If I was more motivated by food than love, I’d have married into a big Italian family, one known for its long bustling Sunday lunches anchored by a big pot of something red bubbling on the stove. I keep meaning to just pretend I’m Italian and adopt the tradition, but then Sundays get away from me.
One of my favourite gatherings of last year came about from a text I received on a Saturday afternoon as we walked in the dog park. It came from friends with two little girls (and two large dogs), both of whom work full time and play in multiple bands and are generally as busy as anyone I know. It said: “if you guys are free tonight, want to come over for spaghetti?”
It was so spontaneous! So casual! Such a great way to get together without advance planning and emails and checking of schedules! We in fact did not have plans that night, and so we grabbed a bottle of wine and went to have spaghetti in their kitchen. The kitchen table was pulled into the middle of the room, extended with another table and covered with a piece of oilcloth. It was loaded with bread, cheese pulled from their wrappings and plunked on plates, bottles of wine and a big Caesar salad someone had brought. A pot of spaghetti simmered on the stove, and there were jelly rolls from Chinatown for dessert. There was a mishmash of friends around the table – 7 in all, I think, with another half dozen kids in the basement. It was exactly what we all needed – to get together and chat and relax without the pressure of a full-on dinner party. The food, while delicious, was secondary.
Some of the best get-togethers happen at the last minute, when friends offer to share whatever they’d normally put on the table for dinner. Why do we feel the need to meal plan, to shop and scheme and prep ahead? Since that casual, impromptu spaghetti dinner I’ve had it in my head to pass it on someday, to replicate it for different friends, and simply plunk a pot of saucy meatballs in the middle of the table and open up a bottle or two of wine, and not worry about the dust rhinos on the stairs.
This particular pot stemmed from Luisa’s recipe for meatballs for new mothers – a name that drew me in, although I dropped the “new”, since once becoming a mother, I can’t imagine not having a need for a pot of meatballs. I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t adore them. Or a grown-up, for that matter.
The meatballs are a classic blend of ground beef and pork (although to be honest, I used ground elk, which I had a package of in the freezer. No one knew the difference) with bread soaked in milk, chopped parsley and grated parmesan, and an egg to bind everything together. You mix and shape them as the simple sauce simmers, then plunk them in and let them cook. To streamline the whole process, you could simply squeeze fresh Italian sausages from their casings at 1-inch intervals directly into the pot, creating flavourful sausage meatballs that would also flavour the sauce.
Because I require crusty bread to accompany any tomato-saucy pasta, I mixed up a batch of quick baguettes, and the smell of them bakin provided the very best welcome to anyone walking in from the cold. Can you think of anything better to offer friends or family than warm, crusty bread, straight from the oven? And the experience costs less than a dollar.
We served the meatballs straight from the pot, set in the middle of the table with bread and butter and a big green salad, which was mostly spring green mix from a bin, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette, a couple bottles of red and a jug of milk. Dinner for a small crowd on a grey early evening.
Dessert was apple pie picked up from Pies Plus. Totally counts.
As you may recall, Jan and I decided to implement a year-long series of monthly gatherings. Every month we choose a loose theme, and it’s a surprise to both of us what the other one will post about. This month her impromptu get-together is a pot of bubbling potage accompanied by a DIY grilled cheese station. So brilliant! Luisa’s meatballs for new mothers was my starting point here, by way of Tara, but I wound up changing the quantities all over the place. More tomatoes (I like things saucy), and an onion and butter to replicate that red sauce I’m so in love with.
Of course there are plenty of ways to eat a good meatball, besides atop spaghetti (W might argue this) or tucked inside a hoagie. Tara suggested toasting a slice of really crusty bread, rubbing it with a cut clove of garlic (I doused it in good olive oil, too), and tearing a big milky ball of buffalo mozzarella and smushing it into the bread. This provides a bed, if you will, for a hefty ladleful of meatballs and sauce. I cannot think, right now, of a better way to escort meatball to mouth.
This is my plan for the leftovers.
Meatballs for Mothers
2 slices white sandwich bread
1/3 cup milk
1 lb ground beef, bison or elk
1/2 lb ground pork
a small handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
a small handful of freshly grated Parmesan
salt and pepper
olive oil, for cooking
2-3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 28 oz can whole or San Marzano-style tomatoes (whole in tomato puree)
1 28 oz (540 mL) can crushed tomatoes
1 small onion, peeled and halved
1/4-1/2 cup butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Tear the bread into a bowl and pour the milk over it. Allow it to sit for a few minutes, then add the beef, pork, egg, parsley and Parmesan. Add some salt and pepper and mix it all up with your hands. You can do this ahead of time and keep the mixture in the fridge.
To make the sauce, heat a drizzle of oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot set over medium-high heat, and cook the garlic for a minute or two. Pour in the tomatoes, add the onion and butter, give everything a stir and a good pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes, while you shape the meat mixture into 1-2 inch balls. Set them aside on a baking sheet.
To cook the meatballs, carefully drop them into the simmering sauce. You might not fit them all into your pot – that’s ok. Leave the rest to simmer after the first has been cooked, or freeze them for another batch.
Cover the pot with a lid and leave it to simmer. Don’t stir – you don’t want to break your meatballs apart before they set – but Luisa says you can shake the pot a little. After 20 minutes, they should be cooked through. (If you need to cook more, remove them to a bowl with a spoon and simmer your next batch in the remaining sauce, then return the first batch to the pot when you’re ready to serve them.)
Plunk the pot on the table (on a trivet or folded towel, of course) and serve with spaghetti and extra Parmesan. Serves about 8.