Every family has that one dish. The one that makes your stomach grumble in anticipation, that brings up childhood memories of crowded Shabbat dinners and cozy one-on-one gabfests with bubbe (or Mamie, as I call my grandmom).
In my family, that dish is boulettes aux petits pois (meatballs with green peas). Like any comfort food, it soothes, satisfies and cajoles the stomach into submission. Moroccan cuisine isn’t lacking in amazing dishes. Couscous royal piled high with dried fruits dripping with honey, nuts, vegetables and fall-off-the-bone tender lamb is also pretty high on my list. But there is something about this simple meatball and green pea stew that makes me salivate.
More than any other, it’s a dish that symbolizes home. Far from its origins in northern Morocco, it the recipe traveled with my grandmother to Montreal. It has since traveled from her kitchen to places near and far: 770 miles east to Halifax via plane where my brother fed his entire dorm at Dalhousie University; west to Ottawa, where my cousins rushed towards the sounds of Mamie clattering in the kitchen during a visit; south to New York, where I smuggled frozen Tupperware filled with thick, gooey goodness past airport security (sorry TSA) in order to hold on to one last taste of family.
Whenever one of us calls to say we’re coming to town, the reaction is always the same: “What do you want me to make?” And the answer, after a slight pause (mostly for show) to consider all the options, invariably is: “You know. Boulettes aux petits pois!”
The dish even made a memorable appearance during a three-month stay in Paris last summer. After weeks gorging on baguette, steak-frites, brioches (with just the right amount of sprinkled sugar) and other Gallic delights, I began to crave habit. Wandering through the Marché de la Bastille one Sunday, about a block from my apartment, I caught a whiff something familiar — could it be?
It was. Three stalls away, a little old Moroccan lady sat under a tarp, stirring a huge steaming pot of boulettes. Overcome with excitement, I rushed over, thanked her profusely for existing and took home a large container — an experience to be repeated many times over the following weeks. Even in the height of summer, the stew-like dish was the perfect comfort food (and can be eaten cold, as I found out when my microwave lost the will to live).
It wasn’t as good as my Mamie’s but it tasted like home.
Celia Benhamou’s Boulettes Aux Petits Pois
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon breadcrumbs
3 sprigs chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste)
1 pinch of all spice
1 teaspoon of olive oil
1 pack of frozen peas
2 shallots, sliced
1) Pour meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix well with your hands. Lather a bit of olive oil on your hands and roll the meat into golf-ball-sized balls. Place on a plate lined with tin foil.
2) Add 2-3 tablespoon canola oil into a deep pot. Once hot, add in the shallots and cook until golden. Cut the carrot into cubes and add in, along with the peas and cook on medium heat. Cover until the water from the frozen peas has evaporated.
3) Boil 2 cups of water in a separate pot and mix in a pinch of saffron or curcuma. Simmer the meatballs until firm and move them with a slotted spoon into the pot with peas, stirring gently.
4) Let the whole thing simmer, periodically stirring the mixture so that the meatballs are covered by the peas (be careful not to crush them). When almost all the water has been absorbed, remove from the fire and add salt to taste.
Serves 4 (in bubbe portions).