The toughest part about moving to Hamburg — apart from unpacking dozens of boxes and going through bureaucratic hell — is figuring out where to buy my vegetables. In Nuremberg, I knew exactly where to go if I needed strawberries picked fresh from the garden bed, a lavender bouquet or a bunch of beet leaves for my Russian meatballs recipe. In Hamburg, at least for the first few weeks, I was confined to the supermarket vegetable isle.
Not that I never buy produce at grocery stores, but my first choice is a farmer located within a few kilometers from the city. And before you think of me as an uppity snobbish little food blogger, let me just say, that buying produce directly from farmers in Germany is about as difficult as finding a freshly-baked baguette in the morning in France or getting your hands on a good juicy burger in the U.S. That is to say: easy-peasy.
A few weeks ago, while still in Nuremberg, I started testing a recipe for Russian meatballs in tomato sauce with beet leaves. The beet leaves are not part of a traditional recipe, but add texture to the sauce, not to mention the nutrients. And, anyways, do you know of anything more Russian than beets? Ok, there are also potatoes, buckwheat, and mayonnaise, but beets are definitely up there, along with other stereotypical associations, like bears and vodka. Which is why I thought beet leaves would make a great addition to emphasize the Russian-ness of my meatballs.
Because let’s face it, yozhiki, literally translated as “hedgehogs”, are very similar to what’s known in many other countries as porcupine meatballs. A combination of ground meat, rice and spices is used to make balls that are cooked in thick tomato sauce. The rice grains poking out of the meatballs resemble quills of a hedgehog (or porcupine), hence the name.
Some bake the meatballs, I prefer to fry mine first until golden brown, then simmer them on the stove. Possibly the one distinctive feature of the Russian recipe is the use of smetana, or sour cream. You can add it straight to the tomato sauce, but I usually dollop a spoonful of sour cream on each plate. I don’t want the sour cream cooked, I want it fresh, cool and silky to contrast the hot rich and spiced sauce.
The beet leaves step in almost at the very end, when the sauce has been simmering for about half an hour. They wilt quickly, but hold their shape well, unlike, say, spinach that pretty much dissolves when cooked. If you don’t have access to beet leaves, like I didn’t in those first weeks in Hamburg, chard can be substituted.
Although chard and beet leaves are similar in texture and flavor profile, chard, on occasion, has too strong an earthy flavor that may overpower a dish. Beet leaves are less discernible and stay in the background, which is why they are my first choice.
It’s been a little over three weeks since we moved, and, thanks to the expat community, new-found friends (mostly moms at the playground) and Google, I have found a company in Hamburg that connects consumers to farmers. They deliver organic fruits and vegetables from nearby farms in a dark green box, which is, appropriately, the company’s name — Die Grüne Kiste. This is not advertisement, but in case you live in Hamburg — I like them.
My first box contained a head of salad, two types of tomatoes, fava beans, a bulb of fennel, a bunch of radishes, and the much-anticipated beets with a whole bouquet of greens still attached. I would have put them in a vase as a final touch in our new apartment — that’s how pretty they were and how happy they made me, alas, I had yozhiki simmering on the stove.
Tips for Making Yozhiki (Russian Meatballs)
- I suggest a combination of ground beef and pork to make yozhiki juicier. Use your hands to mix all the ingredients together — you will either way have to get your hands dirty to shape the meatballs.
- I use avocado oil for frying meatballs, which, of course, is not a traditionally Russian flavor. However, it’s the one of the healthiest oils for frying with a smoke point of 270°C (520°F), so I think it’s justified.
- Use the freshest, firmest beet leaves you can find. Alternatively, use chard as a substitute.
- If you have a surplus of beet leaves, try this beet leaves and walnut pesto.
- If you are wondering what to do with the beets themselves, may I suggest this beetroot and rhubarb dip, this beet salad with farmer’s cheese or this cold beet soup.
For the meatballs:
- 400 grams (14 ounces) mixed ground meat (beef and pork)
- 150 grams (1 cup) cooked whole grain rice
- 1 large egg
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- A good grind of fresh black pepper
For the tomato sauce:
- 2 tablespoons avocado oil
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, roughly chopped
- 375 ml (1 1/2 cup) chicken stock
- 3 medium onions, peeled and diced
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and grated
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- Juice of 1/2 a small lemon
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 100 grams (2 1/2 cups, tightly packed) beet leaves, stalks removed, chopped
- Sour cream
- Green onions, chopped
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the meatballs and mix well with your hands. Shape small balls: I get 14 to 18 meatballs from this amount of ground meat.
Heat up a large frying pan over medium heat and add avocado oil. When the oil is hot, place the meatballs into the pan and fry them, turning once in a while, until they become golden brown on all sides. This should take about 8 minutes. You don’t have to make sure they are cooked through at this point. Take the meatballs out of the pan and place them on a plate.
Throw in fennel seeds into the same pan and let them fry for 30 seconds, until you can feel the seeds release an aroma. Deglaze the pan by pouring a few tablespoons of the chicken stock in and scraping off all the bits and pieces of left-over meat and fat. This way you’ll get all the flavor out and make sure nothing gets burned. Add the onions and garlic and fry for about 5 minutes, until the onion softens.
Add the rest of the chicken stock, tomato sauce, tomato paste, the juice of half a small lemon, sugar, and salt and stir to get a uniform mixture. Carefully place the meatballs back into the pan. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan with a lid, and let the sauce gently simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the chopped beet leaves and let the sauce simmer for another 5 minutes, until the beet leaves wilt.
Serve the meatballs with rice, mashed potatoes or (my favorite) all on their own, topped with a teaspoon of sour cream and chopped green onions.