Worth the wait meatballs

Something's been keeping me up at night and it goes by meatball.

Having grown up in a mutt of a household -- my father is of French, Scottish, English and Native descent, while my mother's background is mostly English -- my main exposure to meatballs came from holiday get-togethers and summer barbecues. These meatballs were almost exclusively of the frozen variety, usually covered in some too-sweet commercial sauce and terribly dry. Yet somehow these magical things seem to incite rave reviews in most and invariably make me cringe in disgust. Yes, I'm a veritable food snob, and if it comes down to frozen food vs. starvation, I can tell you my hunger will put up an enviable fight. Life is too short to eat bad food, non?

It wasn't until Molly Wizenberg's article on meatballs appeared in Bon Appetit that my mind opened to the
possibility that meatballs might be good. Partly this is because I happened to like the magazine back then, and more importantly, Molly's recommendations are solid. I'm a worshipper at the tower of Daily Granola. I've made these chocolate puddle cookies twice to remarkable results (do seek out the cacao nibs.) I've also made adapted versions of these chocolate chip cookies and these buckwheat cookies, both delicious, as well as this chickpea salad, her (and Marcella Hazan's) recipe for tomato sauce, this red lentil soup with lemon, and Brandon's chana masala. You can trust this girl with your palate. She is also responsible for turning me on to Judy Rodgers of Zuni Cafe fame and the most perfect roast chicken you've had in your life. IN YOUR LIFE, people. That is a big deal for roast chickens everywhere.

But still, no meatballs. When I first moved to Toronto I subsisted off eggs, beans and rice and whatever inexpensive produce was available, mainly because I couldn't afford much else. And I used to eat a lot of lentils before embarking on this project of sorts where I told myself I'd make an effort to eat more exclusively Ontario fare (though this, I have to say, is ridiculously challenging if you are not a particularly big meat eater. I miss lentils and brown rice.)

Anyway, in essence, meatballs should be good. Ground meat, a binder, some seasoning, a great sauce -- I can be sold on these few things alone. But for some reason very good meatballs rarely materialize around here, and because I'm a bit of an uncomfortable omnivore, meatballs aren't really one to make the cut. There's also that whole time consuming business that nine-to-fivers tend to avoid (like the plague -- another cliche) and that whole dirtying many pots thing solo cooks and eaters everywhere tend to avoid (again, like the plague.) I actually adhere to a two-pot rule when cooking, so I went out on a bit of a limb here. Yes, I'm a rule breaker. Are you happy? I'm happy. Because I have a pot of these. And so should you. Especially on a cold and dreary day like today, where I was forced to treat myself to a giant gluten-free Prairie Girl cupcake for having to walk forty minutes in the pouring rain to restore balance. Or something like that.

My very good friend Sam made these allegedly incredible meatballs a while back. They are not Molly's, they are Mario's, and while I'm sure Molly's are very good, perhaps even exceptional, these are, too. I think Sam has urged me to make this recipe just about every time I've seen her, and although we don't see each other quite as often as we'd like, trust me when I say it's been many a time.

I divided the work up over the course of two evenings, since these lovelies take three (!!!) hours from start to finish. I made the sauce and made the meatballs the night before so all I had to do was brown the meat and bake them when I got in.

And honestly? Make these meatballs. They are incredible -- everything a meatball should've been a long time ago. And worth the wait.

Adapted from Mario Batali

Serves 6-8, depending on appetite

1lb lean ground beef
1lb hot Italian sausage, removed from casings
8-10 slices day old bread, diced into 1-inch cubes (I used O'Doughs gluten-free flax)
1/4 lb proscuitto, chopped finely
3 eggs
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup + 1/4 cup grated Pecorino
1 bunch Italian parsley, minced
1/2 bunch mint, minced
Several gratings of nutmeg, about 1/4 tsp
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Tomato sauce (I used Mario's recipe)
1/2 cup dry white wine
Vegetable oil, for frying (I use grapeseed)

Combine the first 10 ingredients in a large bowl and mix well to combine. Add 4 tbsp olive oil to the mixture and form into golf-size balls. Layer them on a lined sheet tray and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight to help them retain their shape.

Heat a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil in a cast iron pan or similar to medium-high. Add meatballs, taking heed not to overcrowd, and brown them. As they brown, add to a Dutch oven or similar cooking vessel one by one. Top with tomato sauce, wine and extra parsley or cheese, as desired, and bake for about an hour until meat is fully cooked. Serve immediately.


The faintest idea

I’m sitting down in the near-future to talk about my distant-future with a trusted, older co-worker of mine.

