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Baked Kofta in Spicy Tomato Sauce

Since moving to Australia, my lack of tan has become a recurring subject of mockery among some friends and I. “How is it,” they ask, “that you maintain perfect pastiness in a country drenched in sun?” It’s true – Melbourne sees its fair share of gloriously sticky-hot days, begging for a beach towel and a dip in the sea (during which I admittedly over-slather in sunscreen). But it only takes one humbling, chilly blow from our southerly friend Antarctica to remind us that – for at least a few months per year -we’re putty in her icy hands, and that sunny glow will just have to wait.
On blustery days like today my body autopilots to the spice cabinet, reaching for the warmest items in sight. It was a kofta day; a day for saffron, chili, and cloves to season a rich stew of tomatoes and spiced meatballs. We’d have them tucked inside toasted pita bread and drizzled with mint yogurt, and over hot rice again tomorrow for lunch. Done.
I love baking dishes like kofta in my clay pot. The clay heats the sauce gently and evenly, allowing it to thicken and season the kofta at just the right pace without drying out. While other specialty pots can wreak havoc on the wallet, clay is widely available and inexpensive (my large dish was $17 from Chef’s Hat in South Melbourne). Alternatively, any oven-safe saucepan, dutch oven or skillet will work.
Kofta requires multiple steps – mixing and shaping the meat, starting the sauce and finishing them all together in the oven – but they are straightforward and can be done simultaneously (forming the meatballs while the sauce is simmering, for example). Both the meat and sauce can be started a day in advance, too; just store them separately overnight and finish them off, wine in hand, before guests arrive.

For the kofta
   500g / 1lb lean ground beef (or lamb)
   1 heaping tbsp tomato paste
   1 onion, grated
   1 tsp cinnamon
   1/2 tsp each: nutmeg, cloves, cardamom
   1/3 cup chopped parsley
   Salt and pepper
   Olive oil, for frying
For the spicy tomato sauce
   1 onion, finely chopped
   1 heaping tbsp tomato paste
   2 400g tins good-quality chopped tomatoes
   1 tsp each: sumac, cinnamon
   Pinch of saffron
   Generous pinch of red pepper flakes, or to taste
   Salt, to taste
   Olive oil, for frying
   Generous handful chopped coriander, for garnish
Preheat oven to 180 C / 350F. Start with the sauce, which will simmer gently while you prepare the kofta. If using a clay pot (or oven-safe pan), place in the oven, empty, to pre-heat gradually.

Finely chop the onion, and saute in olive oil over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until it begins to soften. Stir in the tomato paste and fry together for an additional minute (this will get the raw taste out of the tomato paste). Add the canned tomatoes, sumac, cinnamon, saffron and red pepper flakes. Taste and season with salt accordingly. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a light simmer, uncovered and stirring occasionally, while preparing the kofta.

Place the ground meat, tomato paste, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom together in a large mixing bowl. On a separate plate, grate the onion. Pat the grated onion with a paper towel to remove excess water, then add to the meat mixture. Using your hands, work the meat mixture until well incorporated.

Shape the kofta by pinching tablespoon-sized balls of meat from the mixture. Roll between your palms to make an oval shape. Heat a large skillet over high heat, and sear the kofta in olive oil until well browned all over. They do not need to be cooked through, just browned – they’ll finish cooking in the sauce, in the oven.

Stir the sauce and taste test once more, adding salt or red pepper flakes, to taste.  If using a pre-heated clay pot, remove the pot from the oven, transfer the sauce into the pot and nestle the kofta halfway into the sauce in your pattern of choice. If using the same oven-proof saucepan used to cook the sauce, simply nestle the kofta into the sauce, then place the saucepan in the oven.

Bake 20-25 minutes, until sauce is bubbling and thickened. Top with chopped fresh coriander and serve with bread and yogurt.

Audio pairing: Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, “Tapes and Money”

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