Thursday, March 4, 2010

A cautionary tale and the best meatballs you'll ever have

Yesterday afternoon, after S and I exercised our right to vote, we decided to go out to dinner. You may notice I use the word afternoon rather than evening referring to dinner, because that's the way things are here in The Netherlands. Most restaurants close their kitchens at around ten o'clock and well, they're empty by nine-thirty anyway. When I first realized this, I was stunned and thought I had moved to a geriatric community rather than an international European city. In Athens, Greece restaurants don't open until nine in the evening. You go out to dinner and you don't come home until one o'clock in the morning. Here though is a different story. The Dutch eat at six o'clock and they are in bed by eleven. How boring, and yet another thing I had to get used to living here.

We were in the mood for Italian so we picked a restaurant not far from our apartment that we haven't been to before, but that we heard through the grapevine that it does great food. I checked out their site and looked elegant and modern, and their menu had a good selection of pasta dishes and entrées. I was kind of excited.
When we got there though, we had another thing coming. First off, I didn't like the ambience of the place. Can't really put my finger on it, perhaps the lighting, the way they'd arranged their tables, it just didn't feel comfortable. Or maybe it was the fact that we were seated at the worst possible table in the restaurant, even though we'd made a reservation. A table right in front of the entrance door, where everyone was bumping onto us and we kept freezing to death by the constant opening and closing of that door.

Moving on, we ordered antipasti for starters that were fairly good, although I don't enjoy seafood like octopus and shrimp on the same plate as prosciutto and mortadella, but that's just me. The wine we had was an overpriced 2007 Chianti that was really nice, right amount of tannins there. Then the main course came, with a delay of 55 minutes! The restaurant had around twelve tables and eight or nine of them had two people sitting at them. How difficult is it to prepare main dishes for that amount of people? We didn't all come at the same time for God's sake! The poor waiter kept apologizing but that actually doesn't matter when you're hungry, does it?

Anyway, I got the veal scallopini with porcini sauce, roast potatoes and braised endive, and S got the pasta with prawns and arugula. Besides the fact that I found a plastic strand in my food that God knows where it came from, the veal was cooked well, the sauce was adequate, but I couldn't find any porcini mushrooms on my plate no matter how hard I looked. The potatoes were bland and not cooked enough, and the endive, even though it was cooked well, it seemed to have been braised in a tomato sauce which has nothing to do with a creamy porcini sauce. Two types of sauces on one plate? C'mon! The pasta dish was nothing special, as S proclaimed. The arugula was too tough, how can that be I have no idea but he kept spitting it into his napkin so that definitely wasn't good.

I have to admit the dessert was satisfactory, but I had a mocha ice cream and ice cream is always satisfactory. S had a créme brulée which I tasted and thought was fine, but he said he have had better. I believed him.
Oh, the highlight of the evening was the complimentary homemade limoncello drinks that were fantastic, but by then it was just too little too late. Our dinner experience was a big disappointment. I gotta tell you, I'm extremely surprised that this restaurant was full and that they were actually turning people away. I'm not gonna name (restaurant) names but I'm also not going there again. I know I'd probably make a rather harsh food critic but hey, I just tell it like it is.

We should've stayed home instead and enjoyed this great food! Greek meatballs (called "keftedakia" in Greek) with fennel seeds and a yoghurt sauce with fresh mint and lemon zest. Does that sound great or what? I assure you it not only sounds great it tastes great as well.

This is another Greek mezes that is a classic. We love meatballs in Greece and there are innumerable combinations for their preparation. The use of different kinds of minced meat like lamb, beef, veal or pork gives different taste and character to the meatballs. The addition of various herbs like mint, parsley or thyme, or the use of spices like cinnamon, allspice and cumin makes meatballs unique and adventurous. They can be eaten on their own, paired with roast or fried potatoes -which is one of my favorite meals-, they can be fried and then cooked in a rich tomato sauce, or served with a simple dipping sauce.

The ones I'm sharing with you here are made with both beef and pork meat which is a perfect combination. The addition of crushed fennel seeds and spices like cinnamon, cloves, ground coriander and cayenne pepper make these meatballs highly aromatic and pungent. They are accompanied by a Greek yoghurt dipping sauce which is both refreshing and luscious, bursting with the fragrance of the fresh mint and the lemon zest, complementing the rich flavors of the meatballs.

