In this recipe, tender lamb meatballs are flavored with warm spices often found in a Moroccan pantry, fresh herbs, and orange zest for brightness. After a quick broil, they’re glazed with pomegranate molasses for a sweet and savory hit and then stuffed into pitas with arugula or watercress, mint, and pomegranate seeds.
These meatballs are inspired by kefta, Moroccan meat patties that come in several different shapes including balls, ovals, and logs. They can be skewered and grilled, braised, or pan-fried. Kefta are often spiced with ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mix that can include upwards of 30 different spices. Rather than use ras el hanout, I’ve opted to include a few of my favorite spices from the mix in these meatballs.
Pomegranate seeds, arugula, and mint provide both freshness, a slight spice, and a bitter bite as a foil to the sweetness of the molasses. All together with the meatballs it makes a satisfying compact meal in pita pockets.
How to Make Lamb Meatballs
These lamb meatballs are seasoned with orange zest, mint, cilantro, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cayenne, and garlic.
Orange zest probably isn’t common in kefta but is a popular fruit in Morocco. When I was there 20 years ago, the freshly squeezed orange juice in the markets just about saved our lives in the heat. In this dish, it boosts the flavor of the meatballs and balances the rich lamb meat.
To keep the meatballs moist and to help it bind together, I add in an egg and panade, which is just breadcrumbs soaked in milk. Once shaped, the meatballs are broiled until lightly golden and glazed with pomegranate molasses. Along with the orange zest, the molasses here gives the final dish a sweet and sour tang that cuts through the richness of the lamb.
Why Broil Meatballs
I prefer broiling meatballs over frying them because it's quick and less messy.
- Golf ball-sized meatballs take about 8 minutes under the broiler.
- Smaller cocktail size meatballs cook in about 5 minutes.
You can serve the meatballs skewered onto toothpicks for parties, gatherings, or sporting events as they are or stuff them in pitas for a handheld dinner on the go.
What is Pomegranate Molasses?
Pomegranate molasses is pomegranate juice that has been cooked down, often with sugar, into a thick syrup. It has a sweet and tart flavor that pairs especially well with rich dishes like these meatballs, and is typically used in Middle Eastern cuisine.
This recipe only uses 2 tablespoons of pomegranate molasses, but don’t worry about using it all up right away: a bottle will last for months in your pantry.
It can be used as a glaze for most proteins, even shrimp. It’s also good on roasted vegetables, where both sweet and tart flavors are welcome, instead of a honey or maple glaze. More innovative uses are to add it to sparkling water for a refreshing drink, or use it to replace lemon juice or vinegar in salad dressings.
You can find it in well-stocked supermarkets, Middle Eastern stores, or online. The brands I’ve used are Cortas and Al Wadi.
You can also make your own Pomegranate Molasses at home.
How to Seed a Pomegranate
Pomegranate seeds can be purchased, already removed from the fruit, in the produce section of supermarkets. However, it’s much less expensive to buy the fruit whole and deseed it yourself.
A word of caution—pomegranate juice will stain so don’t wear light colored clothing for this task.
First, cut off the top and bottom (aka the blossom and end) of the fruit. Score the pomegranate about 6 times by cutting the fruit from the top to the bottom (think of how you score a naval orange to peel it.). Cut through the thick skin but try to avoid cutting into the seeds. Working over a bowl, use your fingers to gently pull the pomegranate apart.
Working with one chunk of pomegranate at a time, I gently pry the seeds from the membranes. Discard any seeds that look grayish or brownish as you go. If I have an especially juicy pomegranate, I will place the pomegranate inside of a clean plastic bag and peel it inside of the bag. Here is a tutorial on How to Cut and De-seed a Pomegranate with photos.
Ingredient Swaps and Substitutions
Lamb meatballs in pitas with arugula, mint and pomegranate seeds is one of my favorite combinations but don’t feel confined to these parameters. Here are some other ways to make and serve these meatballs:
- If you can’t find arugula, you can use another bitter green like watercress. Regular lettuce or a mesclun mix works too.
- The “stuffing” normally included in a gyro or falafel pita sandwich would also work well here: Lettuce, raw onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
- While ground lamb is commonly used for kefta, beef or mixture of lamb and beef is also used and certainly more affordable. Ground poultry can also be used, preferably dark meat as it’s juicier.
- You can find spice mixes like ras el hanout or tagine spice blends in specialty markets or online if you wanted to use that instead of individual spices.
