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Spiced Fish Balls in Delicious Tomato Sauce

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Prep: 15 mins // Marinade: 30min to 2hrs // Cook: 30 min

Fish balls recipe

It was only until recently, right after my latest trip to the Middle East that I fell in love and frantically started cooking and experimenting with Middle Eastern food, nonstop. Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese you name it... I am officially addicted, and this recipe is my first endeavour to bring up memories from this trip.


Origins

No matter how you call it, fish balls, fish cakes or fish kebabs, these are the most moreish ones I’ve ever eaten; braised in a divine delicious tomato sauce by Yotam Ottolenghi is adding up to the experience. This recipe is a combination of two different recipes taken from 2 of my favourite cookbooks: Oded Oren’s “An Eastern Mediterranean Food Story from Tel Aviv” and Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem” which combines the best of the two worlds, Israel and Palestine. The photography is also stunning, my son just loves skimming through its pages!


I must say this dish is always a great idea for a healthy and light lunch or dinner (no deep frying), especially for those warm summer nights. I also genuinely believe it will be equally savoured by our little fussy eaters as the fish taste is quite subtle (being balanced by herbs and citrus) the spices not overwhelming and the tomato sauce comforting. My son loves it. Combined with a good quality chilled white or rose wine, this dish is an absolute summer bliss that will travel you to some East Mediterranean coastal towns or Moroccan courtyards and impress your guests.


Recipe

There are a few little secrets to achieving the best out of this dish, but the most important bit is to get good quality ingredients and fresh firm fish. In the ingredients section below I included affiliate links to some brands I love and will deliver the results you are anticipating.


Equipment

Food processor (optional), wide casserole (30cm) with lid, bowl for marinating


Ingredients (serves 4)

For the Fish balls:

  • 350-400g firm white fish fillet (Hake or Haddock ideally), skin removed

  • 1 onion, roughly chopped

  • 2 preserved lemons, roughly chopped, pits removed

  • 30g fresh coriander

  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin

  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander

  • Zest from 1 lemon

  • 1 egg

  • 1 cup breadcrumbs (or 2 slices of bread, crumbled)

For the Tomato sauce:

  • 1 can (400g) chopped tomatoes

  • 100ml good quality white wine (or substitute with 50ml of good quality vinegar + 50ml water if kids are eating)

  • 1 onion, finely diced

  • 1 garlic clove, mashed

  • 2 tbsp tomato paste

  • 1 tsp ground cumin

  • 1.5 tsp ground coriander

  • 1 tsp sweet paprika

  • 1 tsp sugar

  • Salt, pepper, olive oil

  • Mint and/or parsley leaves for garnish


Method

  • If you have no ready store-bought breadcrumbs, crumble 2 slices of (stale) bread (crusts removed) and set aside. I crumble them in my food processor.

  • In a food processor, toss the fish, onion, fresh coriander and preserved lemon and whiz a few times until combined. Continue adding the spices, salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil and combine again until you reach a minced meat-like consistency. If you have no processor, dice everything down into little pieces.

  • Transfer the mince to a bowl, add the breadcrumbs, zest and egg and mix really well with your hands until everything is incorporated. Refrigerate for at least min 30 min (or up to 2-3 hrs) to set.

  • Start preparing the sauce just before you remove the mince from the fridge: in a large casserole with a lid (30cm) heat 2 tbsp olive oil and sweat the onion for 4-5 min in medium heat. Add the spices and cook for another 2 min. Finally, pour the wine and cook for 3 minutes until the alcohol evaporates.

  • Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, sugar and some salt and pepper and simmer on very low heat for around 15 minutes. Keep an eye and add splashes of water if it gets too dry.

  • While the sauce is cooking, make the fish balls. Start forming golf size balls (should make 12-14) or cakes (should make 8) with your hands. Remember to slap the mince vigorously palm to palm during shaping, as this will help the mince stay together when cooking.

  • Turn your oven’s grill function on and grill the balls for 3-5 mins on each side – watch like a hawk: remove when they are browned but not burned. They will continue cooking in the sauce.

  • Now toss all fish balls gently into the sauce, top up with around 150 ml hot water (to half cover the balls) close the lid and simmer in very low heat for 15 min (stir them mid-way). When cooked, leave the balls to settle (uncovered) for 10 min before serving.

