Turkey Meatballs with Spicy-Sweet Pepper Sauce

Jump to recipe

Growing up, oh how we loved my mom and dad’s meatballs. And I kind of thought these were our own special food. Which they were, in the sense of connecting us to my dad’s Italian heritage and my parents’ specially tweaked recipe. But they also were not, as I would learn soon enough, in the sense that these homey, flavorful orbs are special foods to just about everyone—featuring prominently in culinary traditions around the world and even showing up in vegan versions.

As it turns out, Jews have a particularly legendary fondness for meatballs, according to cookbook author Claudia Roden. Although the concept of creating balls of ground or pounded meat originated with Arab communities centuries ago, Arab travelers and conquerors spread the technique far and wide. Jews, especially Sephardic Jews from Spain and the Middle East, eagerly embraced the idea. Meatballs might have been extra appealing to Jews who, historically often poor, found they could easily stretch the expensive meat by adding bread (which, as a bonus, made the meatballs more tender). Another plus? Meatballs could be made in advance to avoid the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat. Meatballs, in many flavors and iterations, became a tradition gracing the Sabbath and holiday tables of Jews. For Sephardic Jews at Passover, meatballs often stand in place of matzah balls, which come more from Eastern European traditions.

When I was creating my cookbook, I married the traditions in a unique way—my original meatball matzah balls. I serve them every year, oven-roasted until crispy. But there are so many ways to enjoy meatballs and so many flavors, and for Passover, I wanted to fine-tune another version that would be gluten-free. I knew my family’s beef meatballs with tomato sauce could be made gluten-free but I was looking for something a little lighter for Passover.

For spring and for keeping company with my meatball matzah balls and brisket, I turned to turkey meatballs. And in creating this recipe, it seemed like a good time to nod to Sephardic traditions with some North African flavors of cumin and coriander and a roasted red pepper sauce reminiscent of Moroccan and Israeli cooked pepper salads. To keep the meatballs gluten-free but not sacrifice tenderness, I substituted mashed potato for bread crumbs (and that gives a bonus of fiber and potassium). The sauce gets a little heat and complexity from jalapeno and paprika, but you can use chili paste instead if you’d like (which I tested and also love); another option would be harissa.

Together, the sauce and meatballs work beautifully, and the dish tastes even better the next day. At once, it’s a plus for Passover in both flavor and preparation and a celebration of intersecting traditions. And, always a special food to many.



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.