This appointment came up by accident, after gathering in a small room to discuss a list of projects (momentous things transpire in small rooms, I’ll have you know.) We both agreed that it was not the conversation we intended to have. The thing is, if I’m being totally honest, which is how we roll here in Aubergineland, I don’t pay much heed to my future. I understand that I should. I acknowledge that I, at twenty-six, should probably know what I want, have a plan of attack as to how to acquire it, and be ready. But I spent my early twenties in college drinking too many pints and sharing stories with my classmates and reading a whole lot of books, and mostly I figured that things would just work themselves out naturally, that it was somehow inevitable. I imagined that one day I’d have a career, whatever that happened to be – I think I wanted to be a book or magazine editor at the time – and that someday I’d find myself in a long-term partnership, possibly marry, own some kind of property, and have children. Although all of that seemed fairly abstract, too. Hell, it still feels lofty to me.

The thing is, nothing magically works itself out. Nobody tells you that. They certainly don’t tell you that during hours-long debates at popular grad school public houses. Most pursuits necessitate some sort of process and intent. And I am especially poor at marketing myself. You wouldn’t think so, seeing as I have this shiny blog here and all, but I am terrible. I haven’t the faintest idea of how to package my misfit list of skills and interests into something even remotely compelling. And most importantly, I am petrified of acknowledging what would "make my heart sing." I have no concept of what that road might look like and I am awful at forging my own path. Mostly I flail around and try to look decent doing it.

I am a writer – that’s the truth. I’m pretty sure I have always been a writer, because before I could write I painted my thoughts, and before that I would tell myself stories. I’m pretty sure I will always write the way I’m sure singers feel they will always sing and painters feel they will always paint. For a few odd years I was reluctant to call myself one because I didn't write often and I thought perhaps I should be published first before I went around advertising myself as this writer person. But at any rate I am of a generation and live in an era that every day denounces the critical importance of real, engaging content. Hand-written letters and telegrams were replaced by email and the phone, which have since been replaced by social media and text messaging. We want to read our newspapers without paying for them and we make a fuss when they go up in price. We want to watch television and the news online without paying for cable or satellite, and we find it absurd to pay thirty dollars for a hardcover non-fiction title that the author may have spent one, two, three years researching and writing and who may very well be living below the poverty line. Who attends poetry readings anymore? How many publishers are pushing good books over best sellers? Who wants to be a writer now? I don’t. What do you do when you are a writer who likes learning and writing about food and who is concerned with the state of food security in North America? Who is passionate about local recipes and culture? Who gives a damn about humanitarian causes and some vague notion of sustainability? Who wants to hear from you? Who will listen? What do you have to say that is so different and so much more insightful than what the next person has to say?

This isn’t related to food, I know, and so maybe I’m cheating a little here. I’m used to having the answers; I don’t know that I’m comfortable with open-ended questions. Because the truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t always know what I want. I don’t have a five-year plan, or a ten-year plan. I don’t know that even if I did know what I wanted that I’d have the chutzpah to pursue it single-mindedly, the way I’ve always pursued everything else. I don’t know that I would want to. I don’t know that I am sufficiently self-assured in my convictions to realize them fully. I don’t know that I have the guts for that. I don’t know that I am ready.

Which is scarier: not getting what you want, or standing at the precipice of it?


If you're willing

“Enter through back alley,” I read. “Well, that sounds safe.”
“Oh there it is,” he says.
“That’s not an alley. That’s a street.”
“Ask any hooker, it’s an alley.”

It’s your typical Thursday night shift: we all show up at the venue, not knowing what we’re going to be doing or where we ought to be, and play it cool – which, by the way, isn’t all that difficult to do when it’s -1C outside and windy as all hell.

“So,” C. says, “That guy back there? He’s nineteen. I just hit on a nineteen-year-old security guard. But he looked twenty-five.”
“Are you turning pedophile in your old age?” I answer, smirking.
“No. No, no, no.”

We’re herded upstairs where I meet Bree, “like the cheese but spelled differently,” and Velvet, bartenders who are busy polishing glassware. Velvet glances at me and takes out a copy of Gods Behaving Badly from her bag, handing it over as the client turns her back. “Close your eyes, ask a question, and flip to a page. You’ll get a word.” I do as she says and get an answer to my question. “What is this game?” Bree laughs. “Something we invented ten minutes ago because we were bored.” I like them immediately.

