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Category: Meatballs

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!

Persian Sweet & Sour Chicken Meatballs with Carrots & Prunes

This Persian sweet and sour chicken meatballs recipe is my quick and easy variation of khoresht-e aloo ba havij (plum & carrot khoresht/khoresh).

I hate to call it a stew but there’s no other word in English to use. In Persian cuisine my sweet and sour chicken meatballs belongs to the category of khoresht (also pronounced as khoresh) like many other so-called stews that we serve with rice. Like curries if you will. Khoreshts can be green, yellow, red or even dark brown.

Khoreshts are made with various kinds of vegetables, herbs, nuts, fruits and pulses. Many include meat, poultry or fish but there are some without. A khoresht is often named after whichever ingredient that is the star of the dish. Possibilities are quite endless.

khoresht-karafs
Lamb and celery in mint and parsley sauce is an example of green, herby khoresht served with rice.

You’ve probably noticed that there’s no mention of chicken in the Persian version of the name of the my khoresht. That’s because in this one carrots and prunes are the shining stars.

Meat usually plays the second fiddle to vegetables, herbs or fruits in a khoresht. Have you seen my Persian Aubergine (Eggplant) Stew with Meatballs & Dried Lime recipe? If you are not a big fan of meat you can make that one with chicken pieces or meatballs like this one. Or use mushrooms if you like and it will still be khoresht bademjoon (aubergine/eggplant khoresht).

khoresht-beh
Lamb meatballs with quinces, prunes and yellow lentils (khoresht-e beh) is another example of khoresht.

Nothing is really set in stone in Persian cooking. We even don’t really measure our ingredients. Most Persian cooks just use their eyes, taste buds and noses and few have measuring cups and spoons in their kitchens!

I learned cooking in the same way. My grandmothers didn’t have measuring cups or scales in their kitchens but very magically they managed to turn out fabulous dishes of same quality every time.

When I’m writing recipes I do use scales and measuring spoons. It takes more time but I want to give you a recipe that works. You can go on to make it your own by adjusting the ingredients to your own taste. It’s the method that really matters.

chicken-meatballs
Frying the meatballs until they are golden makes the sauce richer and the meatballs more delicious.

I often make my sweet and sour chicken with thigh pieces but when I have chicken breasts in the fridge I tend to make chicken meatballs for this khoresht rather than using whole or cut up breasts. All the spices that I add to the meatballs and the onion that goes into it makes the rather bland chicken breast taste so much better and more succulent.

In Iran this dish is usually made with golden aloo bokhara, a special kind of yellow plums that are poached, peeled and sun dried. Aloo bokhara is quite hard to come by here. I find prunes a very good substitute but add a little fresh lemon juice to the sauce. It works quite well.

I did say nothing is set in stone, right? Cut your carrots in any shape you like but do sauté them in a little oil before adding to the pan.
I did say nothing is set in stone, right? Cut your carrots in any shape you like but do sauté them in a little oil before adding to the pan.

Chicken meatballs with carrots and prunes is delicious with rice but you can also serve it on its own, with crusty bread and a nice green salad like my Herby, Garlicky, Lemony Romaine Lettuce Salad and a lovely glass of dry white wine.

Ingredients to serve four:

For the meatballs:

  • 3 medium chicken breasts, cubed
  • 1 small onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp chilli powder (optional)
  • 1 tbsp butter

For the sauce:

  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped
  • 2 1/2 tbsp oil
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 4 medium carrots, sliced or cut into batons
  • A handful of pitted prunes
  • Pinch of ground saffron dissolved in 1 tbsp boiling water (optional)
  • 1-2 tbsp lemon juice
  • sugar to taste

Method:

  1. Put the cubed chicken, onion, salt and spices in a food processor and blitz until everything is chopped up.
  2. Melt the butter in a non-stick frying pan. Wet your hands and shape the chicken mixture into balls larger than walnuts. Add to the pan and fry on medium heat until golden brown on all sides. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  3. Add one tablespoon oil to the pan and gently fry the carrots for a few minutes without colouring. Remove from the pan and set aside.
  4. Add the rest of the oil to the pan and fry the chopped onions on medium heat until well caramelised. Add the turmeric and cumin and cook briefly. Add the tomato paste and salt and cook for a minute or two.
  5. Return the chicken meatballs and carrots to the pan. Add the prunes and enough boiling water to almost cover the meatballs. Bring to the boil. Add the saffron and lower the heat. Cover the pan and simmer for thirty minutes or until the carrots and prunes are cooked through.
  6. Add lemon juice and a pinch of sugar to taste and adjust the seasoning. During cooking you can always add a little boiling water if the sauce is too thick or cook longer to reduce it. Serve with rice.

Persian Meatless Herby “Meatballs” (koofteh sabzi)

This koofteh is one of the very first dishes that I made on my own after my auntie showed me how to make them. She called them poor man’s kufta (yolchi kuftasi in her native Azari language). I was eleven years old but can still remember the day and the scrummy dish.

