When Spyros was a freshman in college, he rolled 300 soutzoukakia, spiced meatballs in tomato sauce, for our school’s annual international dinner. He got the idea over Christmas break, during a dinner with his parents and some family friends–a Greek cook and his wife. The cook had suggested complex pies from far-off regions of Greece but his wife had a different oppinion.
“You will make soutzoukakia,” she said to Spyros. “It’s a simple dish Greeks make at home and you will bake them in their sauce—not fry them. It will be a texture Americans are more used to, more homemade.”
In the end, Spyros chose the soutzoukakia and the cook’s wife gave him her personal recipe. By all accounts (I was still a senior in high school at the time, so I can’t vouch) the dish was delicious. For years, college friends told me about those soutzoukakia, how they absorbed the sauce and, despite the spice, tasted fresh and light.
Years later, Spyros made soutzoukakia for me at our apartment in Pittsburgh. He cooked while I worked on a school paper. I remember peeking over my laptop to watch him work. Shoulders stooped over a cutting board, he concentrated on chopping onions and cutting bread. He glanced at his recipe once or twice but overall seemed to have memorized the steps. When dinner was ready I tasted meat spiced with ouzo and mint, a combination I remembered from our trips to Lesvos. That day, Spyros had brought Lesvos to Pittsburgh, a change of taste I welcomed.
After a few moves and, sadly, a stolen laptop—Spyros’ soutzoukakia recipe became lost. By that time it didn’t really matter, he remembered the method and the ingredients. For Spyros, like many good cooks, a dish comes together as he works. I wish I could say the same for me. I find comfort in measurements and procedures; I’m confident when I’ve got rules to follow. I’m trying to become more adaptable as a cook but it hasn’t been a natural shift.
To aid my progress, last week I asked Spyros if he wouldn’t mind sharing his soutzoukakia method with me for the blog. He agreed. We spent some time on the internet, trying to locate his lost recipe but were unsuccessful. We relied instead on his memory and a few recipes that were similar. My own contribution was to suggest that we broil the meatballs before baking them in the sauce. The soutzoukakia gain a nice crust this way which helps them hold their shape while they cook in the sauce.
We started with the meat mixture, which should be pretty runny at first.
Next we added the bread which really absorbed the excess liquid.
Next we formed the souzoukakia
Prepped them for broiling.
Made a tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes. I thought they looked rather cheerful, sitting in the sun.
Prepped the soutzoukakia for baking.
When they were ready, we tucked into Sunday lunch at our dining room table. I cut a bite of soutzoukakia with my fork and put it in my mouth. It was denser than Spyros’s original recipe, due to the broiling, but we liked the new texture. The meatballs had become more flavorful and hearty. And then, there was that heady ouzo/mint combination. It’s our method for soutzoukakia.
100 ml olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
500 g. (1 pound) ground beef
500 g. (1 pound) ground pork
400 g. (14 ounces) sliced white bread, torn into pieces
200 ml. (3/4 cup) full-fat milk
11/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 ½ teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
40 ml (3 tablespoons) ouzo
Salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
6 ripe medium tomatoes or 2 cans chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
500 ml. water
4 bay leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
salt and pepper to taste
- In the food processor, pulse the olive oil with the garlic; pour mixture into a medium bowl. Whisk in the eggs, milk, ouzo, chili flakes, cumin, coriander and mint.
- In a large bowl, combine the ground beef and pork with the wet mixture and torn bread. Using your hands, knead the mixture until the bread pieces break apart and the ingredients are well mixed. Season with salt and pepper to taste and mix again. Cover the meat mixture and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile make the sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil and cook the chopped onions over medium heat until soft. Add the tomato paste and cook 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the tomatoes, water, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, salt and pepper and simmer gently until the sauce reduces and thickens, about 20-30 minutes.
- Preheat the broiler to 250oC (480oF). Form golf-ball sized portions of the meat mixture into oblong logs and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet, leaving about half an inch space between each. Broil for 10-15 minutes until browned and cooked through.
- Heat the oven to 200oC (375oF). Spread about a cup of sauce onto the bottom of a large glass baking dish. Arrange the meatballs in one layer on the bottom of the pan and cover with the remaining sauce. Bake for 30-45 minutes, until the sauce bubbles and has darkened. Cool for 10 minutes. Serve over rice or pasta.