A Good Meatball is Hard to Find

When you have a whirlwind courtship, it can be difficult to remember all of the details of how you became a couple. One day, you're eating graham crackers alone in bed while watching back-to-back Roseanne episodes in your studio apartment, and seemingly the very next, you're wearing a ring and distant relatives are buying you bath towels off the internet. After you tell people "I just knew!" enough times--even if you really did--all of the little stories of your meeting, dating, and falling in love can sometimes fade to the background, content to let the real showstoppers take center stage. After all, most people don't really want to know about The Time you were reading the back of one of his CDs and asked him who the artist "Feat" was and he kindly responded that "Feat" meant "Featuring". They want to hear about romantic professions and diamonds and wedding dates.

But even when you have a whirlwind courtship, I think that there's a time--a split-second, a few minutes in conversation, maybe even an entire weekend--that most people can look back on and say "that was when I knew it was something special." All gagging aside, for Jeff and me, it was our first date. For me, it was when we were walking in Chicago's River North neighborhood and Jeff kept flitting around me whenever we crossed the street. Exasperated--I was wearing too-high heels in an attempt to mitigate our vast height difference--I finally asked why he kept trying to get to one side of me. He replied, completely earnestly, that he was trying to be the one closer to the street traffic.

And if I had to answer for Jeff, I'd say that he knew it was something special when, during our dinner at a pizza restaurant, between professing my love for Aristotle and Paris, I said the words, "I like to cook."

Friends, I think you'd agree with me that our generation isn't one wholly given to the kitchen. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's pretty darn tough to find people in their mid-to-late twenties who'd ooh and aah over copper pans and saffron. That's not to say they don't exist--hello, friendly food-blogging community--but in my humble opinion, I think young professionals who double as cooking enthusiasts are in the minority. If, as children, we were cooked for, and if, as young adults, we swiped a card to load up on prepared food in college cafeterias, we're not likely to don aprons and take up braising a couple of years later.

So if, like Jeff was, you're 24 and dating at a big research university where everyone has lockers in the library because sometimes they sleep there and are so engrossed in the life of the mind that sometimes they forget to eat* and you find a girl and and think she might be it and...she really likes to cook, well, you'd probably be a little surprised. And a little giddy.

During our five months of dating and six of being engaged, there was pork saltimbocca, baked brie, and chocolate souffle. Pumpkin pancakes, chicken fajitas, and pesto-ed fettucini. Wine and roasted nuts. A lot of cookies. We had some good times. Unfortunately, however, I think all the time I spent in the kitchen may have steamed up Jeff's glasses so thoroughly that he didn't notice that my prowess with bread dough lacked a counterpart in the other realms of domesticity. He knew my friends called me "DW**", but I think he assumed it was a nickname based little on truth and more on affection, like calling a skinny guy in a Mafia movie Fat Pete.

It was probably a bit confusing and frustrating, then, when I'd make the man a dinner of lamb chops with roasted garlic potatoes and he'd still be finding garlic skins under the coffeemaker a week later. Or when I'd let 5 water glasses congregate on my bedside table and opt to just wear socks rather than address the mystery stickiness on the kitchen floor. It may have appeared impossible for me to fully screw on the lid to the peanut butter jar, but I could make a serious bread pudding.

Our own division of labor, then, evolved over our first year of marriage to look something like this: Sue-kitchen; Jeff-everything else. That's not quite the way it remains today--Jeff is an excellent breakfast-maker and I usually hang up all of my wet towels. And it's true that over the years, I've gotten better about throwing my gum in the trash can rather than on my dresser. I know, I know. But I think we both understand now, all too well, that I just don't scrub as well as I julienne. You make certain sacrifices in marriage, I suppose, to hold on to the most important things. Like a man who'll stay between you and the side of the road. Like meatballs.

I'm making these for Jeff's company's Christmas party that's being held at the home of one of his superiors. As soon as I was asked to bring an appetizer, I knew it had to be meatballs. Save your latest hummus recipe for an all-girls book club meeting. No matter what people say around this time of year ("I couldn't eat another cookie! Oh, I'm positively exhausted by all this rich food!"); a crudite platter at a Christmas party is just disappointing.

These feature a beef, pork, and prune mixture. I developed them after tasting lamb and prune meatballs a couple of years ago and deciding to try them out with less complex meats for the sake of not having to go to the store for lamb. With parsley, parmesan, and a bit of orange peel, they've got a great meatiness, slight saltiness, and subtle, festive sweetness. Meatballs' less divisive take on fruitcake, if you will. They're not eye-catching, but they go fast, especially at parties with men in suits you've never met and don't want to try to speak to while navigating an oozing hor d'oeuvre.

As an added bonus, they can really counter the effect of any libations you might indulge in. A very good thing, if, like a certain girl of short stature and low tolerance, you had too much Pinot Grigio at last year's Christmas party and wound up making eyes at the band in the hopes they'd invite you on stage to sing. Yep, more meatballs can definitely help with that.

I plan to plop them on a platter, put some sparkly earrings on, and accompany a very handsome man who happens to know a good meatball when he sees one.

*I've thought a lot about this, and I'm sorry to say I just can't comprehend it.

**Dirty Wetzel.

Christmas Meatballs

1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from French baguette)
12 prunes (I used Sunsweet brand)
4 large eggs, beaten slightly
3 large garlic cloves, minced
2/3 cup finely grated parmagiano reggiano
1 tbsp grated orange peel
1/4 cup packed, chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp dried oregano
3 tsp salt
1 tsp ground pepper
1.5 lb ground beef (I used lean (90/10))
1 lb ground pork (I used lean)
1-3 tbsp of olive oil (if needed to help meatballs stick together)

Additional olive oil for frying

Place prunes in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until they've broken down and clump together in a pureed mash.

Stir together prune mash, beaten eggs, garlic, cheese, parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. I used a whisk. It may be difficult at first to get the prune mash to break apart; just keep at it, breaking it apart with the wire of the whisk and incorporating it into the rest of the mixture.

When all of the above ingredients are mixed together, add the ground beef and pork. I used my hands for this part, but I suppose you could use a sturdy spoon. Mix thoroughly, until the egg/prune mixture is evenly distributed throughout the meat.

Form mixture into 1 1/2 inch diameter meatballs. I made about 50.

Pour olive oil into heavy large skillet to cover the bottom, heat over medium high heat. Work in batches to cook the meatballs.

For this next step: you can opt to 1) fry the meatballs until they are thoroughly cooked, about 15 mins per batch, or 2) sear the meatballs in the oil about 5-7 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon, and place on cookie sheets to bake in the oven at 350 degrees for another 10-12 minutes. I use the latter method, which helps to remove some of the grease (but thankfully, not all of it!) from the meatballs.

Transfer to plate. Serve immediately, or let cool and then refrigerate for 2-3 days. I froze mine and will reheat them in a 300 degree oven before packing them up for the party.

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