Spicy meatball stew
Tagines are a great favorite in Morocco. These flavorful, stew-like dishes can be made from almost any meat, fish, or vegetable you can think of.
Our recipe features kefta, a ground meat that’s flavored with aromatics (like onion) and spices (like cumin). Think of it as hamburger on steroids. We form the kefta into little meatballs, then cook them in a savory tomato sauce that’s spiced with fragrant cinnamon and other goodies.
Your guests will lap it up. And best of all, you’ll sound really cool when you say “tah-zheen.”
Recipe: Moroccan Kefta and Tomato Tagine
Tagine derives its name from the traditional pot in which it is cooked. A tagine (also spelled tajine) pot is an earthenware cooking vessel that comes in two pieces: a shallow base that sits over a burner or stove top, and a conical lid that helps return condensation to whatever is cooking in the bottom. But you don’t need a tagine pot to make this dish. A Dutch oven or deep frying pan works equally well.
In Morocco, every butcher has his own recipe for kefta (also spelled keefta, kifta, kofta—and other ways I’m probably not even aware of). You’re not likely to find kefta in any US supermarket, so you’ll have to mix your own. But that’s easy to do, especially if you have a food processor.
This is the first dish I learned to make when I lived in Morocco years ago. I took a cooking class, and this recipe is adapted from the one I learned there. I’ve subsequently seen nearly identical recipes in several cookbooks that have been published over the years. It’s traditional to top this dish with poached eggs, though you can omit them if you want.
When I was in Morocco, this dish was served by bringing the cooking vessel to the table. Everyone would eat communally with their right hands, using pieces of bread to scoop up the sauce and kefta meatballs. These days, I often serve this dish with rice, or over a bed of mashed potatoes. I also like to serve it over Couscous with Dried Fruit.
Preparing this dish requires a few steps—none of them difficult. You need to mix the kefta, shape it into meatballs, and brown them. Then you need to prepare the tomato sauce (the browned kefta meatballs will finish cooking in it).
Prep time for this dish is 30 minutes or so, and cooking time is about an hour (much of it unattended).
This recipe serves 6. Leftovers keep well for a few days in the refrigerator if stored in an airtight container. Or you can freeze them.
For the kefta:
- 1 small onion
- ~1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
- ~2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves
- 1 pound ground beef or lamb (lamb is more common in Morocco; see Notes)
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt (about half that if using regular table salt; see Notes)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil for browning kefta meatballs
- 2 medium onions (enough so you’ll have about 1½ cups of chopped onions)
- 2 - 3 cloves garlic (to taste)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt (about half that if using table salt; see Notes)
- ~1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
- ~1 tablespoon chopped parsley leaves
- 1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 6 eggs (or as many as you have people to serve; optional; consider using pasteurized—see Notes)
- additional minced cilantro and/or parsley for garnish
For the kefta:
- Peel the onion and chop it roughly if using a food processor (or grate it finely if mixing kefta by hand).
- Wash and dry the cilantro and parsley, and chop it roughly (or mince well if mixing kefta by hand).
- If using a food processor: Place the onion, cilantro, and parsley in the bowl and pulse until finely chopped. Add the ground beef or lamb, along with the cumin, cayenne pepper, and salt. Pulse until the onion, herbs, and spices are well incorporated into the ground meat. If mixing kefta by hand: Place all the ingredients (except the oil) in a medium-sized bowl. Using a spoon (or your hands), mix until everything is well incorporated.
- Wet your hands and pick up a small amount of the meat mixture. Roll between your palms until you’ve formed a meatball that’s about an inch in diameter. Repeat until you’ve formed all the kefta into balls.
- Place a large frying pan, preferably nonstick, on medium heat. When heated, add the oil. Once the oil is hot (it’ll shimmer—this takes about 15 seconds), add the kefta meatballs. Brown the meatballs on all sides, then set them aside while you continue with the sauce (you can brown the meatballs a few hours ahead of time if you wish; just refrigerate them in an airtight container until you’re ready to proceed).
- Peel the onions and chop them into dice of ½ inch or less. Peel the garlic cloves and mince them finely.
