It is probably impossible to find a tavérna in Greece that doesn’t have a serving of keftédes on the menu. Variations of these tasty, little balls are common across the Balkans, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Wether it’s called a kofta in India, küfte in Azerbaijan or köfte in Turkey, the result is almost indistinguishable from the Greek keftés. There may be a difference in the kind of meat that is used, and there may be a huge variation in the different spices included in other parts of the world – some spicier and some more fragrant. However in all eastern cuisines, the humble meatball is given a very exotic make-over. There is though, something totally delectable about a mix of meat, herbs and spices, shaped into little spheres and fried to golden perfection. They can be served at a family meal or be part of a mezé – and they are brilliant as a picnic dish. This is possibly the most versatile of foods.
In Greece it seems that every family and every cook has their own special recipe for keftédes but there are always some constants. More often than not, the meat will be beef or veal – contrary to popular belief, not all Greek meat dishes are made with lamb! The meat will be mixed with breadcrumbs, to make the meatballs lighter and to make the meat go further, and the herb mixture will usually contain fresh parsley. But after that, the variations on the theme are almost endless and it’s almost impossible to choose which recipe is best – it seems that the search for the perfect kefté is as eternal as the quest for the Holy Grail. Over the years, I have heard more animated conversations about the ultimate kefté, than about probably any other subject!
I have some favourites but I do like to try new versions, just in case I stumble on perfection. Recently on a tv programme, it was announced that ‘The Best Keftédes’ in Greece were made at a taverna in Halkida by the chef, Sofia Bada. Mrs Bada kindly gave away her recipe – though I can’t help thinking she may have kept some secret ingredient or tip back! These are quite garlicky morsels but definitely towards the top of my list.
My staple recipe though is really my favourite. It is a combination of a couple of recipes with some little additions of my own – and I promise that I have not kept any secrets.
Keftédes ( Kouzina’s Favourite)
1 kg beef mince
1 onion, finely chopped or grated
1 mug fine breadcrumbs ( see ‘Hints and Cheats’)
2 tabs finely chopped parsley
2 tsp dried mint – or 1 tab chopped fresh mint
1 tsp dried oregano
2 eggs, beaten
(Optional – 1 tab. ouzo)
2 tsp salt
Pepper to taste
A little cold water
Plain flour, for dusting the meatballs
Oil for frying. Either sunflower or olive oil – or a mixture of the two.
In a large bowl mix the mince, the breadcrumbs, the herbs, seasoning and beaten egg. It may be necessary to add a few tablespoonfuls of cold water to combine all the ingredients. A tablespoonful of ouzo can be added at this point – it makes a slightly more aromatic version.
Knead all the ingredients with your hands until fairly smooth and well combined.
Shape into little balls – the size depends on how you are going to serve them. For a main course, they need to be the size of a walnut. If they are going to be part of a mezé, it is better to make them a little smaller – probably about the size of small cherry tomato.
Dust the meatballs with a little plain flour.
In a large frying pan heat up the oil – personally I prefer a mix of olive oil and sunflower oil.
The trick with frying keftédes is not too blitz them. If you have the oil too hot, the flour on the outside will burn too quickly and become bitter, and the onion in the mixture won’t have enough time to cook through leaving a horrid, raw onion flavour.
So shallow fry them in batches at a medium temperature, turning them over occaisionally. It may be necessary to change the cooking oil after a few batches.
Serve warm with chips, a good greek salad and plenty of tzatziki. Or alternatively, serve at room temperature as a mezé or as a picnic dish.
‘The Best Keftédes’ – Sofia Badá
500gm beef mince
2 cloves of garlic
200 gm breadcrumbs
1 tab dry oregano
1 tab dry mint
1 tab finely chopped fresh mint
1 tab finely chopped fresh oregano
30ml white wine vinegar
2 tabs olive oil
A little cold water – for mixing
Salt and pepper to taste
Flour for dusting
Oil for frying
Put the onion and garlic in a food processor, and chop well. Alternatively, grate the onion and crush the garlic.
In a large bowl put the mince, breadcrumbs, all the herbs, olive oil, vinegar and seasoning. Knead well for about 10 minutes – if necessary, add a little water. The mixture should be a thick paste.
If possible, leave the mixture to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Shape into balls, as described above.
Dust with flour and fry gently in olive oil.