If I ever get a chance to publish a cookbook, these are the kinds of recipes you would find there. Fairly simple, not too fussy, vegetable-heavy, but homey and delicious. Healthy in a nourishing, real foods kind of way. Comfort food, but not the mac-and-cheese kind of comfort food (not that there’s anything wrong with mac-and-cheese). Comfort food that tells a story about life and family, seasons and celebrations, those foods that speak to your heart.
My Granny worried about me in my last year of college. I was getting ready to graduate with a Biology degree from Columbia University, but working three different jobs and preparing for final exams had me stretched thin. During one phone conversation, Granny must have heard the tension in my voice, because a few days later, an envelope arrived in the mail containing a crisp $100 bill. Believe me when I say this was a big deal for my frugal, money-wise Granny.
Attached to the bill was a note. Go buy you some comfort food. Love, Granny and Pappy
I cried. Because food really does provide comfort, in both physical and emotional ways. My Granny and Pappy may not have been at the table with me that night when I ate roasted turkey breast and mashed potatoes with my roommates, but I felt their love with me. And I carried their love to class the next day, with a sandwich piled high with thinly-sliced roasted turkey breast and spicy with dijon mustard. Just the thought still makes me smile.
The recipe for these roasted chicken and zucchini meatballs is part of four-part series of recipes I’ll share over the next week or so, and they all make me smile, too. This whole meal was inspired by one that Elie and I had during my first trip to Israel in 2012. We had made a reservation to stay for a few days at Pausa, an inn in the very north of the country, close to the Syrian and Lebanese border. Pausa’s owners, Einat and Avigdor, had launched the slow food movement in Israel and our stay was supposed to include communal dinners, cooked by them with ingredients from their organic farm.
When we arrived, Einat apologized and said that we wouldn’t be having dinner at the inn the first night, because Avigdor had to go away for a day. But not to worry, she made us dinner reservations at Focaccia, a little restaurant at a strip mall in neighboring She’ar Yeshuv. It’s really good, she said.
Disappointed, we reluctantly took her advice and went to dinner at Focaccia, mainly because there was no place else to eat in this remote part of the country. Dinner was amazing. In fact, I remember every detail of the dishes we relished at Focaccia, and I can’t remember what we ate at Pausa the next night. It was a good lesson in being open-minded.
That night at Focaccia we had tender, crisp-roasted chicken thighs, fresh corn polenta, a tomato salad and whole roasted eggplant made from a particular heirloom variety of squat, fat eggplants called baladi. I’ve been recreating variations on that dinner ever since, and the allure of those dishes has never faded.
I took the idea of the chicken thighs from our dinner at Focaccia and turned them into a roasted chicken and zucchini meatballs, kept tender with the help of a little pan sauce. I like dishes like this that can be prepped ahead and popped into the oven when you’re ready. It’s not fussy. You can make the meatball mixture and even brown the meatballs ahead and then just finish it in the oven. They are also great leftover. Put them in shakshuka, toss them with pasta, serve them over polenta or rice or put them in a meatball sandwich. If you don’t feel like forming the meatballs, just scramble the mixture, like sausage. Theo also loves them.
This particular recipe was adapted from the turkey and zucchini burgers in the Jerusalem cookbook, one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. I have made so many variations of this recipe over the years, it has taken on a new identity in my kitchen. You may have seen another version, in my burger bowls. I always substitute chicken thighs for turkey and I make my own grind (see my note in the recipe, below). In the original recipe, Ottolenghi adds an egg, and I’ve made it both ways. Since we’re not using any binder, I think the egg makes the mixture too wet, and I like the texture and appearance of the meatballs better without the egg. But, you can try it both ways and see what you think. I also vary the spices and herbs a bit, depending on what else I’m pairing them with. I also like cooking the meatballs in a little broth, which keeps them tender. A splash of wine doesn’t hurt, either.
Be sure and check back over the next week or so for the rest of the recipes for this dinner: fresh corn polenta, whole roasted eggplant with tahini sauce and Israeli salad. I hope you enjoy these recipes as much as we do.
Roasted Chicken and Zucchini Meatballs
Makes about 16 – 20 meatballs
2 pounds ground chicken thighs*
1 large zucchini, grated (about 2 cups)
2 – 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 – 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground**
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and ground**
healthy pinch of red pepper flakes
extra virgin olive oil
1 cup organic chicken stock (homemade, if you have it)
1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
additional fresh parsley, chopped
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Add the chicken, zucchini, herbs, salt and spices to a medium bowl. Use your hands to evenly combine. The mixture will be a little wet, but don’t worry. It will hold together. You can do this ahead of time, even the day before. Store in the refrigerator, covered, until ready to cook.
Shape the meatball mixture into 16 – 20 meatballs, about 1 1/2 – 2 ounces each.
Heat a large oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add a little olive oil to the pan, about 1 to 2 tablespoons. Place the meatballs in a single layer in the skillet, being sure not to crowd them too much. If they won’t all fit in the pan, you’ll have to do them in batches.
Cook until browned and caramelized on the bottom side, about 3 or 4 minutes. This will also let the meatball set so it is easy to turn. Turn and cook on the other side, about 2 minutes.
If you need to cook the meatballs in batches, remove all the meatballs from the pan and place them in a bowl. Repeat cooking with remaining meatball mixture.
Add all of the meatballs back to the pan with any accumulated juices (if you needed to cook in batches). At this point, it’s okay if they are crowded. Pour the chicken stock over the meatballs and scrape up any caramelized bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pan, being sure not to break apart the meatballs. Scatter the halved grape tomatoes all over the top. Place the skillet in the oven and roast for 15 – 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through, the sauce has reduced a little bit and the tomatoes have started to wilt.
Remove the skillet from the oven and garnish with fresh parsley and a little Aleppo-style pepper.
*It’s often hard to find good-quality ground chicken thighs, so I like make my own grind, using the meat grinder attachment to my KitchenAid mixer. I just buy boneless-skinless chicken thighs from pasture-raised chickens and then use the attachment for a course grind.
**You can use already-ground spices, but it’s really simple to toast and grind your own. Just place the spices together in a dry pan over medium-low heat and toast until fragrant, a few minutes. Then grind with a mortar and pestle or a clean coffee grinder.
Photographs by Matthew Land Studios