SAFFRON RICE PILAF WITH MEATBALLS AND DATES

My grandparents immigrated to New York from Israel in 1959, my Grandmother – Zahava was all about schlepping things back and forth, everyone in her mind needed to use their full weight allowance when flying between Israel and America. But mainly it was us in America bringing things to our cousins in Israel. And the one item that made us all laugh were the dates. Though every box of dates we took to Israel said on them ‘Product of Israel’ – our family in Isreal couldn’t get a hold of them, they were left with what in Israel is disdainfully termed ‘sug bet’ or substandard produce, while all of Israel first-rate produce was being shipped overseas.

Thankfully that is no longer the case, Israel can now ship its amazing produce around the globe and hold onto the first-rate stuff at the same time.

This dish is one of those amazing all-in-one type of dishes, made as my Savta would on the stovetop, but still special enough to be served any day of the week!

Serves 4- 6

For the meatballs:

  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 500g (just over 1 lb) pound ground beef
  • 3 tablespoons onion, very finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

For the casserole:

  • 120ml (½ cup) boiling water
  • 1 pinch saffron threads, crushed
  • 1 small onion, very finely chopped (¾ cup, after chopping)
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped (1 cup, after chopping)
  • 5 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups long-grain rice, preferably basmati
  • 1 liter (4 cups) reduced-sodium chicken broth

For serving:

  • ¼ cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • ¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
  • Zest of 1 lemon

1. For the meatballs: In a medium bowl, mix together the cumin, paprika, cinnamon, and salt. Add the beef, onion, and garlic and mix until well combined. Scoop 1 tablespoon of the beef mixture into your hands and roll into a small ball. Repeat until all the mixture has been used. You should get about 24 meatballs. (The meatballs can be prepared to this point 1 day ahead; cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour before continuing with the recipe.)
2. Heat a heavy, large saute pan that has a lid, over medium-high heat, when hot add the olive oil, heat the olive oil until shimmering and add the meatballs and brown on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the meatballs to a dish, you may need to do this in two batches, as you do not want to overcrowd the pan.
3. For the casserole; combine the saffron and 120ml (½ cup) boiling water, mix well, and set aside.
4. Ensure that you have about 2 tablespoons worth of fat at the bottom of the pan, if you have too much, pour some off, if not enough add more olive oil. Heat the fat in the pan over medium-high heat, until hot, add the onions and peppers and saute until very soft, about 5 minutes.
5. Add the rice to the onions in the pan, and stir until the rice is well coated with fat and the onions and peppers are evenly distributed. Stir in the dates and season with salt.
6. Place the browned meatballs over the rice, pour in the saffron water along with the chicken broth, bring the broth to the boil, as soon as the liquid is boiling lower the heat so to a simmer, cover the pan and cook over low heat for 20 minutes, until the rice and meatballs are cooked through.
7. Combine the parsley, mint, and lemon zest in a small bowl and sprinkle over the casserole before serving.