Nana’s Meatballs

My great-grandmother, Michelina Parrinello, immigrated to the US from Sicily in the 1920’s, with her husband Antonio and my Great-Aunt Anne. She lived to be 102, long enough to meet my kids, and, to be honest, I don’t know a lot about her life. I know she was a seamstress, that she raised four kids, and that she was an amazing cook, but she was pretty old even when I was young. What I remember about her most is, I think, what everyone in the family remembers about her, which is that every meal at every family gathering, for as long as she was able, included pasta with her meatballs. And look, I’m not impartial, but they really are the best meatballs.

Of course, Nana made everything by hand, according to taste and smell and memory, so there wasn’t a codified recipe until my Aunt Judy took the time and effort to put measurements to Nana’s methods. I’m fortunate that she took the time to teach me, and now I’m happy to pass them on to you.

Nana’s Sauce

2-3 TB olive oil
1 good-sized bell pepper, chopped
1 medium-large yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced/crushed
12 oz. tomato paste
1 1/2 – 2 tsp dried basil
1/2 – 1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp fennel seeds
1-2 bay leaves
(optional: 1/2 – 1 tsp dried oregano)
2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste
(optional: season to taste with grated Romano cheese or leftover cheese rind)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Sauté the pepper and onion until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant.

2. Add the tomato paste and spices and cook for a few minutes until heated through.

3. Add the crushed tomatoes, and one can of water per can of tomatoes including paste (so, 68 oz.). Season with salt and pepper (as always, with canned tomatoes, you can add sugar or lemon juice to get the tomato flavor you prefer). Simmer the sauce for at least 45 minutes; the longer it simmers, the better it tastes.

Nana with (some of) her four generations of descendants

Nana’s Meatballs

Makes about 30

1 lb. ground beef (80% lean if you can find it)
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups mixed grated Parmesan and Romano cheeses
1 cup breadcrumbs with Italian seasoning
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
at least 2 TB milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Mix all the ingredients except the milk gently but thoroughly. Add enough milk that the mixture is pretty squishy.

2. Roll the meat into walnut-sized balls, square top and bottom slightly and place on baking sheet. Indent the tops with your thumb to keep them from puffing up too much in the oven.

3. Bake until the meatballs are lightly browned on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Turn them over and bake for another 8 minutes or so, until lightly browned on both sides.

4. Remove the meatballs to the simmering sauce and let stand until you’re ready to eat.

Notes: The sauce recipe makes a lot of sauce. If you’re just making a pound of pasta, you could probably halve it. Also, I usually use a little less water, but if you want to be a true Nana, you have to at least swish some water in the tomato cans to get every bit of tomato out. Note the fennel seeds, which are there to make it taste a little sausage-y, even though there’s no sausage in it. I usually add red pepper flakes, too.

For the meatballs, The recipe calls for ground beef, but you can also use ground pork, or double the recipe and use one lb. of each. If you prefer, you can pan-fry them instead of baking them. You can also just simmer them in the sauce until they’re cooked. Of course, you can make them bigger or smaller, just adjust the cooking time accordingly.

If I have some on hand, I like to add some chopped fresh parsley to the mix. Also, the recipe calls for at least 2 TB of milk, but I usually need 1/4 to 1/2 cup to get the right squishiness.

In order to make sure the meatballs were properly seasoned, Nana would taste some of the raw mixture. I don’t recommend doing that! Fortunately, my Aunt Judy came up with a modern solution, which is to pinch off a little bit and microwave it until it’s just cooked through, then taste it.

Sweet Potatoes with Yogurt, Spinach, and Chickpeas

Inspired by this recipe on Epicurious, I took these in basically a totally different direction, so here’s my version.

For the potatoes (4-6 medium-sized sweet potatoes): cut in half, brush cut sides with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast, cut side down, in a 450° oven for 25 minutes, or until fork tender. Let cool until handle-able. Scoop out the edible bits and mash together. Add butter, honey, cinnamon, cardamom, salt and pepper to taste, mix, and spoon back into skins. Throw in the oven for the last ten minutes or so of the chickpea cooking time.

For the chickpeas: drain and rinse 2 15-oz. cans of chickpeas. Mix with olive oil, cumin, paprika, chili powder or crushed chili flakes, salt and pepper, to taste. Roast at 375° for 15-20 minutes, until roasty and delicious.

For the spinach: honestly, it looks good, but the spinach doesn’t need to go on top. You could just make your favorite spinach preparation and have it on the side if you want. I sautéed sliced shallots and minced garlic in butter until soft and golden, then threw in a bunch of baby spinach and cooked it until it was wilty. Season with salt and pepper, and I like some nutmeg.

All together: top the sweet potato with a spoonful of Greek yogurt, then the chickpeas, then the spinach.

Ricotta Dumplings with Spinach and Peas

These pretty much came about because we had ricotta and spinach that needed to be used, but they were good enough that I want to save the recipe so I can make them again. As you can tell from the photo, I didn’t exactly get the shaping down, but nobody seemd to mind.

Serves 4

For the dumplings:
16 oz. whole milk ricotta
1 cup grated parmesan and/or pecorino
2 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 cup flour, plus more for dusting

For the rest:
4 TB butter
2 TB olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
5 oz. baby spinach
1 cup frozen peas
juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper

1. Mix the ricotta, cheeses, eggs, salt and pepper thoroughly in a large bowl. Add the flour and mix gently, just to combine (you don’t want to work it too hard, or you’ll end up with tough dumplings). Depending on how wet your ricotta is, you might need more flour, but it should be soft and sticky.

2. Flour a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spoon out a small spoonful of ricotta mixture, and shape gently into an ovoid (again, you want to avoid roughly handling it). The dumplings expand to almost twice their original size when you cook them, so keep that in mind. Keep making dumplings until you’ve used up all the ricotta mixture, placing them on the baking sheet. Dust them with some more flour and let rest for about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, heat up a large pot of salted water for the dumplings.

4. In a sauté pan, heat up the butter and oil. Cook the onions until soft and golden, then add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, or until fragrant.

5. Add the spinach to the pan and cook until wilted, then add the peas, and cook until hot. Add the lemon juice, season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, stir, and turn off while you make the dumplings.

6. Drop the dumplings into gently boiling water one at a time (you may have to do more than one batch depending on how big your pot is). Cook until the dumplings float, then cook for 4-5 minutes more (I did a test one to check the time – you want it to be light and fluffy, not doughy).

7. Using a spider or slotted spoon, fish the dumplings out and add them to the pan with the spinach and peas. Turn the heat on to low, add the lemon zest and enough pasta water to make things saucy. Stir gently, heat through, and serve with more grated cheese if you like.

Vegetarian Chicken and Dumplings

I love the recipe for Chicken and Dumplings in Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine, but my daughter is a vegetarian, so I came up with an alternate version for her, which is basically potato stew. It’s really good, though, and very filling, and uses mostly pantry staples, so I thought I’d share. The dumpling dough recipe is O’Connell’s, but the rest is mine.

Serves 6

Dumpling Dough
3/4 cup milk
3 TB butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 TB baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup club soda

Potato Stew
3-4 large potatoes (boilers would be good, but all we had were Russets, and they were fine), diced
3/4 cup frozen peas
1 large onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
1 celery rib, diced
3/4 tsp each dried sage and thyme (or fresh, if you have them)
4 TB butter
4 TB flour
6 cups vegetable broth (it will go faster if you heat it up)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup-ish chopped fresh parsley, again, if you have it
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the milk and butter until the butter is melted. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add the milk, butter, and club soda, and mix gently just until everything is incorporated.

3. Cover and let rest 30 minutes or so, while you get everything else ready.

4. Cover the potatoes with cold, salted water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until just cooked through. Toss in the frozen peas at the last minute just to thaw them. Drain and reserve.

5. Sauté the onion, carrots, and celery in the butter until soft and golden. Add the thyme, sage, and salt and pepper to taste.

6. Add the 4 TB flour to the pan and cook, stirring often, until light golden. Stir in the broth, a little at a time, until it’s all added. Bring to a boil and then simmer for five minutes.

7. Add the cream, parsley, peas and potatoes. Taste and season as necessary.

8. Bring back to a lively simmer, then drop the dumpling batter in small spoonfuls (it’s supposed to be teaspoons, but that takes forever) on top. Cover and simmer for ten minutes, or until dumplings are cooked all the way through. They should be light, not dense and claggy (that’s a technical term I learned from GBBO).

You want to use a wide pan to cook the stew and dumplings in, so that you can cram as many in as possible. Also, I said to dice the veggies, but if it’s easier to just chop them, go for it. Just keep in mind that the cooking times will change, depending on how large the pieces are.

Irish-Italian-American Soda Bread

The traditional Irish Soda Bread is a plain loaf, basically just a big biscuit/scone. The traditional Irish-American Soda Bread has a bit more going on, usually in the form of raisins, caraway seeds, and added sugar. Now, I like the idea of the Americanized version, but I can’t stand caraway seeds, so I developed this modified version.

Both of my grandmothers were the children of immigrants — from Ireland on my mom’s side, and from Italy on my dad’s — so when I was looking for alternate ways to flavor my bread, I decided to try anise seeds. It worked better than I expected, and now this is the version I make for Saint Patrick’s Day every year.