This mezes is perfect with ouzo as its aniseed flavor brings out the taste of the fennel seeds in the meatballs. You can also accompany them with white wine like a lovely bottle of Riesling. They're perfect for a dinner party, served as starters, or as part of a buffet, or prepared with a side of French fries and a tomato salad for a family lunch.

Keftedakia me Marathosporous kai Saltsa Giaourtiou-Dyosmou (Greek Spiced Meatballs with Fennel Seeds and a Yoghurt-Mint Dipping Sauce)
Adapted from Myrsini Lambraki

Greeks always choose veal over beef, we don’t particularly enjoy the mature flavor of beef, but you can use either.

Frying these delicious meatballs will fill your house with the smells of Greece. I used olive oil to fry my meatballs but you can substitute with another vegetable oil like sunflower seed oil or corn oil if you want them to be a little lighter.
It's also important that you don't use very fatty meat because the meatballs will be heavy and greasy.

Yield: 40-45 small meatballs / 2 cups yoghurt-mint sauce


for meatballs
250 g minced pork
250 g minced beef or veal
1 large onion, grated
1 medium-sized egg
1 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup very fine cornmeal
1 Tbsp olive oil plus 1 cup olive oil for frying

for yoghurt-mint sauce
2 cups Greek strained yoghurt like Total
2 Tbsp fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 tsp lemon zest, grated
1 Tbsp olive oil


for meatballs
Using a mortar and pestle crush the fennel seeds until they become almost powder.

In a large bowl, place minced beef and pork meat, egg, grated onion, crushed fennel seeds, ground coriander, cinnamon, cloves, cayenne pepper, salt and 1 Tbsp of olive oil. Mix well with your hands for about 10 minutes, until all the ingredients are well blended. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour so that the flavors "blend" and the mixture "matures".

Place the cornmeal in a bowl.

Using your hands, shape into small meatballs and roll them in the cornmeal. Put them in a sieve and shake them around, letting excess cornmeal escape through the sieve and into the bowl.

Heat 1 cup of olive oil in a large skillet on high heat until oil is really hot and put meatballs inside. Immediately turn the heat down to medium and let meatballs fry, turning them over once with tongs, for about 10 minutes or until cooked through and until they have taken a nice golden brown color on the outside.
Remove them from skillet with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels to drain off excessive fat.

Place the meatballs in a bowl and serve immediately.

for yoghurt-mint sauce
In a bowl, mix yoghurt, chopped mint leaves, grated lemon peel, olive oil and salt with a spoon until the mixture is well blended. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate. You can prepare the sauce one day ahead.
Before serving just stir again with a spoon.

To serve, place meatballs and yogurt sauce in clean bowls. Meatballs must be warm when you serve them. They should be served straight from the frying pan.


  1. All of those spices look delightful to me.


  2. Yikes, your hair-raising experience is exactly why we are so reluctant to go to any restaurant in Holland. How can they not care about their customers? It's maddening!

    On the odd occasion that we do go to a restaurant, I always seem to find hair in my food - the one thing that gives me the absolute creeps - but plastic is probably worse.

    Anyway, enough about that. Your latest creation looks fantastic. And I think my stomach just paid you a compliment: it rumbled as I looked through the photos :-)

  3. Your keftedakia sound delicious especially with your yoghurt sauce.

  4. Always love a good "keftedaki"...and the yoghurt sauce is lovely too!

  5. Nisrine, and they are!

    A., even though it was an unpleasant experience it definitely won't keep me from dinning out. There are some wonderful restaurants in our little city! :) Stomach rumbling... that's a good sign!

    Ivy, thank you!

    Peter G, welcome and thank you. The yoghurt sauce makes all the difference!

  6. Magda
    Your comment on the "international" city being asleep by 10 PM made me chuckle; when I moved to the States, in LA, California, I felt the same way! I could not believe people would eat early and go to be by 10PM when in Beirut or Paris, people show up to go to dinner at 9:30 PM or even 10PM! Oh well, when in Rome as they say!
    Love your meatballs, sounds like you are getting homesick! I can relate too!

  7. Those look delicious! I definitely want to try this! I might cheat and use lamb though :)

  8. Those look amazing! I love that they're coated in cornmeal, I just imagine the nice crunchy crust it forms.

  9. Lovely meatballs! I love greek but haven't tried meatballs like these. Thanks for sharing.

  10. taste of Beirut, so it's not only here! Well, what can you do.

    Queen B., thanks!

    Nicole, do cheat! Lamb is a great idea for these meatballs.

