Za’atar Turkey Meatballs with Chard and Bulgur

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After Thanksgiving, you have absolutely zero motivation to go grocery shopping and make dinner again, right? You feel satisfied that dinner was success. The dishes got done while you were still tipsy, so cleaning up all those pots and pans didn’t feel like such a chore. You enjoyed leftovers for a few days and yup, you had pie for breakfast and mashed potatoes with gravy for lunch because hey, it’s still a holiday weekend, and besides, you don’t want all that food to go to waste!

It’s when I finally come home and look at my own messy house and empty fridge that the real aversion to cooking sets in, albeit temporarily. It puts me in a bad mood to think about having to pack my lunch for the week, and the only thing that makes me at least scrounge around for a passable meal is the knowledge that if I don’t make something, I’m stuck eating high school cafeteria food for lunch. Not to mention having to go to the cafeteria when it’s packed with students and then trudge back up to the workroom with a ridiculous pinkish-red styrofoam tray and the obligatory carton of milk. I’m not sure which would be worse, the food or the experience.

I finally was compelled to put something together as an act of productive procrastination—you know, when you do a more tolerable chore in order to avoid facing the completely unbearable task that really needs to gets done (in this case, unpacking and laundry). (Usually, the only time my house gets cleaned is when I have papers to grade.) I was hoping to make one of those good post-Thanksgiving dishes, where you’re not ready to go cold-turkey (haha, no pun intended) to a strict post-holiday diet free of meat and cheese and other delicious things, but you want to make something a little on the healthier side.

I had some ground turkey in the freezer (I always buy it when it’s on sale, and then I never get around to using it), an unopened package of feta in the fridge (ditto), all sorts of grains in the pantry, and some red chard and herbs still clinging to life in the garden since it’s been so unseasonably warm. I decided to go the turkey meatball route, and the feta made me think about Middle Eastern spices. You can get za’atar pre-made, but since I still had fresh thyme, I decided to flavor the meatballs with the components of za’atar—thyme, sumac, sesame seeds, and salt—instead of using a mix. You can find sumac at places like Penzey’s spices. I bought mine a year or so ago to make a Lebanese dish, and it’s still very flavorful. I rounded out the meatballs with some coarse bulgur and the chard since they are both common in Middle Eastern cooking.

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Note: I would use more greens next time. I didn’t get as much as I expected out of the garden, and the bunch I supplemented from the store was on the small side. I used a combination of red and white Swiss chard, but you can use whatever you prefer, as long as you don’t mind that the red stems can get muddy-colored when cooked. Lastly, I call for coarse bulgar because I prefer its larger size, but fine or medium bulgur (or honestly probably any other grain…) would work fine; just adjust the cooking time.


Za’atar Turkey Meatballs with Swiss Chard and Bulgur

serves 4

  • 1 lb. ground turkey (I used 93% lean)
  • 4 oz. crumbled feta cheese, divided
  • 3 cloves minced garlic, divided
  • 1/4 cup finely minced yellow onion
  • 2 Tbsp. sesame seeds
  • 1/2 Tbsp. ground sumac
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1/2 c. fresh soft breadcrumbs made from a slice of whole wheat sandwich bread (I freeze the slice then whir it in the food processor)
  • 1 egg
  • pinch of cayenne flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, plus some
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp. oil, divided
  • 1 c. coarse-grain bulgur
  • 2 c. + 1 Tbsp. water
  • 2 small bunches Swiss chard (about 3/4 lb), stems removed and chopped into 1/4″ – 1/3″ dice, leaves coarsely chopped
  1. Heat 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat.
  2. Gently mix the turkey, 2 oz. of the feta, 2 of the cloves of minced garlic, and the next 9 ingredients (onion through 1/2 tsp. of salt) in a medium bowl. Do not overmix. Form into 16 evenly-sized balls.
  3. Cook the meatballs in 2 batches. Turn every 3-4 minutes until browned on all sides and cooked through, about 10 minutes for each batch. They will lose their shape and come out more like pyramids than balls. Keep the cooked meatballs warm on a plate tented with foil, or in a low oven.
  4. While you’re cooking the meatballs, put the bulgur and 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Add salt to taste. Bring to a boil, put a lid on it, reduce the heat to low, and cook until all of the water is absorbed, 15-20 minutes. Turn off the heat when done, and let sit with the lid on.
  5.  After you have cooked the meatballs, add the remaining 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil and the chopped chard stems to the skillet. Add the remaining 1 Tbsp. water and stir to scrape up all of the browned bits. Continuing stirring frequently until the stems are tender, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining clove of minced garlic and stir until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the chard leaves and salt to taste and stir until wilted, 3-5 minutes.
  6. To serve, fluff the bulgur with a fork and divide it among 4 plates. Top each with 1/4 of the cooked chard, 1/2 oz. of the remaining feta cheese, and 4 meatballs.
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