Valentine’s Day 2021, our latest holiday during this pandemic, was possibly our happiest. Perhaps, the mood swing could be contributed to our having secured our first shots of the vaccine a week ago or even to the beautiful two dozen roses that were delivered to our door that morning. But while those events may have played a part, I’d have to say my husband’s suggestion for our Valentine’s dinner deserves most of the credit.
Slow and steady, so they say, wins the race. A perfect example is Marcella Hazan’s Ragu Bolognese, which requires six hours of simmering to yield “when clinging to the folds of homemade noodles,” to quote Marcella, “one of the most satisfying experiences accessible to the sense of taste.” But when you’re really hungry, especially after a nerve-racking day, sometimes quick and easy is the way to go.
When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, we really didn’t dine out that much. My family enjoyed such good food at home that the only reason for going to a restaurant was to give my mother and aunt a break from cooking. More often than not, the restaurants we chose were Italian. In fact, two of our favorites are still going strong in Brooklyn: Michael’s on Avenue R and Gargiulo’s in Coney Island. A third favorite, Patsy’s, continues to be popular in Manhattan. All three served then, as they still do, typical Neapolitan dishes that were similar to those we enjoyed at home but, at least in my aunt’s opinion, never quite as good.
In the early 50s, however, southern-Italian restaurants were being challenged by northern-Italian competitors. These new style establishments strove to distinguish themselves and, with some condescension, frowned on the heavy use of garlic, olive oil, peperoncino, and even dried pasta like spaghetti. Butter took the place of olive oil; cream sauces replaced tomato based ones; herbs like rosemary and thyme and spices like saffron and nutmeg lent more nuance than did basil or oregano. Southern dried pasta was replaced either by the fresh egg variety or by risottos, often finished with flair at tableside.
One of my fondest childhood memories is how my Neapolitan aunt Carlotta used to sneak me a meatball before I went to Sunday mass. She would start her sauce early in the day and the aroma would always wake me up—always earlier than I wanted. I would go downstairs to the kitchen, where she would be enjoying her morning espresso while her sauce simmered away. While I had breakfast, she’d let me taste the sauce on a crust of Italian bread and I would start longing for our Sunday afternoon dinner, which wouldn’t be served for at least another 7 hours.
After breakfast, I’d watch some television or read the Sunday comics and then return upstairs to get dressed for church. During this time, my aunt would still be in the kitchen cooking, often joined by mother, and they would work on the dinner until they would leave for a later mass than mine. Children’s mass was always at 9.
When I got back downstairs with only minutes to spare before I had to go—no run—to church, my aunt would whisper: “Roland, have a meatball.”
“But I can’t, I’m taking communion this morning.” (Church law had us fasting for at least an hour before the sacrament.)
“Nonsense,” she would say. “How could God mind just a taste? It’s our secret.”
And so I tasted and enjoyed. (Eve’s apple couldn’t have been more tempting.) And with my aunt’s wink of absolution, I’d run off to mass.
It was this remembrance that inspired me to make my aunt’s meatballs for supper yesterday. As she never used or wrote a recipe for them, I have to rely on my memory of watching her make them. There were just a few ingredients, but they were always so flavorful and so unlike those “spicy meatballs” made famous by the Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Zia Carlotta’s Meatballs
2 slices high-quality white bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup milk
1 pound ground chuck beef (20% fat)
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4 cup raisins
1/2 clove garlic, minced fine
1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped fine
1/4 tsp fresh ground nutmeg
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Olive oil for frying
Homemade tomato sauce (I use Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter)
Soak the bread in milk for 10 to 15 minutes.
Using you hands, thoroughly squeeze the milk out of the bread. Discard the milk and reserve the bread.
In a large bowl, gently combine the beef, egg, cheese, raisins, garlic, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add the bread and, using your hands, combine with the other ingredients until evenly distributed. Be gentle and do not overwork the mixture. Overworking the mixture will make your meatballs heavy.
Using wet hands, shape the mixture using your palms to create balls that are approximately 1.5 inches in size. You should have about 12 meatballs from this recipe.
In a skillet large enough to accommodate all of the meatballs in a single layer, add olive oil to approximately a 1/4 inch depth. Heat over medium heat. Carefully add the meatballs and fry turning occasionally until browned all over. About 10 to 15 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a platter layered with paper towels to drain excess fat.
In a pot large enough to accommodate the meatballs, bring your sauce to a gentle simmer. Transfer the drained meatballs to the sauce and cook over low heat for another 10 minutes or so until cooked through.
Serve with spaghetti tossed with the sauce from the meatballs and sprinkled with grated Romano.
Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico
If you had asked me a year ago what I thought of turkey meatballs, I probably would have said “Are you kidding?” But last night, I remembered we had about a pound and a half of ground turkey in the fridge and I didn’t want it to go to waste.
I have a pretty good collection of cookbooks, but none of them had a recipe for ground turkey other than the turkey meatloaf I made for brunch on Sunday. So, I searched the Internet and among a plethora of suggestions, one stood out: Turkey-Spinach Meatballs.
Now as an Italian-American growing up in Brooklyn, I’m no stranger to meatballs. My aunt would make them often for Sunday dinner and, on occasion, would sneak one, freshly fried and with a drizzle of sauce, to me before I had to go to mass. When I told her I couldn’t eat it before receiving communion, she’d say “It’s so little and so good, God won’t mind.”
Indeed they were good, and it’s her recipe that I often follow when I prepare them. But I had to get rid of the turkey.
The recipe I found was on the Bon Appétit website and it also included a recipe for a marinara sauce that was also quite different from my own. But as long as I was going for the meatballs, I thought I’d make the sauce as well. Here’s a link to the site: Turkey-Spinach Meatballs
I have to admit that these were some of the best meatballs I have ever had. What surprised me about even more about how good they were is that rather than being fried, they were broiled. Soft and succulent, napped in a slightly spicy rich tomato sauce, they’re a perfect weeknight meal served either with pasta or, as we did, with good Italian bread.
My only deviations from the recipe were that I used slightly less oil than called for in the sauce and used crushed rather than whole tomatoes. I also used 87% fat turkey for the meatballs and may have broiled them a bit longer than specified.
Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico