The sour cherries are in season here in southeastern Ohio, and I am thrilled. Last year, I wrote a long post detailing my childhood obsession with sour cherries; for those who want to hear about how I, as a wee child, defended my own two sour cherry trees tooth and claw from the depradations of the birds, I direct you to the story entitled, “Cherry Memories.”
At last Saturday’s farmer’s market, I bought two quarts of them; on Sunday, I made a lattice-topped cherry pie for Zak’s Father’s Day gift (yes, a recipe is forthcoming) and last night, with the last two thirds of a quart, I was going to make Persian Cherry Pilaf–which is one of Zak’s favorite dishes in all the world.
However, I wanted to try something different. So, knowing as I do the heavy influence Persian cuisine has had on the cooking of the northern regions of India by way of the Persian Mogul Empire, I decided to make a dish that was a fusion between Albalu Pillau–the Persian Cherry Pilaf that contains lamb meatballs, basmati rice toasted in lamb fat and then cooked with cherries and cherry juice–and a northern Indian style lamb kofta dish with sour cherries being the main component of the sauce. The kofta were to be served over basmati rice cooked with shredded fresh turmeric rhizome, so that it was pale yellow and fragrant.
I discovered after I cooked the kofta and made the sauce that the results were very deeply flavored. One problem with cooking the rice with the cherry juice is that the while the cherry color is retained, much of the flavor is diluted by cooking the rice with it. Too much water or chicken broth is added, so the tart punch of the fruit is diminished. Cooking the sauce as I did with the kofta, where I cooked the cherries with cherry juice that reduced to one third of its starting volume, created a depth of flavor and color that was hard to resist. The sour jolt of the fruit was tempered by being cooked with the spices, onions and kofta, resulting in a pleasantly tangy dish that required very little salt and absolutely no sugar to balance it. The subtly-spiced kofta were stained a reddish brown from having been simmered in the sauce, and were filled with flavors that were equal parts Persian and northern Indian.
And the best part–was it was easier to cook than Albalu Pillau.
Indo-Persian Cherry Kofta
Ingredients for the Kofta:
1 pound ground lamb
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and sliced
1 golf-ball sized onion, peeled and sliced
1/2″ inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
3 whole cloves
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
1/4″ shard cinnamon stick (or a pinch of ground cinnamon)
1/8 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes (or, if you are not allergic to black peppercorns, use those)
2 tablespoons minced cilantro leaves (if you do not like cilantro, use mint instead)
Using a spice grinder, blender, Sumeet, mortar and pestle, or food processor, or any or all of the above, grind all ingredients except for lamb into a thick paste.
Mix spice paste and meat together gently with your fingers until well combined. Using a cookie scoop, melon baller or other method, divide meat mixture into equal sized balls–about two tablespoons each–and lightly shape between two damp palms into egg or football shapes. Do not compact the kofta–you want them to be very tender.
Ingredients for Sauce:
2 medium garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 thin 1″ long fresh turmeric rhizome, peeled and sliced (or use 1/2 teaspoon dried ground turmeric)
5 whole cloves
1/2″ piece cinnamon stick
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
1/8 teaspoon Aleppo pepper flakes or black peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 medium onion (the size of a baseball), peeled and thinly sliced
1-3 (depending on how hot you want your sauce to be–I used one) Thai chiles, minced
2/3 quart fresh or frozen pitted sour cherries
*1 1/2 cups sour cherry juice
salt to taste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Grind ingredients from garlic cloves to Aleppo pepper or black peppercorns into a thick paste. Set aside.
Heat oil on a medium flame in a heavy-bottomed, wide skillet. Add onions and saute until golden.
Gently add kofta, and shaking pan to turn kofta gently, cook until the kofta are browned all around and the onions are reddish brown. (Do not stir kofta and onions with a spoon, as this will break up the very tender meatballs. If you cannot shake the pan and get the onions and kofta moving enough, use a spatula to stir around the onions and to turn the kofta very gently.)
When kofta are browned and onions are cooked, add spice paste, minced chiles, cherries and cherry juice, stirring gently to combine. Turn heat down to medium low and cook, uncovered, until liquid reduces to one third its original volume, stirring gently as needed. The onions should break down into the sauce along with some of the cherries, while other cherries will remain somewhat whole, if made much smaller through loss of juice.
The sauce will reduce to the thickness that will coat a spoon, and be a rich carmine color. The kofta should be a dark brick-red brown. Taste the sauce add salt as needed . (I only needed a tiny pinch of it.)
Serve over a bed of turmeric rice with a generous garnish of freshly chopped cilantro and mint.
*Note: I had cherry juice I had frozen from last year’s crop of sour cherries. If you do not have access to such a thing, you can purchase sour cherry concentrate, which is sold to be used as a natural painkiller for sufferers of gout, arthritis and other joint diseases. Follow the directions on the label to reconstitute the juice and make the volume you want. You can make the flavor stronger by using more concentrate than is called for as well.
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