When was the last time you shook a stranger’s hand? Gave a kid a high-five? Kissed a cheek? Even as I’ve struggled with wanting to keep myself – and others – safe over the past pandemic year, I’ve been thinking a lot about touch starvation, or what The Cut writer Allison Davis called “skin hanger.”

“Humans are wired to touch other humans; when we can’t, deprivation results in the usual litany of bad things: stress, anxiety, depression, weakened immune systems. . .” Davis writes.

Cliche as it may be, the kitchen is still a safe place to wake up your senses. It’s no replacement for a hug, but cooking is a craft that is, above all, tactile. You could knead a ball of dough, crimp a pie crust, pinch together the edges of a dumpling or roll out gnocchi. Or, you could make these meatballs.

Leftover rice, ground chicken and an egg form the base of the meatballs – our food stylist Lisa Cherkasky called them porcupine meatballs, but I hadn’t heard the term before! In go onions and garlic that have been warmed in butter along with tomato paste and baharat. (Heating the tomato paste and spices activates their aromatic compounds, encouraging their flavors to permeate the dish.) Then, the mixture is rolled into meatballs and roasted next to carrots. Partway through cooking, the meatballs get brushed with honey or silan (date syrup) and roasted until cooked through and deeply browned.

Served on a plate with the carrots, labne or plain yogurt, tomatoes and fresh herbs, they make a satisfying and relatively quick meal.

I was flipping through Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem,” while I worked on this dish. His recipe for maqluba – a Palestinian dish of chicken, rice and vegetables cooked in one pot and served maqluba, which means upside-down in Arabic – got stuck in my head. I wanted this meatball dinner to evoke that peppery potpourri of spiced chicken, floral basmati rice, sweet onions, pungent vegetables and warm baharat.

The world still feels upside-down, and cooking will not always be a sufficient substitute for human contact. But feeling food in my hands, watching it go from raw to cooked, smelling the spices tingle in my nostrils, hearing the sizzle and tasting the flavors together on the plate filled me, and my kitchen, with comfort.

Could you substitute ground turkey, beef or pork? Yes. Could you make these vegan? I would use this recipe instead but substitute baharat for the Italian seasoning. No baharat in your pantry or at your grocer? See this recipe’s NOTE for how to make your own, or, you can use another salt-free spice blend of your choosing. Not a fan of carrots? Roast halved mushrooms, quartered zucchini, chopped potatoes or sliced eggplant instead. Not eating tomatoes? In that case, I’d put a few cucumber slices on each plate. Toasted pine nuts are traditionally added to maqluba, but I used toasted slivered almonds instead, as they’re less pricey. Either way, they’re there for an optional crunch.

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Chicken and Rice Meatballs With Roasted Carrots and Labne

Active time: 10 minutes | Total time: 35 minutes

4 servings

Leftover rice, ground chicken and an egg form the base of these meatballs, which get lots of flavor from buttery onions and garlic, tomato paste and baharat, a warming and especially fragrant Middle Eastern spice blend. They’re roasted on a tray with carrots; once cooked, the meatballs and carrots are served with labne or yogurt, tomatoes and fresh herbs. No baharat in your pantry or at your grocer? See the NOTE below for how to make your own, or, you can use another salt-free spice blend of your choosing.

Where to Buy: Find baharat in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets, spice shops and online.

NOTE: To make enough baharat for this recipe, stir together 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice and 1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom.

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon tomato paste

2 teaspoons baharat

1/2 small yellow onion (about 2 ounces), grated

2 cloves garlic, minced or finely grated

1 pound ground chicken (may substitute ground turkey)

1 1/4 cups cooked white rice, preferably basmati

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

8 to 10 carrots (about 20 ounces), halved or quartered lengthwise if thicker than your thumb

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon silan (date syrup) or honey

1 teaspoon water

1 to 2 cups (8 to 16 ounces) labneh or plain yogurt

8 ounces (about 2 cups) cherry tomatoes, halved (optional)

1/2 bunch fresh parsley, leaves and tender stems

1 lemon, cut into wedges

1/2 cup (about 2 1/2 ounces) toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds (optional)

DIRECTIONS

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat it to 425 degrees.

In a small skillet over medium heat, melt the butter until it foams, then remove from the heat. Using a fork, stir in the tomato paste and baharat, allowing the spices to bloom until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the onion and garlic. Remove from heat.

In a large bowl, add the chicken, rice and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Scrape the onion mixture into the bowl and use your hands to very gently mix everything together. (If you overmix, the meatballs will be rubbery.) Form the mixture into 15 to 18 meatballs, approximately 2 inches in diameter, and place, spaced evenly, on one side of a large, rimmed baking sheet.

Place the carrots on the other side, drizzle with the olive oil and season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and toss lightly. Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and roast for 10 minutes.

While the meatballs and carrots are roasting, in a small bowl, mix the silan or honey and the water and set aside. Remove the baking sheet from the oven after 10 minutes and lightly brush the meatballs with the silan mixture. Toss or turn the carrots to ensure they cook evenly. Return the baking sheet to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the carrots are tender and meatballs are lightly browned on top.

On one side of each of 4 plates, spread 1/4 to 1/2 cup labne. Pile a few meatballs partially atop the labne; place the carrots and cherry tomatoes, if using, alongside; and nestle a few sprigs of parsley and lemon wedges nearby. Sprinkle with the pine nuts or slivered almonds, if using, and serve.

Nutrition (using 8 tablespoons labneh total) | Calories: 476; Total Fat: 25 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Cholesterol: 135 mg; Sodium: 680 mg; Carbohydrates: 39 g; Dietary Fiber: 6 g; Sugar: 13 g; Protein: 26 g.

From Washington Post staff writer G. Daniela Galarza.

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