Tunisian Fish Ball Tagine

In Spain, Sephardic fish balls, called albóndigas, were seasoned simply with parsley, maybe a little cheese, and then fried and served with tomato sauce. Those fish balls would bore the Tunisians, however, who like spices! These fish balls can be fried first, if you like, before they are slipped into the poaching liquid. I like to serve them atop Sephardic Swiss Chard and Chickpeas, though they are delicious served with couscous, as well. The fish mixture can also be formed into cakes, fried until golden brown and cooked through, and served with garlic mayonnaise.

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Serves 6

Fish Balls
1 ½ pounds mild white fish fillets, such as cod, sole, snapper, or sea bass
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 small yellow onions, finely chopped or puréed in a food processor
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ to 1 teaspoon harissa, homemade or store-bought
2 teaspoons ground toasted cumin
4 ounces day-old bread, crust removed, soaked in water, and squeezed dry, or ½ cup matzo meal
1 egg, lightly beaten
Olive oil for frying (optional)

Sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons tomato purée; 4 fresh ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped; or 1 can (14 ounces) chopped tomatoes
1 ½ cups fish broth or water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Harissa, homemade or store-bought
Peel of preserved lemon, homemade or store-bought, rinsed and chopped (optional)
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley for garnish

1) To make the fish balls, finely chop the fish, removing any errant bones. Transfer to a bowl, add the parsley, cilantro, garlic, onions, salt, harissa to taste, and cumin, and mix well. Add the egg and knead until smooth. (This mixture can be blended in a food processor.)

2) Dipping a spoon and your fingers in cold water, remove a heaping tablespoon of fish paste and roll into a 1-inch ball. Fry the ball in a little oil to check the seasoning, then adjust if needed. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Shape the rest of the fish paste into 1-inch balls, arrange them on the prepared pan, cover, and refrigerate if not cooking right away.

3) If you like, you can brown the fish balls in oil before you poach them in the sauce. To brown the balls, film a large sauté pan with olive oil and place over medium heat. In batches, fry the balls, turning them as needed, until lightly browned on all sides. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.

4) To make the sauce, warm the oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the garlic, tomato purée, broth, and the salt, pepper, harissa, and preserved lemon to taste and bring to a boil. Add the fish balls, turn down the heat to low, cover, and simmer until cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with parsley.

Recipe reprinted from “The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old Recipes for the Modern Home” by Joyce Goldstein with permission from University of California Press.

Tunisian Fish Ball Tagine

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