Lemony meatball soup has past in many countries

Lemony Meatball Soup (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Kelly Brant)

A little over a year ago in this column, I wrote about a lemony meatball recipe that I got from Milk Street's Tuesday Nights newsletter.

In the newsletter, the introduction to that recipe referenced a Greek dish called youvarlakia avgolemono as one of its inspirations. At the time, I made a mental note to look it up, which I finally got around to a few weeks ago.

That led me down a rabbit hole of world and culinary history that led me back (sort of) to history that is unfolding today.

The recipe combines two of my most favorite foods: turkey meatballs (you could use chicken, beef or lamb, if you wish) and avgolemono, the flavorful, velvety Greek duo of lemon and egg that is the basis for a variety of sauces and soups.

In researching youvarlakia avgolemono, I learned egg-lemon sauce, most commonly known as avgolemono, isn't native to Greece; it's found in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and food historians trace its origins to Sephardic Jewish cuisine. The Jewish Food Society (a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving, celebrating and revitalizing Jewish culinary heritage) describes agristada as "a lemon-infused sauce that originated with Jews in Spain before the Inquisition."

An article in The Nosher (myjewishlearning.com), explains agristada "grew out of necessity, specifically the strictures of kosher dietary laws. Prohibited from using dairy in sauces that would accompany meat dishes, Sephardic cooks in Spain -- hundreds of years ago -- developed a tart sauce that relied on tempered eggs as a thickening agent."

With the expulsion of Jews from Spain in July 1492, agristada was introduced to Greece (avgolemono), Italy (bagna brusca), Turkey (terbiyeli) and across the Balkan Peninsula as Spanish Jews sought refuge and safety. It is known as tarbiya or beida bi-limoune in Arabic. In Egypt and Syria, soups similar to avgolemono are known as shorbet/shorbat tarbia.

And in the ensuing 500 years, the sauce and soup became so closely associated with Greek cuisine, most of the world knows it as avgolemono.

Even this meatball soup isn't strictly Greek. I found nearly identical recipes citing it as having a Turkish origin. Food anthropologist Ghillie Basan in "Classic Turkish Cooking" writes the recipe dates to the Ottoman Empire, which overlaps with the Spanish Inquisition. The soup is called eksili köfte (sour meatballs) or terbiyeli köfte (translated by Basan as "well-behaved" meatballs) in Turkish cookbooks. It's worth noting that "yuvarlak" means round in Turkish.

It isn't my intent to dismiss Greece or its rich culinary heritage, not at all. I simply want to make sure I'm telling more than just one side of the story -- because there's always more than just one side and usually more than two. And there's your circle back to today's events.

Lemony meatball soup

1 small yellow onion, peeled

2 carrots, trimmed and peeled

½ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley or dill or a combination, plus more for garnish, divided use

½ cup long-grain white rice, divided use (see note)

1 clove garlic, minced OR 1 tablespoon garlic paste

Salt and ground black pepper

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 pound ground turkey or chicken or lamb or beef

Flour for dusting, optional

6 cups chicken broth (I used 6 cups of water and 2 tablespoons chicken flavor Better Than Bouillon)

2 eggs, at room temperature

Juice from 2 large lemons

Using the large holes on a box grate, grate the onion and one of the carrots. Finely dice the remaining carrot. Set the diced carrot aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine ¼ cup of the parsley or dill, the grated onion and carrot, ¼ cup of the rice, the garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper and the lemon zest. Mix well and add the ground turkey. Gently mix with your hands until well combined.

Gently form the mixture into 24-30 meatballs, each 1 to 1¼ inches in diameter. If desired, roll each ball in flour. (I've made them with and without flour; if your meat mixture is very moist, the flour will help the meatballs hold their shape, and it also will help thicken the broth as they cook.) Place the meatballs on a large plate or rimmed baking sheet. Cover and chill for at least 20 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Bring the broth to a boil in a large pot or Dutch oven set over high heat. Add the remaining rice and the reserved carrots. Reduce heat to medium and use a slotted spoon to carefully add meatballs to the pot. The broth should cover the tops of the meatballs by about ½ inch. If not, add a little water. Stir gently to prevent sticking. The meatballs will likely float to the top. Simmer gently, adjusting the heat so the broth doesn't boil, until meatballs are cooked through and rice is tender, 30-35 minutes. (To make sure the rice is cooked, break open a meatball.) Turn off heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs and lemon juice until just mixed. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle a ladle of the hot broth into the egg-lemon mixture. Repeat with two more ladles of broth to temper the egg mixture.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a plate. Whisking constantly, slowly drizzle the egg-lemon mixture back into the pot of broth. Return the meatballs to the pot and stir gently to combine.

Return the pot to medium-low heat until it just starts to simmer. (Wait for a bubble or two to appear, but don't let the pot boil. The broth should be silky. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in remaining ½ cup of parsley and serve.

Makes four servings.

Note: The addition of rice in the broth is not traditional, but it makes for a more filling soup.