Makes one loaf

3 cups flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt
6 Tb butter
1/2 cup raisins or currants
2 Tb anise seeds
1 cup buttermilk
1 egg

1. Preheat oven to 350°

2. Combine dry ingredients and cut in butter (processor, knives, fingertips, whatever).

3. Add the currants and anise seeds.

3. Mix buttermilk and egg and add to flour/butter mixture.

4. Knead briefly, turn onto a baking sheet, and shape into a dome around seven inches across.

5. Slash a deep X across the top of the loaf.

6. Bake at 350° for 60-70 min (until it sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom).

Baked Filled Buns/Ju Bao

So, it’s been a little while! The short version, for those of you not following me on social media, is that I injured my knee right before the holidays, and have been resting/recovering for the past two months. Oof! I’m only just back on my feet, and I’m still not up to doing a lot of cooking yet, by myself. Fortunately, my son volunteered to help me make these delicious buns from Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen.

These are a pretty simple yeast dough, and you can make the filling ahead of time, so if you wanted to throw them together for a snack, or a weeknight dinner, that would be very doable. We ended up making two batches, one with a curried chicken filling, and one with a potato and cheese filling.

Makes 16 regular-size buns, or 32 mini-buns

Dough
10 TB whole milk
4 TB butter
2 tsp instant yeast
2 1/2 TB water
1 large egg
2 1/2 TB sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for forming the buns
(the recipe doesn’t call for it, but we added 1/2 tsp salt)

Filling
You’ll need about 1 1/3 cups of whatever filling you choose. If you’d like, I can do a follow-up with fillings, but you can go with just about anything, just make sure it’s fully cooked, and cooled.

For cooking the buns:
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 TB honey mixed with 1 TB warm water

1. Put the butter and the milk in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until the butter is melted. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

2. Whisk the water and egg into the milk mixture.

3. Combine the sugar, flour, yeast, and salt in a food processor (or in a bowl if you want to do it by hand). Pulse a few times to mix, then slowly stream in the wet ingredients while running the processor (or, while stirring) until you have a smooth, slightly sticky dough.

4. Oil a clean bowl, and put the dough in it to rise, covered, for about 45 minutes.

5. After the dough has risen, divide it into 16 or 32 pieces, covering them up when you’re not working with them.

6. To fill the buns, roll each piece out into a circle, 3 1/4″ diameter for regular, 2 1/2″ for mini. Lightly flour as necessary to keep from sticking. Place 4, or 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of the round, gather up the edges and pinch them together, sealing the filing inside. Flip over, and round them off as needed. Place all the filled buns on parchment-lined baking sheets, cover, and let rise for 30 minutes.

7. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350° F. Right before baking, brush the buns with the egg. Bake for 18 minutes regular, 14 minutes mini, or until a rich, golden brown. Let cool for 5 minutes.

8. Brush the honey mixture on the buns. Enjoy while warm, or refrigerate and reheat for snacks (or eat them cold from the fridge!).

Panna Cotta

As far as desserts go, Panna Cotta has it all. It’s dead simple to make, but absolutely satisfying and delicious. Depending on what you top it with, it can be rustic or elegant, or anywhere in between. It’s creamy and sweet, but it’s not full of eggs, so it’s lighter than a custard, mousse, or pudding. Basically, if you have baking fatigue right now, but still have some festivities to get through, consider this my gift to you.

This version is from The Italian Country Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, and it serves 8 in very small ramekins, but I usually do 6 larger portions.

1 1/2 tsp unflavored gelatin
2 TB cold water
3 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, or more to taste
Pinch salt
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

1. Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water, and let stand for 5 minutes.

2. Heat the rest of the ingredients, except the sour cream, in a saucepan over medium-high heat, until hot, but not boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the gelatin until completely dissolved. Remove from heat and cool for 5 minutes.

3. Put the sour cream in a bowl. Gently whisk in the warm cream, a little at a time, until completely combined and smooth. Taste for sweetness, and add a little more sugar if needed.

4. Pour into ramekins or custard cups, Cover, and chill for at least 4 hours, or over night.

Because there are very few ingredients involved, please use the best ones you can find. You can top it with fresh fruit, jam or compote, any kind of sweet sauce, crumbled cookies, or, honestly, just have it plain. You can also substitute yogurt, chevre, or any other creamy-but-sour dairy semi-solid for the sour cream. I always serve it in the dish I make it in, but you can unmold it and plate it up if that’s more your style.

Ramen Egg Salad

I started to make some ramen eggs on the assumption that we had saved the marinade from the last time we made ramen, but that assumption proved incorrect, so I turned them into egg salad sandwiches for lunch. And they were delicious! Unfortunately I did not have the forethought to take a picture before they were all devoured, but I’m recording the basic method here so you can try it at home. Maybe take a picture and send it to me?

