North African Meatballs in Saffron Broth

When I conjure North African cooking, I immediately dream of fragrantly spiced dishes and the bustling spice markets of Marrakesh that inspire them.  This NY Times recipe for aromatic meatballs in a vibrant saffron broth capture the exotic flavor combinations of this interesting cuisine. It is a compilation of several recipes for the popular “boulettes” found throughout restaurant menus in France.   What struck me about these boulettes was their texture  which was very moist with complex layers of flavor coming from the herbs and spices.  Although the ingredient llist may seem daunting, it really is just a matter of making the spice combination once.  You will want to wrap your tastebuds around these flavorful meatballs and their gorgeous saffron sauce over a fluffy couscous that lets the exotic flavors shine through.  The sauce is more of a broth and is best served with the absorbent couscous.  The flavors meld best overnight so this is a recipe that is great eaten the next day.



North African Meatballs in Saffron Broth

Adapted from the NY Times

Read the original recipe here.


For the saffron tomato sauce

    • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    • 1 and 1/2 cups finely diced onion
    • 3 garlic cloves, minced
    • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
    • 1 inch piece cinnamon stick
    • Large pinch saffron, crumbled
    • Salt and pepper
    • 3 cups chicken broth, vegetable broth or water

    For the meatballs

    • 1 and 1/2 cups cubed day-old firm white bread
    • 1 cup milk
    • 1 pound ground beef or lamb
    • 1 large egg, beaten
    • 1 teaspoon salt
    • ¼ teaspoon black pepper
    • 4 garlic cloves, minced
    • teaspoon grated nutmeg
    • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
    • 1 teaspoon turmeric
    • 2 teaspoons paprika
    • ¼ teaspoon cayenne
    • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
    • ¼ teaspoon ground coriander
    • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
    • 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
    • 3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
    • 3 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
    • All-purpose flour, for dusting(I didn’t think this step was needed and I would omit it the next time I make these)
    • Olive oil or vegetable oil

    For the couscous

    • 1 cup giant couscous, m’hamsa, or medium couscous
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • ½ cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water to soften, then drained
    • Salt to taste
    • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon


  1. Make the sauce: Heat oil over medium-high heat in a wide, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add onion and cook without browning until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, tomato paste, cinnamon and saffron, and stir well to incorporate. Season generously with salt and pepper, and allow to sizzle for 1 minute more. Add broth and simmer gently for 5 minutes. May be made several hours in advance, up to a day.
  2. Make the meatballs: Put bread cubes and milk in a small bowl. Leave bread to soak until softened, about 5 minutes, then squeeze dry.  This is the secret to getting the super moist texture of these meatballs. In a mixing bowl, put squeezed-out bread, ground meat and egg. Add salt, pepper, garlic, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, paprika, cayenne, cloves, coriander and cumin. Mix well with hands to distribute seasoning. Add 2 tablespoons each of parsley, cilantro and scallion, and knead for a minute. May be prepared several hours in advance, up to a day. With hands, roll mixture into small round balls about the size of a quarter. Dust balls lightly with flour.
  3. If pan frying the meatballs:  Heat a few tablespoons of oil, or a quarter-inch depth, over medium-high heat and fry meatballs until barely browned, about 2 minutes per side. Drain and blot on paper towel.
  4. If baking the meatballs:  set a baking rack over a broiler pan and spray with cooking oil.  Set the meatballs on the rack and bake at 400F on the lowest rack, for 20-30 minutes, turning once to brown equally on all sides.  I prefer baking meatballs and chose to cook mine this way.
  5. Simmer meatballs in saffron-tomato sauce, covered, over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until tender.
  6. Meanwhile, make the couscous.  Cook according to package directions, fluff gently and stir in butter and raisins. Season with salt and cinnamon, and toss well.
  7. Garnish meatballs with remaining parsley, cilantro and scallion. Serve over couscous.

Preparing the sauce.


The meatballs ready to go into the oven.


The baked meatballs before going into the sauce.



The simmering meatballs in the fragrant saffron broth will fill your home with an enticing aroma.


The super moist inside of one of these delectable meatballs.

16 thoughts on “North African Meatballs in Saffron Broth

  1. A real treat for the eyes in your first picture Johanne! Just looking at that list of spices had me excited about making this dish. I must say the NYT has a great collection of recipes, this one will be bookmarked too. Beautiful!

    • You will love all the spiced Loretta and how moist and succulent those meatballs are. Josette The Brook Cook made them a few weeks back on the same day I did. Her sauce looks totally different and she used ground turkey. I used the lamb recommended.

      Johanne Lamarche


  2. I love that we both made this flavor-packed recipe! (You and I clearly have the same great taste. 😉 ) Your pictures are absolutely mouth-watering!! I’m sure it was delicious with the ground lamb too.

  3. These meatballs sound SO ENTICING, Johanne. The long list of ingredients only assure that the end result will definitely be amazing. I can almost smell the aroma of this dish over at my place. Meatballs are always a hit at my house, but this recipe surely will be the biggest hit of all meatballs I have ever made, I am sure of it. Thank you SOOOO MUCH for sharing. xoxo

    • So glad you will try these Pang! I felt very exotic baking them and I do think you might have been able to smell their delicious aroma all the way to your house! I hope you will enjoy them as much as we did. I know you will photograph them much more nicely than I did, although I did like. the shot of the spices 🙂 xo

      Johanne Lamarche


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