We put in the time, running up and down stairs. Around eleven, when the outside world has left, we gather around the last table standing and eat bacon-wrapped beef tenderloin with truffled aioli, summer rolls with cilantro, olives, cheese, fruit, stuffed mini potatoes. We tell each other our stories – it’s always best to come armed with one or two – and meet the still midnight air together as we make the trek back home. It seems warmer. The winds have calmed.

My day-to-day is jam packed with rules and regulations, corporate policies and standards. There are rules, here, too, but mostly it is about living in the moment, learning the art of infinite adaptability, being okay with plans being subject to change. Some greet uncertainty with caution while others throw themselves head first into the abyss.

After weeks of melancholy-tinged conversations with others about the economy and the state of the world, being reminded of how few choices we really have and how powerless we really are, feeling as though I can choose my own life is re-invigorating. We have never been able to choose our environment; that’s out of our control. But at the end of the alley there is a door, if you can see it, if you’re willing to brave it, and in spite of what you know or think you may know or have been told, adventure lies ahead.


That sort of disarming thing

Whoosh! Weekends spent in my hometown are always far too brief. I'm aware that I'm unusually close to my family, but perhaps it's because I actually like them. We discuss local wine, new recipes and travel destinations. We play board games. There's a lot of yelling and carrying on.

They warm my cold, black heart. That sort of disarming thing.

Amherstburg is the kind of place where you meet up with decade-old friends at the local greasy spoon, the kind of place that still serves $5 breakfast (with coffee) on checkered table cloths and doesn't accept interact cards.

You follow your sister into the barber shop early, before the regulars pile in, and head to the back so she can trim your ends and make you look presentable. You ask her boss how he's doing. You say hello to her co-workers, and together discuss the merits of roasted red pepper hummus as someone gets their hair straightened to the sounds of Top 40s.

Before leaving for a party, someone might exclaim, "Take a roadie!" and so you do, tossing it under the seat, smiling while shaking your head.

And then, poof!, you arrive back in the Big Smoke, surrounded by skyscrapers and fellow transplants.

Now I'm going to talk about Brussels sprouts.

But wait! Don't leave! Just say it with me: Brussels sprouts. It sounds pretty. I think it has to do with the word sprouts. If they were called something different, perhaps Brussels blooms, maybe people would be more inclined to eat them. When I brought them up to a room full of co-workers, most cringed in disgust, repelled by the sprouts.

To be honest, I am not a big fan of the little cabbages. I like cabbage. I even like vegetables in miniature. Though people have tried to convince me over the years that Brussels sprouts are inherently delicious, I'm a reluctant believer. There's still not much of a gravitational pull. I've tried them roasted with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, sure that a simple preparation would win my heart. That didn't happen. I've eaten them with bacon. Meh, alright. My mom likes to boil or microwave them. There are no words to accurately describe my facial expression when the words "boil" and "sprouts" unite.

Fortunately, food authorities exist out there and Cook's Illustrated is really the foremost of them. It's one of those modern day rarities: no glossy photographs, no fuff, no advertisements (!) -- just plain good ol' teachings. What can I say? I may be woed by pretty things, but not indefinitely.

At over seven Canadian dollars, this magazine does not come cheap, folks (though my current library fees makes it look like a bargain.) But it is good quality. I often mosey over to Chapters on my lunch hour to peruse the cooking and art sections. I might grab a coffee and linger a while. It's a nice reprieve from Cubicleland. The good news is that these recipes are classics, which makes the magazine an investment -- unlike current favourites that publish predominantly sensational food news, appealing nearly exclusively to a bourgeois sensibility. I've stopped subscribing to these because I find the recipes are poorly constructed, flop or simply aren't good. Pretty pictures be damned (!).

The more I cook, the less I rely on your standard recipes. Yes, I love trying new things. I'll give a good-looking dish a go. But perfecting the basics is sometimes trickier and requires more diligence and patience than I may have been willing to muster in the past. I can find you a great chili recipe; I can make you a fish taco that will blow your socks off. However, ask your typical home cook how to properly roast Brussel's sprouts or cook scrambled eggs and they might look at you a little quizzically. Truthfully, anyone can follow a recipe; it isn't exactly hard. But acquiring skill -- identifying when something has finished cooking, tasting with intent, understanding the various components of a dish -- that takes experience and a little know-how. Cooking a fine, simple meal is an underrated thing.

And so, Brussels sprouts.

I've become a bit of an overnight fan.