- Another seasoning option is paprika, cardamom, cloves, allspice, anise, ginger, and turmeric. Aside from the paprika, I would use them more sparingly as the flavors are more intense.
- I use a mixture of mint and cilantro in my meat mixture, but parsley can also be used, in conjunction or as the sole herb. You can also use all cilantro. I would avoid using all mint as that may be too strong.
- Whole, 2%, and skim milk will all work in the panade
- A pita sandwich makes this into a nice compact meal, but you can also serve these meatballs with flatbread or make it into a sub with a roll.
How to Scale Meatballs
You can double or triple the recipe, cook, then freeze the unglazed meatballs for a quick meal anytime. The frozen meatballs are best when eaten within three or four months.
To reheat, put the frozen meatballs in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet, cover with foil, and reheat in a preheated 300°F oven until warmed through, at least 15 minutes. A larger batch will take longer to reheat. Glaze the meatballs after reheating.
More Marvelous Meatball Recipes
Lamb Meatball Pitas
For the meatballs
1 slice sandwich bread, ripped into small pieces
1/3 cup whole milk
1 large egg
1 pound ground lamb
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
3 tablespoons mint, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/16 teaspoon ground cayenne, or to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
For the optional garlic yogurt sauce
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon zest
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
4 pita pockets, halved (and warmed, optional)
4 cups lightly packed arugula or baby watercress
8 mint leaves, torn into smaller pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
Garlic yogurt sauce (optional)
Preheat the broiler and prepare sheet pan:
Arrange the top rack of the oven to four inches below the broiler. Preheat the broiler on high heat. Line a sheet pan with a sheet of foil and set aside.
Make the panade:
In a small bowl, combine the bread and milk with a fork or your fingers so that the bread is moistened. Set aside to let the bread soak up the milk evenly and turn mushy.
Combine meatball ingredients:
In a large bowl, lightly beat the egg using a fork. Add the lamb, crumbling it into the bowl. Sprinkle the garlic, cilantro, mint, coriander, salt, cumin, orange zest, cinnamon, and cayenne evenly over the lamb. Add the mushy bread mixture to the bowl, rubbing it between your fingers to turn it into wet crumbs.
Gently mix the lamb mixture with your hands just enough to so that it’s evenly mixed. The meatballs will toughen and be dense if the mixture is overworked.
Scoop out a scant 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture and roll it between your palms to form a 1 1/2-inch meatball. Place it onto the prepared sheet pan. Continue to form meatballs until all of the meat mixture is used up, putting them in a single layer in the center of the sheet pan. You should have about 24 meatballs.
Coat meatballs in oil:
Drizzle the oil over the meatballs on the sheet pan and gently roll the meatballs around to lightly coat them. Spread them out into a single layer in rows.
Alternatively, spray the sheet pan with cooking spray before you place the meatballs on them, and then spray the meatballs again before broiling.
Broil the meatballs:
Broil the meatballs until they are lightly golden and cooked through, rotating the pan halfway through, about 8 minutes total. (Sometimes I forget to rotate the pan and they’re fine, just less evenly colored.) Depending on how well you like your lamb, it’s ok if the meat is still a little pink, as long as it’s no longer raw.
Drizzle meatballs with pomegranate molasses:
Transfer the meatballs to a bowl. Drizzle the pomegranate molasses over the meatballs and gently toss with a spoon to coat.
Make the garlic yogurt sauce:
In a small bowl, combine the yogurt, garlic, lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Set aside until ready to use.
Warm the pitas:
Stack the pitas into a pile, then wrap the pile completely in damp paper towels. Place the pitas on a microwave-safe plate and heat on high power in the microwave until warmed through, 15 to 30 seconds.
Alternatively, preheat the oven to 350°F. Sprinkle both sides of each pita with a few drops of water, then stack them. Wrap the pitas completely in a damp paper towel, then wrap the towel covered pitas in foil. Heat in the oven until warmed through, about 8 minutes. Keep wrapped until ready to assemble and serve.
Stuff the pitas and serve:
Cut the pitas in half. Slather the garlic yogurt sauce inside the pita pockets, if using, Divvy up the arugula, mint, and pomegranate seeds between the pita halves. Add the meatballs to the pita pockets and serve immediately.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 15g||19%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||27%|
|Total Carbohydrate 39g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||7%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 4mg||18%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|