OPINION | FRONT BURNER: Meatballs with a Mediterranean-inspired twist

Mediterranean-Inspired Turkey Meatballs over lemony rice (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Mediterranean-Inspired Turkey Meatballs over lemony rice (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

I love Italian-style meatballs, especially on a bed of spaghetti or smothered in mozzarella and tomato sauce, but sometimes I want something different. Enter these Mediterranean-inspired meatballs.

Made with ground turkey (ground beef or lamb would work too), oregano, thyme, basil and mint, they're flavorful, but also picky-eater friendly. I served them over lemon-spiked rice and topped them with a quick tzatziki-style sauce.

Confession: For years I mistakenly thought tzatziki was German because my host families (all three of them) were so fond of the sauce we ate as often as three times a week when I lived there as a teenager. I was well into adulthood when I learned tzatziki as I knew it was really Greek.

The yogurt and cucumber mixture is remarkably similar to Indian raita and some food historians credit India with introducing the mixture to the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). From there, variations of the dish spread across the Middle East and southern Europe.

Traditional tzatziki is made with strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, herbs (often dill, mint and parsley) and lemon juice. Raita is made with regular (read thinner) yogurt and often includes cucumber, onion, mint or cilantro and spices.

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Mediterranean-Inspired Turkey Meatballs

  • 1 cup long-grain rice, rinsed
  • Salt
  • 1 small seedless cucumber
  • 1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon or more minced garlic or garlic paste, divided use
  • 2 tablespoons or more lemon juice, divided use
  • ¼ cup fresh snipped herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano and mint, divided use
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 slice white bread, torn into tiny pieces
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

In a 2-quart saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, combine the rice, 1 ½ cups water and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, stir once, cover and reduce heat to low; simmer 20 minutes. Do not remove lid while rice is cooking.

Meanwhile prepare the sauce and meatballs.

Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce aka Tzatziki (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)
Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce aka Tzatziki (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

Grate the cucumber on the large holes of a box grater into a medium bowl; add the yogurt, half of the garlic, half of the lemon juice, 1 tablespoon of the herbs, and salt and ground black pepper to taste; stir well to combine. Taste and season with more lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper or herbs. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the torn bread with 1 tablespoon of water and mix to form a paste. Add the ground turkey, remaining garlic, remaining herbs, salt and ground black pepper. Mix gently but thoroughly. Divide and shape mixture into 12 to 16 balls.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the meatballs and cook until browned on all sides and meatballs reach an internal temperature of 165 degrees, about 10 minutes.

Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of lemon juice onto the hot rice.

Serve the meatballs over the rice topped with cucumber-yogurt sauce.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.