Turkey Meatballs with Dates, Lentils and Yogurt Sauce

As an Italian-American, meatballs are in my blood. They are one of the many comfort foods of my people, gifted to the world in the form of polpette appetizers, spaghetti with meatballs, and meatball subs. I may, however, be able to concede that Italians are not the only people who can lay claim to the mighty meatball. These baked turkey meatballs, for example, are definitely not Italian. Mixed with dates, sesame seeds, and breadcrumbs and served with lentils and yogurt sauce it has a Mediterranean-meets-Middle East vibe.

Since moving to Israel dates and date syrup (silan in Hebrew) have both become pantry staples for me. They grow like crazy here in the fall, when they drop off trees and make the sidewalks sticky. Every variety is available at the shuk and supermarket year round, from surprisingly bitter fresh dates to the popular Medjool. I’ve made couscous salad with dates and almonds, and I drizzle my yogurt and granola with date syrup most mornings. But dates in my meatballs? That’s a new one.


As soon as I saw this recipe in Food and Wine I knew I had to make it and soon. Combining an old favorite (meatballs) with a new favorite (dates), plus lentils and yogurt sauce? Done. This is really three recipes in one since the meatballs, lentils, and yogurt sauce each have their own preparation, but it comes together in about an hour.

The meatballs  are fairly healthy because they are baked and made from lean turkey, and they get a serious flavor boost from sesame oil, plus a sweet kick from the chopped dates. The lentils could be a good accompaniment to any number of dishes; simmered with a cinnamon stick and garlic then seasoned with sherry vinegar, the lentils come out aromatic and addictive. And the yogurt sauce is a simple but finger-licking good combination of yogurt, lemon juice, lemon zest, and chopped cilantro or mint. This, too, would be amazing on any number of things. Whatever you do don’t leave it out of this dish; it really brings everything together.

Turkey Meatballs with Dates, Lentils and Yogurt Sauce

Adapted from Food & Wine
Yield: 4 servings according to F&W; 2 according to Evan and I

Turkey Meatballs:
1 pound ground turkey
2 cups fresh bread crumbs*
6 dates, pitted and finely chopped
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cinnamon-Garlic Lentils:
1 cup French green lentils
5 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled
1 cinnamon stick
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Lemon-Herb Yogurt Sauce:
1 cup plain low-fat yogurt
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro or mint
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the Turkey Meatballs:
In a large bowl, combine the ground turkey with the bread crumbs, dates, eggs, sesame seeds, sesame oil, salt, and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Form the turkey mixture into 1-inch meatballs. Spread the meatballs on a lightly oiled large rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, turning once, or until browned on the bottom and cooked through.

Cinnamon-Garlic Lentils:
While the meatballs are cooking, prepare the lentils. In a medium saucepan, cover the lentils, garlic and cinnamon stick with 2 inches of water; bring to a boil. Simmer over moderately low heat until the lentils are tender, about 25 minutes. Drain the lentils and transfer to a bowl; pick out and discard the seasonings. Stir the olive oil and vinegar into the lentils and season with salt and pepper.

For the Lemon-Herb Yogurt Sauce:
Whisk together the yogurt with the lemon juice, cilantro or mint, and lemon zest, and season with salt and pepper.

Assemble and Serve:
Serve the meatballs with the lentils and yogurt.

Nutrition information according to F&W: 615 cal, 24 gm fat, 4.9 gm saturated fat, 57 gm carb, 17 gm fiber per serving.

*Update: I just made these for the second time (6/17/11) and they were once again amazing. This time I doubled the recipe except for the breadcrumbs and eggs (I used the original amounts for both). Less breadcrumbs made for a slightly moister, less dense meatball so I would cut the amount from here on out.

I linked this recipe up at the Flu Fighting Foods blog hop! Head on over for more great yogurt recipes.

23 thoughts on “Turkey Meatballs with Dates, Lentils and Yogurt Sauce

  1. Manu

    What an amazing recipe. I know a couple of savory recipes that call for dates, but this one is quite unique! I really like it and I am sure the zesty yogurt sauce would have been perfect with the sweetness of the dates! 🙂

    • Katherine

      I thought so too! Usually I dog ear recipes in magazines and then forget about them, but there was no way I was forgetting this! Also, I normally make a lot more changes and substitutions but this recipe was perfect the way it was.

    • Katherine

      Thanks Becky! Yes, it somehow manages to be both light and hearty. I’m definitely obsessed with yogurt sauces – beginning with tzatziki and raita, mmmm…

  2. Nami @ Just One Cookbook

    Wow this looks so delicious! I love the yogurt sauce you add to this meatballs. I’m not used to use dates as ingredients so this is a good learning experience for me. Thanks for sharing the recipe. I’m hungry now!! By the way, I love your detail pictures. They are shot very nicely!

  3. heather

    I envy the abundance of dates in Israel — sounds messy and wonderful! I would enjoy very much some day to have a truly ripe date, straight from the source. Not having to pay a steep price would also make me smile. In terms of this moment, I’ve added this recipe to our list and have no doubt it will become a fast favorite.



    • Katherine

      It is definitely messy and wonderful! Even the supermarket stocks no less than five varieties of dates. I hope you enjoy the recipe!

  4. CS

    Oh wow. I want these as soon as possible. The sauce looks amazing as well. If you have any great recipes for date syrup (because you are now in Israel and I can tell you have “the touch” :)) would you be interested in adding them to the http://www.101usesfordatesyrup.wordpress.com blog?

    We don’t get enough about the goodness of date syrup here in the States!

    • Katherine

      Thanks! Cool website – definitely not enough about date syrup in the States! I had never had it before moving here. Next time I do a recipe with date syrup I’ll definitely post it, thanks!

  5. Victoria

    I’m Armenian and definitely a big fan of Middle Eastern cuisine. These meatballs with the lentils and yogurt are a flavor explosion! What a great recipe 🙂

    • Katherine

      I would love to try Armenian food; there is a whole Armenian quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem with Armenian restaurants. I must check it out. These are definitely a flavor explosion. Thanks!!

  6. Kristen

    I looked through the comments here and could not believe I have not commented on this recipe before. I hope you still receive these because I have made this recipe multiple times in years(!) past and now I’m about to make it again. It’s absolutely incredible. The dates in the meatballs are incredibly unique with the sesame seeds, but the yogurt sauce atop the bed of cinnamon-garlic lentils… agh, so good!! Thank you so much for an incredible combo.

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