  • Serve with couscous, bulgur or rice and sprinkle with chopped mint/parsley leaves.



Tips

  • Squeeze the water out of your fish fillets: this will help remove the moisture left from thawing (most fish have been frozen before). If excess water stays in the meat, it is very likely to not form well into a ball.

  • If using bread instead of breadcrumbs, make sure it's stale or toasted. Soft, chewy bread won't do the trick.

  • Speaking about bread: in Greece, grandmas usually soak the bread in milk (for 10 min) and then squeeze it vigorously before crumbling it to the mix. This will give some extra fluffiness to the balls. If the mixture is still too soft and soggy, just add some more dry breadcrumbs.

  • In my photos, there’s a hidden little pot featuring a green salsa; this is my take on "Zhoug" (an Israeli parsley, coriander and chilli peppers mix) which I will post sometime in the future. Until then, the authentic Zhoug recipe can be found in Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook and is insanely good as a topping for these fish balls or with falafel and hummus.

  • For wine pairing, I suggest something with high acidity like white Chenin Blanc or medium-bodied Rose from Provence. Use 100ml in the recipe and save the rest for serving.


Shopping List

Below you will find my favourite authentic products (affiliate links) I used to cook and shoot this recipe. If you can't see the content, please deactivate your ad-blocker and refresh the page :-)

By clicking and purchasing through these links, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. This allows me to keep the site up to date and do more research on food, ingredients and photography. Thanks for reading!


Cookbooks

There are two cookbooks that I have absolutely overused the past few years and that bring the best of the two worlds, Israel and Palestine: Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem” is delivering classics like maqlubeh and falafel (must-have recipe) and teaches you how to make authentic hummus, harissa, zhoug and even your own preserved lemons from scratch. Chef’s Oded Oren cookbook offers a more modern twist on Israeli and Middle Eastern food. All recipes I’ve tried are easily followed and will impress even the most demanding guests. For those that live in the UK, these two talented chefs own restaurants in London and I totally recommend visiting for a unique foodie experience. As for the books, I’ll say this and no more: both are 5-star rated on Amazon, with easy-to-follow recipes (tried and tested in my kitchen) and with beautiful stories and photography. I think these two should be on every food lover’s cookbook shelf, hands down. Makes a good present too, trust me.










Chopped Tomatoes

When it comes to tomatoes, look no further: for my recipes, it's either Greek or Italian tomatoes. The top 2 brands I love using with my recipe is the Italian Mutti, especially the chopped tomatoes and the pizza sauce (made of San Marzano plum tomatoes from the volcanic soils of Napoli) and the Greek Kyknos, and both can be found in the UK. I always use paste in my tomato stews and sauces to give them “full body” (in a ratio of 1/8: 25g of paste per 400g sauce).










Preserved Lemons

Preserved lemon or lemon pickle is a condiment common in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. Unlike other fermented foods like kimchi or other pickles, preserved lemons aren't meant to be eaten alone. Instead, they are used to season dishes, where they deliver a layered dose of salt, acid, and umami. They keep well refrigerated for about a year, so don't feel that you have to rush to use them up before they go rotten. I use them in stews or tagines, salads and marinades and I recommend removing the seeds first. Rinse them swiftly under running water to remove excess salt before consuming. I suggest trying the Belazu or the Greek brand Odysea which can be found in UK mainstream supermarkets or Amazon.











See other recipes with Preserved Lemon here


30cm Wide Casserole

I can’t stress enough the need to own a shallow and wide casserole with a lid, ideally ovenproof if you are serious about cooking. It will nicely accommodate large quantities of stews to serve big companies and looks good when served on a table. I totally recommend Le Creuset of course, which may be pricey but totally worth it as their exquisite fidelity and quality will keep for life. I have bought cheaper ones, only to send them to the recycling centre after 4-5 years of use, eventually ending up spending a similar amount of money buying more. A cheaper alternative but still good on quality if you don’t go for cast iron is Jamie Oliver’s Tefal series made of Anodised Aluminium. It is still 30cm wide, looks nice and can survive in the oven.











See other recipes with casserole or tagine here



Meditteranean Style Servewear

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