Let me rephrase that: Show me your meatball, and I’ll show you mine.
Oh, wait. No. Not that personal. That’s the sort of thing that goes on in other blogs, the after bedtime, Not Safe for Work kind.
What I meant was, meatballs for me are like Proust’s madeleine. Like any childhood comfort food, meatballs represent a time, place and taste that exists only in my memory. But when prepared in just the right way – today, right now- one bite into a really good meatball could transport me back to my parents’ Sunday afternoon dinner table.
My mother would set out a large platter of meat that had spent the better part of the day braising in thick, rich tomato sauce – the gravy. On it, there would usually be a beef chuck roast, a braciole (a rolled beef flank steak stuffed with cheese, breadcrumbs and fresh parsley), sweet and spicy pork sausages handmade by my grandfather, and meatballs. I always went straight for the meatballs.
Meatballs are so personal that even among family there can be great disappointment. My bias unfailingly (some might say stubbornly) swerved toward my mother’s meatballs. Even as much as I loved my grandmother’s Sunday gravy, I was ambivalent about her meatballs. And because each person’s meatball is as unique in form as their own fingerprint, it was always immediately apparent to me when someone other than my own mother or grandmother had shaped meatballs and surreptitiously slid them into the family gravy pot.
There was that one Sunday gravy which has traumatized me for life. I can’t remember the distant relative who’d prepared them, all I know is this: one hopeful bite of her meatball revealed something dark, chewy and slimy-sweet, an alien nugget that could only be… a raisin. A raisin.
Who would go and put a raisin in an innocent-looking meatball? Why?
Later, my mother explained to me in a stage whisper that it was because great aunt Carmella was Sicilian. Oh.
Needless to say, my family was spoiled by my mother’s stellar meatballs and as a result grew very particular. It was standard for us to rate the quality of the meatballs whenever we ate at a restaurant. We could spot inferior execution every time. Like meatballs made with stale, dried, seasoned breadcrumbs or those that were so firm and rubbery you could set one on a billiard table and smack it into the corner pocket.
Because I believe my mother made the very best meatballs, hers are the standard by which all others are judged. They were generously portioned – almost the size of a baseball; crusty on the outside, tender and almost fluffy within. They were strewn with flecks of fresh parsley, garlic and soft bits of milk-soaked Italian bread. They were sharp with the salty tang of Pecorino Romano cheese. They were big juicy spheres I couldn’t wait to stick my fork into.
My mother is no longer with us, and sadly, she took her meatball recipe with her. She’d told me her meatball secrets, probably more than once, but that was a while ago and the details are sketchy. Did she say to remove the crusts from the bread before soaking in milk? To squeeze out the milk thoroughly or to keep the bread dripping with liquid? To flatten the meatballs slightly while frying? Can’t remember. I didn’t write it down.
Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have inherited the gene for meatball mastery from my mother, and I’ve yet to work out her perfect ratio of meat-to-seasoning-to-filler. I hang my head in frustration, but I’m working on it.
I’ve turned to cookbooks lately, and recently found a recipe in Two Meatballs in an Italian Kitchen that seemed eerily familiar. I played with the recipe a bit and came up with this one. They are very close to my mother’s in method and taste, but just not as light as I’d like them to be. Back to the mixing bowl.
As always, I’ll keep you updated with breaking meatball-recipe news as it occurs.
Until then, what are your cherished food memories? Visit the comment section at the end of this post and share them with me.
You might also like Rigatoni with 20-Minute Sunday Gravy.
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
½ pound ground pork
2 egg yolks
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon kosher salt or 1 ½ teaspoons table salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
½ cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
¼ cup olive oil
1. Tear the bread into small pieces and place in a medium bowl. Cover with the milk and soak 5 minutes. Squeeze the milk out of the bread until just moist.
2. In a large bowl, use your hands to combine bread, beef, pork, egg, cheese, salt, pepper, garlic and parsley until evenly mixed. Break off ¼-cup sized pieces of mixture and roll into balls. They don’t have to be perfect – craggy meatballs have character and hold the sauce better.
3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as will fit in the pan without crowding. They should sizzle as soon as they hit they pan or the pan isn’t hot enough.
4. Cook meatballs until browned on all sides and cooked through, 6 -8 minutes total.
5. Serve hot with your favorite tomato sauce.
Makes about 15 meatballs