I hadn’t made these in years. I was craving them but wasn’t sure my meat-loving husband would be a big fan. I was even prepared to heat him some other leftovers if he didn’t like it. But to my amazement he loved it so much he had them the next day too and asked me to make them again!

So what makes these meatless “meatballs” so delicious? I’d say lots and lots of herbs, the barberries and especially the prunes that lend a slightly sweet and sour flavour to the “meatballs” and the sauce.

Ingredients for meatless meatballs
Ingredients for meatless “meatballs” include lots of lovely fragrant herbs including mint and ruby red barberries.

These “meatballs” are called koofteh in Persian which basically means “pounded”. In old days meat for koofteh was pounded with a huge stone mortar and pestle. Pounding gave the meat a sticky texture that held the meatballs together during cooking. But poor man’s koofteh don’t need pounding. There is no meat to pound!

The trick to hold the ingredients together is to knead the mix lightly and to use a sticky type of rice. Any kind of short or medium grain rice will be good. I used Italian Arborio which I often use to make sticky mixed rice dishes. It’s also important to allow the sauce to boil, lower the heat a tad bit so it doesn’t boil briskly and then submerge the meatballs one by one so the temperature of the sauce doesn’t drop. The rest is all really easy peasy.

"Meatballs" are stuffed with prunes, walnuts and some caramelised onion.
“Meatballs” are stuffed with prunes, walnuts and some caramelised onion.

Barberries do make this dish tastier but you can do without if they are hard to come by where you live. They come dried but I keep them in the freezer to preserve their gorgeous colour for longer. The tiny ruby red berries don’t even really freeze so I use them in my dishes after a quick rinse under the tap.

Nowadays most Middle Eastern and Persian groceries in the UK and online suppliers stock barberries. The dried berries are very light so a packet of 200 grams will see you through quite a few dishes.

koofteh-recipe
The sauce is thickened by the caramelised onions and the starches from the rice.

Serve these “meatballs” with warmed flatbread or crusty bread to dunk in the sauce. Iranians love to have a bowl of fresh herbs such as mint, coriander and tarragon, spring onions and radishes on the table too. The herb mix is called sabzī khordan (herbs for eating). The herbs serve as flavour enhancer and refresh the palate between morsels.

To serve five persons (two meatballs each) you will need the following ingredients: 

For the meatballs:

  • 120g small yellow lentils (split peas)
  • 175g Arborio or other short-grain glutinous rice
  • 3 tbsp barberries, picked over, rinsed and drained
  • 20g each of parsley, coriander, mint leaves and chives, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 11/2 tbsp dried dill
  • 1 tsp ground cumin (I used Persian black cumin)
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 small eggs, lightly beaten (or enough to bind the mix)
  • 15 prunes
  • 10 walnut halves

For the sauce:

  • 4 tbsp oil (I like extra-virgin rapeseed oil or olive oil)
  • 2 large red onions or 3 medium, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder or granules
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • Salt to taste
  • Chilli powder to taste (optional)
  • 3-4 tbsp tomato purée (you may have to use more if your purée is not thick)
  • Boiling water (about 2 1/2 litres or enough to submerge the meatballs).

Method: 

  1. Put the lentils in a small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat to medium low and cook until almost but not completely soft. Rinse in a sieve and drain well.
  2. Put the rice in a small saucepan and add enough water to cover by about 1 1/2 centimetres. Stir and bring to the boil. Cook over medium heat until all the water is absorbed and rice is almost soft. Let cool.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frying pan and cook the chopped onions until golden brown. Add the turmeric and stir. Cook for a minute or two. Set aside.
  4. Put the rice, eggs, lentils, herbs, barberries and spices in a bowl. Mix very well by hand and knead lightly until the mix is sticky and holds its shape when rolled into a ball. Divide into ten portions.
  5. Wet your hands and roll each portion of the mixture into a ball. With your thumb make a hole in each ball and put a walnut stuffed prune and a little of the caramelised onions (about 1/4 tsp for each)  in the hole. With your fingers push the mixture back over the stuffing and roll again to completely cover the stuffing. With slightly wet hands roll the balls between palms to make the surface smooth so the rice mix holds together during cooking. Set the meatballs on a plate.
  6. Transfer the caramelised onions to a lidded saucepan that’s big enough to submerge the meatballs. Add the spices for the sauce and the tomato purée and cook for a couple of minutes over medium heat. Pour in the boiling water and bring to the boil again, lower the heat so that the sauce boils gently.
  7. Drop each meatball in the sauce and wait for the sauce to return to gentle boil before dropping the next meatball in. Cook uncovered for five minutes after all the meatballs are in the sauce, then add the remaining prunes, cover and turn the heat down to low.
  8. Simmer the meatballs at least for forty-five minutes without moving the meatballs around. Continue cooking if the sauce is too thin. When the sauce has thickened to your liking correct the seasoning and simmer for a few more minutes. Enjoy!

PS: A little bit of the rice and herbs will eventually get into the sauce but that’s OK. It will thicken the sauce and add to its flavour.