By adding a bit of water, the sprouts are transformed. Magically, they are rendered tender and sweet, the bitterness removed entirely by the slow caramelization process. It helps to find yourself some nice Brussels sprouts, by which I mean fresh ones with tight leaves. I purchased mine at the local farmer's market, where they all looked delicious.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Adapted from Cook's Illustrated, Nov. 2011

Serves 2

1lb Brussels sprouts, cleaned, trimmed and halved
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Drizzle of water
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 500F. Using a sheet of aluminum paper, make a pouch. In a separate bowl, toss the sprouts with the olive oil until thoroughly combined. Season generously with salt and pepper. Add the sprouts to the pouch and drizzle with a splash of water. Nip the pouch shut. Roast for about 10 minutes, covered, and uncover for another 10, or until sprouts are tender-crisp and lightly caramelized. Serve immediately.


On eating alone, or a case for orange food

I've pulled some impressive magic tricks in my day. If you place an open container of hummus in front of me, I will make it disappear.

I've eaten my weight in hummus this week, having made it my dinner -- with seed crackers and broccoli -- the past two nights. This is what happens to single people. I am perfectly capable of tying my own apron strings, brining and roasting chickens, braising cabbage rolls, boiling lentils, and baking potatoes, but with no one to cook for, sometimes -- happily (!) -- dinner is hummus. Which, in my defense, is better than a half pint of ice cream. I leave that sort of indulgent behaviour to humid summer days when even glancing at my oven makes me want to throw myself at my freezer. My oven and I have a bit of an open relationship from June until September; it seems to work for us.

There was that one New Year's Eve when I ate flourless chocolate cake for dinner accompanied by a French 75. This is not a good combination. I'm not advising you mix the two. But I wanted one of each and so one of each appeared. Or that time last winter when I split a slice of chocolate cake with a friend over an espresso. That also became dinner.

I highly recommend ice cream for dinner, by the way.

Eventually I find my way back to civilization. It helps that I'm fond of vegetables in that must-hit-the-market-weekly kind of way. I cooked up a pot of vegetarian chili last night while throwing myself an impromptu dance party. And this morning I woke up sans alarm to the sun, bright and cheery. I made myself some oatmeal with some old carrots I had on hand as the coffee brewed. I put on Billie Holliday. I finished a book. It was a remarkably productive morning.

I was almost late to my 9 o'clock meeting.

You didn't need to know that.

But my shirt was ironed and buttoned correctly. I slapped on a pair of polished black pumps. I wore lipstick, people. I tried my hand at that whole be charming business.

And the oatmeal was delicious. You don't need charm when you've got the chops, folks. Or a terrible case of cocky.

You toss some grated carrot in with some milk. (I don't know about you, but I usually end up with a surplus of carrots this time of year. I always think I'm down to my last two. This never happens and I never learn.) As for the milk, I use Silk light vanilla soy milk because I appreciate their (seemingly) transparent practices and traceability. You can use whatever you have on hand -- cow's milk, almond, whatever. You heat it until the carrots cook a little -- the timing will depend on how old your carrots are -- and then you add your rolled oats. You cook that. You throw in some warm spices -- ginger, cinnamon --and a splash of vanilla. You mix it around. You could add some nuts or seeds here if you like, but I just salt it well, and then I sit down to eat. It takes a bit of time, but it's worth it. Especially if it means you can sit around a little while longer listening to good music and enjoying your java.

And the hummus? We're on a bit of a hiatus. Until next time.

Carrot Cake Oatmeal

Adapted from Angela at Oh She Glows

Serves 1

1 carrot, finely grated (about 1 cup)
1 cup milk, or as needed
1/2 cup rolled oats
1 tsp ground ginger
1.5 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp real vanilla extract
Real maple syrup, to taste
Salt, to taste

Toss your grated carrot and milk in a pot and heat over medium-low. Cook for about 3 minutes, until the carrot has a chance to heat up. Add your oats and stir thoroughly. Continue stirring until the oats are almost fully cooked, about 4 minutes, adding additional milk if and as required. Add spices and vanilla. Remove from heat and stir in the maple syrup. Salt until the flavours come through clearly.


How far you can see

The morning is crisp and clear, signs of the kind of autumn day I longed for back in October, the one I felt I was denied. The kind that conjures visions of walks in High Park, in midtown maybe, sipping on a cappuccino or a mug of peppermint tea, observing the leaves slip into brighter clothes, window shopping, whatever it is Torontonians do on Sundays. I’ve my apron on as early as 7:30am, moka pot heating on the stove, slicing a Spanish onion with a nearly dull knife.

