Yo yo yo, I’m in Vermont! Time for a little family vacation. We’re participating in what I suppose you could call a round-robin of housesitting: We’re staying at some friends’ in Burlington while they’re elsewhere, and another family is visiting New York while we’re gone. Since I didn’t want to leave you staring at that Escarole Salad for a week (not that it isn’t purdy), I’m doing something a little special: an entire week of guest posts! I’ve invited some blogger friends, all parents, to write about their families’ experiences with food. Today’s post is from Denise Schipani at Confessions of a Mean Mommy, a blog I loved before I ever read it, thanks to that awesome name. And now that I do read it? I love it even more, because Denise’s voice is just so sharp, so funny, so bracingly honest. As you’ll see when you read her guest post…
My boys are in that stage where they like to list things in “top three favorite” categories (unless, of course, this isn’t a stage at all but some weird quirk confined to my children, which wouldn’t be the first of its kind). They have top three favorite friends, top three favorite colors, top three favorite toys. They are deadly serious about their choices, too; mulling them and changing them and checking in with each other to be sure they both are up to date on the other’s current preferences.
Naturally, favorite foods are always ranked, seeded like tennis players. And also naturally, pizza and hot dogs perennially hover in the top spots, with dishes like macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, or spaghetti popping in and out of the order.
But a funny thing happened last week. My older boy, seven-year-old Daniel, asked his five-year-old brother, James, what his top three favorite foods were that day. “Um… hot dogs, pizza… and, uh, meatballs. Mom’s meatballs.”
Oh. My. God. My meatballs made the list! But wait, there’s more: Daniel nodded in agreement, quickly recalculating his own list and bumping hot dogs—hot dogs!—out of the lineup to be replaced by meatballs. My meatballs.
My children, it must be said, are not awfully picky eaters. Not nearly as bad as I was (I hated everything, though curiously—or perhaps not so curiously, as my parents brooked no food refusals whatsoever—I ate what was put in front of me. Eventually. But I hated everything, not including cheese and butter sandwiches, peanut butter, and anything sweet). Daniel and James have always been, if not adventurous eaters, reliable ones. I may bemoan the fact that our vegetable repertoire is limited to broccoli, peas, carrots, corn, and green beans, but at least they eat broccoli, peas, carrots, corn and green beans. And they’ll eat fruit pretty much until I forcibly stop them (to either save them from a bellyache, or to save a serving of fruit for my own self!). I wrote about this on my own blog, here.
There are dishes I make that they grumble about (“Oh, we always have chicken! Why can’t we have macaroni and cheese?”, says James just about every time I serve chicken, which he then eats, the little stinker), and dishes they totally turn their noses up at (anything involving eggplant or zucchini or peppers or onions, which are adult vegetables and therefore unacceptable, or anything that touches). And then there are dishes that are completely, utterly, totally reliable.
Which brings me back to my meatballs.
I love making sauce and meatballs. I love that it takes me less than half an hour to put together, but tastes like it took a lot longer. I love that everyone loves it. I lied in a paragraph above about hating everything: I loved when we had sauce and meatballs, with any kind of pasta (which, in the 70s, was still called macaroni, the “American” word for “pasta,” which is what my grandparents called it when they were speaking Italian). Anyway, I breathed out in relief knowing that dish would be served. To this day, I crave this, my ultimate comfort food. If I don’t have it for a while, I feel the craving as a form of crankiness, which is instantly resolved when I realize I have the ingredients on hand and can produce my version of my Italian family’s weekend mainstay in a snap.
Growing up, making the sauce was Saturday’s work, to become Sunday’s midday meal (Sunday being the only day we ate like Italians, with a light breakfast, a big midday meal, and a sandwich or something else small in the evening. It was family day.) And it was work, involving blanching, peeling and crushing fresh plum tomatoes (or those jarred from summer’s garden), braising pork and making braciole, forming and browning meatballs, and adding it all to the sauce, set to simmer all day long.
These days, I put up a very quick marinara—garlic and onion simmering in olive oil, a couple of cans of crushed tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper, and that’s it. While that simmers, I mix up the meatballs (turkey, usually, but beef and/or pork if that’s what I have on hand) and, instead of laboriously browning them on the stovetop, I put them in the oven, on an oiled cookie sheet, then add them to the sauce. (Less oil is healthier, yes, but also it’s easier cleanup). The only thing my boys miss is what I remember from the days my grandmother would make piles of meatballs on a Saturday, and that was sneaking into the kitchen with my sister to purloin and share a meatball, from the pyramid draining on a paper towel before being added to the sauce. There was something delicious not just in the crunchy crust and sauceless, meaty taste, but in the giggly sneakiness of it. We always got caught, later, because of course my grandma had them counted.
I pull this meal together at 3 pm while the boys are doing homework and bickering at the table. Before James can count the butterflies on his kindergarten homework or Daniel can write 10 spelling sentences—and before we have to go to religious ed/soccer practice/the library—dinner’s all done but for boiling up some pasta.
So. My meatballs are currently ranked. Given how coveted pizza and hot dogs are, this is a very, very big deal. For me, too: It’s a healthy meal, made ahead of time (bonus points), laced with soothing and happy memories for me (extra bonus points) and guaranteed to be eaten (can’t be measured in points, it’s so valued).
Ask me again tomorrow; my macaroni and cheese wins raves, too.
My recipe is not exact. What I remember about my mom making them is that, as we ate, she and my dad would discuss their merits. “Well, I used wheat germ this time.” or, “I must have put in more bread than last time.” or, “I used cheese.” Never the same experience twice. Nor are mine. But…
In a bowl, put an end of whatever bread you have (sandwich bread), and enough water to just soak it. When it’s good and soaked, pour out any excess water, and add in 1 lb ground beef, turkey, or pork or combo. (I guess you could use lamb but I never have). Add an egg, salt and pepper, oregano if you have kids who don’t freak out with Green Things, a small pile (maybe a quarter cup?) grated Parmeggiano (or whatever grating cheese), and maybe some more bread in the form of breadcrumbs. (you could also skip the bread/water step and use more breadcrumbs now.) You could also add shredded veggies, like a handful of grated zucchini, if, say,it’s summer and you have four bazillion zukes on your counter from the garden. You could also do what my mom used to and add a few tablespoons of wheat germ. You could probably add flax seed, too, if you were feeling like boosting the nutritional value. Anything goes, almost. Blend together with your hands.
Heat oven to 350, and lightly oil a cookie sheet.
Pinch up small handfuls of meat and form into balls. For me, 1 lb of meat nearly always works out to about 14 meatballs. Uncannily, actually. Put on the sheet, and bake for 12 minutes, then take out and turn them all over and put back in the oven for another 12 or so. They’ll mostly cook, but don’t worry about cooking through; they’ll spend time in the sauce and finish cooking. When done, add to sauce and simmer. Be sure to scrape up any browned bits from the sheet to put in, too. I usually end up simmering for another 15 mins or so, then shutting the pot and letting it sit until it’s close to dinner time, and reheating/simmering more while I boil the pasta.
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Sounds great. I too bake mine in the oven. My mom used to make them in a saucepan with water about halfway up the meatballs. No idea why. They were too mushy that way I think. I also use turkey. But I add ketchup to mine! And onion or garlic. I love the visual of a pyramid of meatballs made by your grandma!
I've been a vegetarian for 19 years, so meatballs aren't on the menu these days. But growing up, my sister and I spent summers with our Italian grandma at the Jersey Shore. And I can still remember her pyramids of homemade meatballs, and the way my sister and I used to sneak them (cold!) from the fridge. Thanks for the trip down memory lane…