Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love and Meatballs

[the following story recently appeared in Toque Magazine -- http://www.toquemag.com/]

Every Thursday afternoon when I was growing up, my mother would take a big, bright-yellow Pyrex bowl from the cupboard, sit on one of the long wooden benches that ran alongside our kitchen table, and begin the process of making meatballs. This was our standing Thursday night dinner. I looked forward to that spaghetti, red sauce, and savory little orbs of meaty love every week like it was nobody's business.

I would come home from school and tell my mom all about the trials of teenagehood while she tore up ieces of white bread into small bits, which she would then combine with chopped meat from my dad's butcher shop, parsley, and several other tried-and-true ingredients that made me go back for seconds and thirds--and sometimes get into it with my older sister Laura over the last meatball. She generally won.
My mom passed away when I was 21, right around the time I was moving into my first apartment and taking the helm of my own stove (albeit a really small, crappy one). My roommate back then was a vegetarian, so no meatballs were made on that miniscule stove; there was no sense in making a big pot of sauce and meat when only I would eat it. Plus, we were perennially broke, so I slipped into vegetarianism for that brief period for all obvious and practical reasons, and to my father's great chagrin.
After that, I kind of forgot about meatballs, until recently when I realized I'd utterly forgotten how to make them--or, more accurately, make them well. The thing was, I'd been spending all these years experimenting with all sorts of exciting new-to-me ingredients and recipes and cuisines; meatballs just seemed, well... boring. This coincided with a time when the whole culinary world was eschewing Italian-American cooking in search of "the real Italy," seeking out the most authentic ingredients from the wives of fisherman in Sciacca or the owner of a trattoria in Tuscany. It started to feel that meatballs were passe. And anyone can make them, right? Well, actually, no.
About a year or so ago, I was thinking about my mom and those great Thursday night dinner, and in a fit on fungry nostalgia, I threw together a batch for dinner with my very Italian husband, Dan. We sat down to eat them and... meh. I chewed and chewed. He chewed and chewed, avoiding my anxious gaze.
"They're not very good, are they?"

He smiled supportively, but gently shook his head.

"No. They really aren't."

It was total meatball ineptitude and failure. How could this happen? How could I be such a whiz in the kitchen and be unsuccessful at what I considered the most basic of dishes? The acute disappointment I felt was doubly hard to swallow because it made me yearn for my mother's company, her cooking, and the incredible attention and love she put into it. And us. I could almost smell a phantom pot of her sauce on teh stove. I needed to learn how to do this.

It's been over a year now, and as I sit here writing this I'm anticipating the heady smell of meat, cheese, garlic, and parsley cooking on my stovetop. It took me all this time, but I finally figured it out-- in part from looking at good recipes that made sense and figuring out what I liked, but also from allowing myself to remember those days of sitting and watching my mom at the kitchen table with her big, yellow bowl. I'm making this batch for Dan tonight; I can't think of a better way to show someone you love them.
Respectable Meatballs
1 lb ground chuck
1/2 lb ground sirloin
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (or more, to taste) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/4 of an onion, finely minced
1 tsp Kosher salt
a few twists of black pepper
3 slices good white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup milk
2-3 Tbsp vegetable oil
Soak the three slices of bread in milk in a small bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, add all the other ingredients, except the bread. Tear the milk-soaked bread into small bits and add to the other ingredients. Using your hands, mix until all ingredients are just combined.
Fill a small bowl or cup with water and keep it next to you. Wet your fingers to keep the meat from sticking to them, and form the meat mixture into 1 1/2 inch balls.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large frying pan. Brown the meatballs on all sides, frying in batches (do not crowd them).
Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain, then gently drop them into a pot of simmering sauce. Serve with your favorite pasta and someone you really like.