    Marc, they're so crunchy. I usually use all-purpose flour for coating meatballs but cornmeal is far better!

    Ellie, you must try these!

  11. When I studied in Amsterdam I could not believe that restaurants closed their kitchens at 10 PM. But every two weeks i visited Paris, where dinning is an art, and could always wander into one of the all-night brasseries.
    Your keftedes look delicious! Now we need a bottle of ouzo and Aegean sea breeze.

  12. Every time I see meatballs I have a desire to make them. Btw, we had a similar restaurant experience. Made reservations, yet seated by the door were we were greeted with a frigid draft all evening. Thank goodness the food was good and the wine was flowing. :)

  13. Teleia ta keftedakia sou...bravo!!! :)

  14. History of Greek Food, oh to be dining in Paris. Now that's a dining experience!

    Amuse-Bouche, when the food is good then all is well!

    pandora, καλώς όρισες και σ'ευχαριστώ!

  15. Thank you for sharing this recipe! I am going to make it this weekend. Mmmm.

    So sorry you had a bad experience with the Italian restaurant :-( But you are right, there are a number of good restaurants in this city.

  16. These look so good- can't wait for my house to smell like Greece!

  17. Guess what we had for dinner tonight?
    Yes your meatballs!
    I made just one substitution to the sauce- I didn't have a lemon so used lime zest. It was a lovely combination.
    The balls were very nice not too spicy. I did check your recipe like 4x to see if I needed to add some garlic somewhere!? I left it out (against my better judgement) because I wanted to stick to the recipe. The consistency of the meatballs were a bit soft which surprised me, but once they cooked they were fine. I made just 28 so obviously too big but as it was part of a meal that was fine.
    I'd like to make the giant beans next.
    PS I like to eat late too- I'm in my element when on holiday!
    Here we usually eat around 19:00 which is quite something as hubby is Dutch! Only on Thursdays we have to eat earlier (I don't like it asI'm always hungry before bedtime!)

  18. Hey Vanessa, I'm glad you liked my meatballs! The lime zest is a great substitution and no, no garlic in this recipe. But you can go ahead and add it if you like. You can also add some garlic in the yoghurt sauce making it a bit like tzatziki. Good luck next with the giant beans. Let me know how you liked them :)

  19. My husband's grandmother was Greek-Cypriot who ran a restaurant. I have added some of her family recipes that have been passed down to my repertoire (husband's favourites!) especially Avogolemo soup, stuffed vegetables and what my Mum-in-law calls Keftedes i.e. little fried meat balls. I love the mixture of spices in your recipe and will be trying it very soon.

  20. Hello Sally. I love avgolemono soup and stuffed vegetables are the best! Keftedakia are my favorite meatballs.I hope you enjoy this recipe.

  21. Magda, I am circling back to tell you I finally had a chance to make these and they were amazing! So amazing that my family demanded I make them AGAIN... and so I did--twice in the same week! Thanks again for sharing your delicious recipes with us. :-)

  22. Just A plane, I'm so happy you enjoyed the meatballs :)

  23. So, it is years later, but I made these yesterday and you are correct - they ARE the best!

    I did do something different and I know you might not like this...BUT, I spritzed with olive oil and baked instead of frying - only as it is less messy and didn't require me to stand over them. I knew I was going to bake them so I added just a little bit of corn flour (masa harina) for binding and did not coat them in corn meal. They ended up crispy and delicious but I understand not authentic.

    1. Hi Liz. I'm so glad you liked the meatballs. Yes, baking them instead of frying them is not the traditional way but hey, if you enjoyed them that's all that matters. Thank you for your feedback. One thing though, why did you add cornflour? They're not supposed to be loose. Were yours loose?

    2. Magda,

      I used a bit less meat than your recipe (440g and my pork was a bit fatty) and a large egg (that's what I had) so it seemed like they needed a bit of a binder. Plus, I thought baking them instead of rolling them in cornmeal and frying that I might need a little more something.

      I typically use corn flour or a mix of corn and wheat flour in my "American" meatballs. I think I added maybe 2 Tablespoons of the corn flour.

  24. Whenever I don't know what to make for dinner, I pop over and browse for, oh - 10 seconds- and want to cook everything. Never thought to dip meatballs in a yogurt based sauce - they're like meat falafel ;)

    1. Hi Francesca! In Greece we pair meatballs with tzatziki or other yoghurt-based sauces often. This one is particularly flavorful. Glad you enjoy my blog and recipes :)