With my sleeves rolled up safely beyond the protective shield of my elbows, hair pulled up into a messy attempt at a chic bun, and my two-year-old daughter standing patiently at my side, her own wooden spoon in hand, I take a deep breath and dive my clean hands down into the bowl of ground meat, herbs and spices. Meatball making day has commenced.
The ancient art of meatball making is a topic with which I am fascinated and about which I am utterly enthused. So many vibrant food cultures around the world stake claim on their own version of the spherical wonder that is the meatball and my kitchen has played host to many of them, I’m proud to say. The process of crafting an excellent meatball is almost therapeutic for me; the mechanics of it always the same and only the ingredients shifting and changing depending on which culture’s version you’ve got in mind that day. Wringing the milk out of the fresh breadcrumbs and then subsequently adding them to the ground meat mixture is easily my favorite step when making my classic Italian meatball recipe. It is hands down the best hands-on kitchen experience I can think of, bringing out the kid in anyone who dares to dirty their hands in the mess. I make a North African meatball sometimes that is wonderfully warm and spicy and just exotic seeming enough to elevate an otherwise ordinary weeknight meal into something exciting – something worth blogging about, actually (note to self …). Then there’s the Swedish meatball and the Asian sweet and sour meatball (both of which are lovely in their own rights), the Middle Eastern kofta and the beloved Mexican albondigas (two of my personal favorites), and the German Königsbeger Klopse (never made it), the Japanese Tsukune (had to check my spelling on this one), and yes, even the Welsh faggot (which I’ve sampled in its native land and thoroughly enjoyed).
“You got this Mama! It’s meatball time!” I’ve been teaching Elle select encouraging and/or supportive phrases to employ at chosen times, like when she’s with me on a long run or, as was the case here, when I’m working on a particularly large cooking project. The words might be coming from a toddler who doesn’t totally get what she’s saying or why, but you’d be surprised at how effective it can be.
You’re right, Elle. I DO have this. It IS meatball time. With that, I put my head down, began my work and not much more than 60 minutes later, I had mixed, rolled, seared, sauced, and frozen several trays of delectable Italian style meatballs. The sense of accomplishment and productivity I felt must have radiated for miles. I high-fived Elle. I high-fived the baby. I high-fived Harley the cat.
Alas, that was months ago. The meatballs you see featured in the photos above were frozen as well, but that is the state they were in when I purchased them. Snagged them right out of the freezer case at the grocery store, I did, and I didn’t bat an eye or feel the slightest twinge of defeat as I chucked that bag into my cart, right alongside the cans of corn, beans, chicken stock, and tomatoes that serve to complete the recipe featured in this post. My plans for this week’s post initially involved a scratch-made doughnut with a berry glaze and a homemade crunchy topping – I am actively trying to keep from drooling on my keyboard as I write this. Yes, those plans had even started to take real shape as I pushed my little cart around the overly priced, organic food-filled, patchouli scented grocery store to which I only really venture when I feel like going on a grocery store “vacation.” As I stood there in the store, wading through the truly impressive selection of dehydrated fruits and nuts with which to create my crunchy doughnut topping, I happened to overhear a conversation between two fellow shoppers.
“My co-op is just soooo totally lacking right now. The ramps and spring onions were sub par and I don’t think they’re ever going to get any stinging nettles in – like, ever.” Female shopper shakes head in exaggerated frustration … continues perusing the myriad varieties of almonds …
“Ugggh I know,” says shopper #2 as he glances at the package of handmade organic gluten-free pasta in his hands, concurring in pretentious solidarity. “I feel bad even buying this pasta,” he says, changing the subject except not really. “I usually try to make it myself but I just don’t have the time these days, you know? Also, if I can’t get my hands on any good 00 flour, what’s the point really?”
“Right?!?!” This word was somehow delivered with three syllables.
… and so on and so forth. I honestly couldn’t tell if they were kidding or if they really were that frustrated with the insufficient stocking of rare foods by their local markets. It sounded more like the frustration was actually a veil for their real intentions, which were to show exactly how on trend they were when it came to food. It was a tennis match of a conversation, each side trying to best the other with their knowledge of the coolest, most seasonal items. Good grief, I thought to myself. I looked at Elle, happily sucking on a lollipop from her perch in the cart’s seat, her favorite thing in the world. It was a Dum Dum; decidedly not organic. Definitely not seasonal in any way shape or form. She giggled at me when I made a funny face at her, catching the attention of the two disgruntled hipster foodies upon whose conversation I’d been unapologetically eavesdropping. They both nodded politely at us, giving Elle little smiles. I will admit to feeling slightly self conscious about the selection of items I had in my cart, and I quickly scanned its contents to see if there was anything embarrassing or worthy of what I swear were the disapproving glances of these two fellow shoppers. I’m sure I was just paranoid.
Stop being ridiculous, I thought to myself. Why am I letting other shoppers make me feel like I have something to be ashamed of? Disappointed in myself for playing host to such feelings, and in an act of total defiance (maybe not total, seeing as how no one other than myself was privy to it), I marched over to the frozen food section of the store and procured a large bag of pre-made meatballs. In the cart they go! Next, I wheeled my little cart to the canned food aisle. Corn! Black Beans! Tomatoes! Stock in a box! Check, check and check. No hand crafted stinging nettle raviolis for me tonight. I now had big plans for a simple, five-ingredient, slow-cooker stew that reeks of unpretentiousness, convenience and ease. My doughnuts could wait.
I’m all for making food from scratch. It’s a pastime of choice for me in the biggest way. Fresh ingredients. The individualized and creative manipulation of flavors. Total control. Yes, cooking from scratch never gets old. However, that being said, there comes a time and a place when you just don’t have the time and are not in the right place to whip up a totally scratch meal. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that this is the case for most people, most of the time. So having some choice go-to recipes that require very little by way of time, money and ingredients is essential, I think. And while I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that my fellow shoppers that day might not be impressed with the meatball stew I’ve featured here today, my family was. Elle asked for “more spicy meatballs Mommy!” and my husband had seconds as well. That’s enough for me. It’s everything, actually.
Five Ingredient Meatball Stew RECIPE
Note: Sometimes I sprinkle in some garlic powder and onion powder at the beginning of cooking time, to boost the flavor, but this is optional.
28 oz. can diced tomatoes with green chilies, undrained (2, 14-ounce cans of stewed tomatoes with green chiles works too)
2, 12-ounce packages of frozen Italian style meatballs
1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can of sweet corn, drained
2 cups of chicken stock
DIRECTIONS: Combine all five ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on low for 5 – 6 hours. Serve with garnishes of choice (sour cream, cilantro, lime, avocado, etc.)