Part 1: make soft/medium boiled eggs. Boil enough water to cover however many eggs you’re making (I made six, which was enough for three sandwiches). Once the water’s boiling, place the eggs in the pot. Boil gently for seven minutes (that will give you a pretty jammy yolk, you can go down to six for a runny yolk, or up to nine for a more solid yolk), then remove the eggs from the pot and place them directly in an ice/cold water bath. Once they’ve chilled for a bit, crack the shells and put back in the water (getting some water under the shell makes them easier to peel cleanly). Peel and use, or refrigerate until using.

Part 2: make sriracha aioli. I used leftovers from last night’s kimchi hotdogs, but if you aren’t so lucky, you can make the actual version (from Double Awesome Chinese Food by Andrew, Irene, and Margaret Li: whisk an egg yolk, 2 cloves of garlic minced, 1 TB sriracha, 1 TB rice vinegar, 1/4 tsp each salt and sugar, together. While whisking, slowly drizzle in 3/4 cup canola or other neutral oil. Add another half TB of sriracha and vinegar, then taste and adjust seasonings however you like) now, or you can just combine sriracha and mayonnaise in whatever ratio you like.

Part 3: make the salad: Cut your eggs up into big chunks and throw into a bowl with a splash each of toasted sesame oil and rice vinegar, some salt and pepper, and and two-ish thinly sliced scallions. Mix, crushing the eggs a bit, taste and season as needed. Since the yolks are somewhere on the jammy spectrum, the salad will be pretty gooey. If that’s not your bag, make it with hard boiled eggs instead.

Part 4: assemble your other ingredients. Toast two slices of bread per sandwich (so, six, in my case, and I think most types of bread would be pretty good for this sandwich), peel, pit, and slice a ripe avocado, get some lettuce or other greens of your choice clean and ready, and if you have some, a pinch of shichimi togarashi is pretty nice to have.

Part 5: sandwiches! For each sandwich, spread both slices of bread with a layer of sriracha aioli. Arrange slices of avocado on one slice of bread, and sprinkle with a little sea salt if you’re feeling fancy. Mound some of the egg salad on top of the avocado, and add that pinch of shichimi togarashi. Top with the lettuce and the other slice of bread. Have a great lunch!

Potato Gratin

This is a pretty simple side dish to make if you have a mandoline. If you don’t, then the slicing may get a bit tedious.

Serves 4

4 russet potatoes
1 1/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup milk
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
1 bay leaf
1 small sprig of rosemary
3 thyme sprigs
1 1/4 tsp salt
fresh ground white or black pepper and nutmeg to taste
1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

1. Put all of the ingredients except for the potatoes and the cheeses into a pot and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Butter a 9″-square casserole, or you can go for a different shape around the same size. If you’re feeling French, you can first rub the pan all over with a cut clove of garlic.

3. Peel the potatoes, and slice them fairly thin, about 1/8″ (this is where the mandoline comes in). When you’re not working with them, keep the potatoes submerged in cold water so they don’t oxidize, but make sure you pat them dry before using them.

4. Arrange the potato slices in the pan, overlapping them, but keeping it to a single layer. Try to fit most of them in, but if your potatoes were on the large size you might have some left over. Strain the cream mixture, and pour it evenly over the potatoes. (If you taste the cream mixture, it will probably be delicious, but too salty. That’s okay, because the potatoes are as yet unseasoned, so it will all work out.)

5. Bake for 45 minutes, and then check it. The top should be browning a bit, and the potatoes should be cooked through (poke the center to make sure). In my experience, how long they take is highly dependent on how tightly packed your potatoes are, so give yourself some wiggle room, they may go longer.

6. Take them out of the oven, sprinkle with the cheese, and either put them back in for a few more minutes to get melty, or heat up the broiler and brown to desired crispiness.

Cauliflower and Chickpea Tacos

My cooking method these days is often to get an idea of what I want to make, Google several recipes, and then combine the best parts of each recipe, adding stuff I like, and getting rid of stuff I don’t like. Then the next time I go to make that dish, I have to recreate the whole process, so, instead, here’s a quick and dirty (and delicious) cauliflower taco recipe reminder.

Two heads of cauliflower + one can of chickpeas. Olive oil, cumin, chili powder, smoked paprika, chipotle chili flakes (couple pinches), salt, pepper. 400° for 25 minutes. Serve with cabbage slaw (1/2 head cabbage + olive oil + lime juice (about half a lime) + cilantro and salt), crema or sour cream, avocado, and queso fresco. Might be good with some kind of toasted almonds next time. Also, maybe double it.