Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

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Serving 3 Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

A meatball is a meatball, is a meatball, is a meatball. Right?

Well sure, in the sense that nearly all meatballs are simple mixtures of ground meat, spices, and sometimes fillers (for tenderness) and binders (for cohesion). And nearly all meatballs are round, although the same mixture can be shaped meatloaf-style or cigar-style around a skewer.

Ingredients Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

Meatballs can be fried, deep-fried, braised, poached, baked, or grilled (on a skewer). They can be breaded and browned, or not.

Nearly every cuisine in the world produces some kind of meatball. Countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to name a handful) offer some of the most tantalizing examples.

Forming the meatballs 2 Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

One of these is Moroccan Kefta (very similar meatballs appear in Middle Eastern, Greek, Cyprus, Indian, and Turkish cuisines).

Forming the meatballs Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

Kefta (also known as kofta, kufta, and kufteh) is the Moroccan word for ground meat, typically ground beef or ground lamb, or a mixture of the two. Other meats and even seafood is fair game as well.

Prep 1 Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

Kefta is mixed with an array of interesting herbs and spices, often some combination of garlic, onions, harissa, ras el hanout, cumin, paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, chile pepper, cilantro, parsley, and mint. Some cooks lighten the mixture with cooked rice, bulgur, or bread crumbs.

In the pan Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

These tender, beautifully flavored meatballs are a far cry from the typical so-so American-style meatball. When you add them to an evocative, spicy tomato sauce, the result is a tagine, a saucy stew with layers of amazing flavor.

In the bowl Moroccan Kefta Tagine (Spicy Meatballs & Tunisian Tomato Sauce)

Moroccan Kefta Tagine ( Spicy Meatballs with Tunisian Tomato Sauce, Olives & Preserved Lemon)

There is only one trick to making tender, juicy meatballs It doesn’t involve copious quantities of bread crumbs or eggs. It involves fat.

Don’t use extra lean ground beef for these. The least expensive ground beef is just the ticket, as it has more fat than the more expensive grinds. And adding fatty pork sausage to the mix will virtually guarantee perfect results.

Kefta can be shaped into little meatballs (my preference) or shaped cigar-style around a skewer (nice for grilling).

Tunisian Tomato Sauce (recipe coming soon)

1 pound 80% lean ground beef (or up to 50% ground pork, Italian pork sausage, or ground turkey)
½ cup pulverized saltine crackers (plus 1½ cups below) (pulse in the processor for a minute or so)
1 medium onion, minced (2 cups minced)
1 jalapeno chile, minced (2 tablespoons minced)
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1½ cups pulverized saltine crackers (pulse in the processor for a minute or so)

½ cup vegetable oil, divided

couscous, prepared according to package directions, optional
small, chewy flatbreads, warmed

  1. Prepare Tunisian Tomato Sauce up to two days ahead if desired.
  2. To prepare meatballs, in a large mixing bowl, using your hands, thoroughly combine ground meat, pulverized crackers, onion, chile, garlic, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, salt, black pepper, cilantro, and parsley.
  3. To test the seasoning, add a little vegetable oil to a small sauté pan, heat, and then sauté a small ball of the meat mixture until cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
  4. To meld the flavors, cover the mixing bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours
  5. To shape kefta, using a small, release-style scoop, scoop 1 tablespoon blobs of meatball mixture. With your hands, roll each blob into a ball.
  6. To bread kefta, put remaining pulverized saltines onto an edged baking sheet, and roll meatballs around in the saltines to evenly coat.
  7. To cook kefta, in a large sauté pan, heat ¼ cup vegetable oil.
  8. Fill the sauté pan with about half the meatballs but don’t crowd. Brown all surface of the meatballs, turning them often with chopsticks or two forks. They will cook through in about 5 minutes.
  9. Remove to a platter, wipe the pan clean with paper towels, and repeat with remaining meatballs.
  10. At this point, meatballs can be cooled and refrigerated until ready to proceed.
  11. To serve, in a stovetop casserole, ladle several cups of Tunisian Tomato Sauce. (You won’t use it all.) Add meatballs and toss frequently in the sauce. Cover and bring to a bare simmer. Alternatively, you can heat the casserole in a 350°F oven for 20-30 minutes.
  12. Serve hot with prepared couscous and warm flat bread.

Makes about 50 small meatballs; serves 4.

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Copyright 2014 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.

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About Susan S. Bradley

Intrepid cook, food writer, culinary instructor, author of Pacific Northwest Palate: Four Seasons of Great Cooking, and founder of the Northwest Culinary Academy.


  1. The kefta look beautiful with the spicy gravy. With some soft white bread …. Delicious!
    Thank you. Happy Easter!
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  2. These will be up next week for dinner! I love meatballs and the flavors in these sound wonderful…now to find a recipe for Tunisian Tomato Sauce! Thank you for sharing….
    Kate´s last blog post ..Chocolate Guinness PuddingMy Profile

  3. These look really delicious! My family loves anything with meatballs so I will surely try to make these. Is kefta a regular grocery find or only in organic stores?
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