- Place a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven on the stovetop and turn the heat to medium. When the skillet is heated, add the oil. Once the oil is hot (it’ll shimmer—this takes about 15 seconds), add the chopped onion and garlic. Season with salt. Sauté for 5 minutes, or until the onion is just starting to become translucent.
- Meanwhile, wash and chop the cilantro and parsley.
- Add the cilantro, parsley, canned tomatoes, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, and cayenne to the onions and garlic. Stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then set a timer for 15 minutes.
- At the 15-minute mark, add the kefta meatballs that you prepared previously. Set the timer for another 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, if you’re using eggs: Break each egg into a small individual bowl.
- When the timer goes off again, check the consistency of the sauce (you want it to be thick and jam-like; if it’s not thick enough, allow it to continue cooking for a few minutes).
- Once the sauce has cooked down to the proper consistency, add the eggs (if using). Carefully slip each egg from its bowl into the simmering sauce, spacing the eggs evenly around the perimeter of the cooking vessel. Poach the eggs in the sauce until they’re done to your liking—at least 4 minutes. The yolks will be quite runny at the 4-minute mark; if you want them to be firmer, cook the eggs for another minute or two.
- Scatter some minced cilantro and/or parsley over the top of the dish. Bring the cooking vessel to the table and serve from it (see Notes).
- In Morocco, this dish often is made with lamb—though beef is also quite common. In US supermarkets, it’s usually easier to purchase ground beef, so that’s what I use.
- BTW, I like ground chuck in this dish, but any grade of ground beef will work.
- Don’t be afraid to change the quantities of cilantro, parsley, onion, garlic, or spices in this recipe. Every butcher mixes his kefta differently, and every cook prepares the tomato sauce a bit differently. This recipe reflects the way I make the dish; you may prefer different ingredient ratios. You may also prefer to skip the cilantro entirely and use more parsley (or vice versa).
- You can substitute a neutral oil like canola for olive oil in this dish if you like.
- If you don't have Kosher salt on hand, you can use plain table salt. In that case, though, I’d reduce the amount by about half since table salt is finer and more “condensed” than Kosher.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized whenever the eggs won’t be fully cooked (and in my book, if the yolk is runny, they’re not fully cooked). Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk? You can usually identify pasteurized eggs because they have a red “P” stamped on them.
- When I make this dish, I often prepare the eggs ahead of time using the method described in our recipe for Poached Eggs. I fully poach and chill the eggs, then just slip them into the hot tomato sauce to warm for a few minutes before serving.
- Although the recipe instructs you to bring the cooking vessel to the table for serving, I often don’t. Instead, I tend to plate in the kitchen. When I do that, I generally reheat the poached eggs in hot water (again, see our prior post on Poached Eggs). To serve, I add the Kefta and sauce to a plate (along with couscous or another starch), then top it with the poached egg, and sprinkle on some chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish.
- Though the poached egg looks pretty (and adds flavor), I often omit it. This dish is filling enough without it.
A Virtual Visit to Morocco
“Yumm-ee,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, digging into her Kefta and Tomato Tagine. “This is wonderful.”
“Next time we should make some Moroccan bread to go with it,” I said.
“Hope ‘next time’ is soon,” said Mrs K R. “I love Moroccan food.”
“We’ve done a lot of it lately,” I replied. “This tagine goes well with the Couscous with Dried Fruit that we posted about earlier this week.”
“True,” said Mrs K R. “And the Moroccan Carrot Soup would make a great starter. So would the Harira—you know, the Moroccan Chickpea Soup.”
“You could also start with Moroccan Carrot Salad,” I said. “Or maybe the Moroccan Orange and Radish Salad that we made last year.”
“Mmm, oranges,” said Mrs K R. “They’re in season right now. And it would be great to have some more Moroccan dishes.”
“Yeah, maybe I should make that salad again,” I said.
“Or maybe we should go to Morocco!” said Mrs K R.
Think I know which option I’ll go for.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Couscous with Dried Fruit
Moroccan Chickpea Soup (Harira)
Moroccan Carrot Salad
Moroccan Orange and Radish Salad
Moroccan Carrot Soup
Or check out the index for more recipes