I’ve been reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman for a while, flipping back and forth. Both are great reads for different reasons. I love Chabon's failed heroes. And I love the manner with which Waldman treats the human condition. She writes the main character, a young woman who has recently lost her infant daughter, with great sensitivity; yet Emilia Greenleaf is deeply, beautifully flawed. There's no pretension here. I adore how the reader is absolutely compelled to sympathize with a character who isn't necessarily an easy person to care for, but who is intensely layered and interesting and really, by striking out against those closest to her, is simply asking to be loved. I was on the subway last night when I glancedat the author's biography on the back -- “[Ayelet Waldman] and her husband, the novelist Michael Chabon, live in Berkeley, California, with their four children.” I had no idea they even knew each other, but I've been falling asleep with both of them on my bedside table all along.

“It’s a really big city, William. It’s a huge city, and Collegiate is one tiny, little dot. It’s a tiny, little, meaningless dot. It’s a huge city, and you’re going to have a huge life, and I promise you, I promise you, Collegiate means nothing. No matter what happens, no matter how mad and sad anybody gets, you’ve just got to remember how big everything is, and how far you can see.” (Waldman, pg. 180.)

Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Frittata with Fontina
Serves 4-8

2 tbsp unsalted butter
½ large Spanish onion, sliced
250g cremini mushrooms, sliced
8 large eggs
½ cup milk (I use 2%)
2oz grated fontina cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a cast iron or ovenproof skillet, heat butter over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook slowly until nicely caramelized, about 45 minutes. Add the mushrooms and continue stirring until the mushrooms have browned slightly.

Heat oven to 350F.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl and whisk until well combined. Slowly add the milk. Season the egg mixture with salt and pepper, and pour into the skillet. Cook over the heat for about five minutes and then move the skillet into the hot oven.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until the eggs are mostly set. Remove from the oven. Sprinkle cheese over top and broil for an additional 5-10 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the top slightly browned. Serve immediately.


Meeting Tuesday

I have a song for every day of the week, and the Stones own Tuesday. In part this is because I love the Stones (who doesn't?) paying tribute to them before I make my way to work makes for a happier day spent in Cubicleland. Also, "Ruby Tuesday" is easy listening for people prone to noise sensitivity prior to 10am.

There's no such thing as a bad Stones song, and while it would be wrong to play favourites, "Ruby Tuesday" holds a special place in my heart. Mostly it reminds me of my cousin Kate, who, at a yearly summer get-together, adamantly declared we play it, her blonde head swinging in the hot, still air. I don't remember what comes next -- maybe she got up on a chair and sang along loudly to it. I wouldn't put it past her. But I do remember feeling pretty free and content. And listening to the Stones long into the evening.

This Tuesday is my first day back from Vacationland. The bad news is that my vacation has come to an abrupt halt, not to be resurrected in any way until the holiday season is in full swing. On the bright side, I did a bit of cooking: there's a pot of white bean, sweet potato, kale, and chorizo stew that simmered away in a robust homemade stock; I pulled together some chicken fajitas and mushroom omelettes while my friend was here visiting; and this granola, my new favourite granola recipe.

There's a few things I like about this. It's not a bad way to meet a Tuesday morning. It has this sweet-salty thing going on that I, as a big-time salt afficionado, adore. Like most granola recipes, it's relatively quick to toss together, and if you choose the right peanut butter -- I am dead SOLD on this crunchy Ontario brand, come hell or high water -- you end up with a truly remarkable product. For those who prefer clumpy granola, this should fit the bill nicely.

If you're looking to use up some of those leftover pumpkin seeds, this recipe offers a lovely arena. Although the original is quite good, I've modified it slightly to meet my tastes (and dietary restrictions.)

Peanut Butter & Honey Granola
Adapted from the Kitchn

Yields about 4 cups

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup hulled roasted pumpkin seeds
1.5 tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1.5 tsp ground ginger
1/2 cup honey (I prefer wildflower honey)
1/4 cup demerrara or light brown sugar
1 cup natural peanut butter
1.5 tsp real vanilla extract
2/3 cup grapeseed or olive oil
3/4 cup roughly chopped dates (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 325F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine oats, seeds, salt, cinnamon, and ginger.

Heat honey, brown sugar and peanut butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the peanut butter is melted and well combined. Turn off the heat. Slowly add in the oil.

Using a spatula, carefully mix the hot, wet ingredients with the dry ones. You're looking for a slightly rough, chunky texture. Transfer to the baking sheet and bake for about 40 minutes, stirring at 10-12 minute intervals, until amber-coloured. Remove from oven and let cool completely before tossing with the dates, if using, and storing in an air-tight container. For best results, use within two weeks.

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