they spread. While they are still warm you can gently pull them to shape with the help of two dinner knives. The outside will be golden brown and crispy but the centre will remain chewy and gooey which makes the cookies even more moreish.

gluten-free- cookies-recipes
Walnut and egg yolk cookies (shirni gerdoui) traditionally served at the Persian New Year (Nowrouz) are gluten-free and dairy-free.

There are always many ways to use the extra yolks. I used the yolks to make my own heirloom walnut cookies (shirni gerdoui) which are gluten-free and dairy-free like Sima’s cookies except that they are made with yolks rather than whites of eggs. The recipe for the walnut cookies has come down in my family for generations too. Hopefully I will share it with you soon.

Sima’s recipe called for flaked almonds only. The last time I made these I didn’t have enough flaked almonds so I used a few tablespoons of almond flour (ground almonds). This helped the cookies to keep their shape much better and they didn’t spread on the sheet at all. The flavour remained the same but the cookies weren’t as lacy as the ones made without almond flour. I like it both ways. Add a little almond flour (a couple of tablespoons) to your mix if you want them to stay rounded.

Depending on how big or small you make your cookies this recipe will yield about four dozen cookies.

Ingredients

  • 2 small egg whites
  • 160g icing sugar, sifted
  • zest of one lemon
  • 180g flaked almonds
  • 3 tbsp almond flour (optional)

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 170C/340F. Line two baking sheets with non-stick/silicon liner. Grease the liners with a very small amount of cooking oil and wipe off with paper towels.
  2. Put the icing sugar, lemon zest and egg whites in a medium-sized bowl. Mix with a spoon. Add the flaked almonds (and the almond flour if using) and mix gently to coat the almond flakes.
  3. Using two teaspoons drop the batter about 4 cm (1 1/2 inch) apart on one of the lined baking sheets. It would be best to drain as much of the runny whites mixture as you can to avoid too much spreading of the cookies. The whites should just coat the flakes thinly. Put the first baking sheet in the oven right away and bake for 8 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 150C/300F and bake for 8-10 minutes longer or until the cookies are golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool while you are preparing the second batch. At this stage you can use knives or teaspoons to neaten the shape of the baked cookies.
  4. Increase the oven heat to 170C/340F again and bake the second batch as explained above. Once all the cookies are cooled peel them off the non-stick liner and store between layers of wax paper in an airtight cookie tin or container.