Memories will be made of meatballs

A friend asked me for the recipe for my meatballs. “How do you make yours?” she asked. “I love to hear how other people make them.”

Good question. My meatballs are generally recipe-less. They’re usually a mix of the meat I’ve bought and what I have in the fridge. The other day I made them with about half a kilo of Italian sausage meat, some finely chopped thyme, leftover pecorino (a smallish chunk that I blitzed in the food processor) and the usual tomato passata. A note about tomato passata. Once you’ve tried it, you may never go back to tinned tomatoes.

A friend’s Tuscan mother swears by tomato passata and won’t use anything else. It makes for a richer sauce, although naturally it has to be good quality Italian passata, as some passatas are better than others. I now have a tomato passata fetish that consists of various bottles of various types all lined up in the cupboard. The only passatas I draw the line at is the ones where they add the herbs. Don’t. Add them fresh yourself.

Today I had three boys for lunch. “Shall I make meatballs with pasta?” The response was an unanimous yes. So today’s version was about 300g of beef with 400g of Italian sausage, and some semi hard goat’s cheese that got thrown into the mixture and oozed lazily out into the sauce on cooking. I’d also added a softly browned leek, some parsley and chives chopped up using a mezzaluna to make their presence as least obvious as possible because that’s generally what you end up doing with kids. Oh, and some breadcrumbs. And for breadcrumbs I mean four slices of common or garden white sliced bread that were also blitzed and added to the mixture.

In the meantime I heated up my jar of tomato passata with a good slug of olive oil. Normally I put in a touch of onion soffrito, sometimes also a finely chopped carrot but  today I didn’t have any onions or carrots, hence the leeks in the meatballs. Besides, in this way, my kids would actually eat leeks.

“Do you like the meatballs, boys?”

“They’re okay.” Okay?

“They’ve got a funny taste.”

So that’ll be the leeks.

I write this as I have the rest of the meatballs simmering away with another jar of passata, slug of olive oil, a couple of meatballs and some borlotti beans thrown in for good measure. All to be eaten with my husband when I manage to get the kids in bed at a reasonable time, and we sit on the sofa watching our favourite programmes on the Italian cookery channel Gambero Rosso. Some couples watch Netflix, me and my husband watch cookery programmes and have done for as long as I can remember. There’s a TV chef called Giorgone (Giorgio Barchiesi) who believes in true rustic Italian food including lard. His recipes are the type of things I want to eat. As for the borlotti beans, they remind me of Tuscany and Umbria and places like that, and last weekend we were in Arezzo and I was eating beans on bruschetta.

A word about the photo of the little hand and meatballs. Simply because one day little hands will have grown into big hands, and meatballs will have become a memory.

Comfort comes in the shape of meatballs

I had this phase once where just about every Friday night I’d make chicken risotto, and every Friday night my son would curl up his nose and wail “that’s not risotto!” because where we live risotto may be very popular, just not with chicken. So I’d end up giving him pasta and ragù instead, whereas the other one would just sit in front of the TV with me, both with our bowls and eating it with a spoon. I can’t remember where my husband featured in all this but for ages it was my favourite comfort food. It felt virtuous somehow, eating chicken with rice and naturally with all the goodness.

Today it was meatballs. I have this book on loan from the library – a Slow Food touring guide to regional Italian cookery. Meatballs – Bologna. Oh yes please. It’s the kind of thing I can dream of. The last time I was in Bologna I went to Trattoria Anna Maria near the university and ate what are known as “assaggi” or tastes. The ravioli were wonderful, but it was the fresh tagliatelle with ragù that stole the show. I’d been to Le Sfogline, a pastificio or shop where they make fresh pasta. The woman there was telling me how she makes her ragù, assuring me that the Bolognese ragù was by far the best. She commented on my Lombardy accent and told me I hadn’t eaten ragù unless I’d eaten it here.

“Of course nowadays we’re no longer working in the fields so we don’t need all this rich food,” she said, giving me her healthy version ragù. I just sat there and smiled and said nothing. I didn’t tell her my husband often puts half sausage meat in ours for extra flavour, which isn’t exactly traditional but tastes so good all the same.

The tagliatelle with ragù at the trattoria was the type of thing to wave your arms with excitement over, it was that good. Signora Anna Maria wasn’t there that day, and neither was she the other week when I rang in advance, but I’m hoping one day she will be. There are stories behind her tagliatelle and ragù, and I want to hear them.

Of course the meatballs I started making according to the trattoria in Bologna from the book didn’t quite follow the recipe. It’s the type of cooking that starts from sitting and reading a few cookery books, starting to make something and realising that you don’t actually have all the necessary ingredients. So you make it up, substituting as you go along. I started rolling out the meatballs in my hands, and then I thought I really want a bit of parsley in these, possibly because I’d just been repotting coriander. They all got mixed together again, this time with the finely chopped parsley. It was the link with the herbs. The onion was substituted by a clove of garlic in the sauce, whole to be taken out, merely added for flavour.

There once was a time when I made meatballs with a friend up a mountain pass about twenty years ago. I’m not sure how many cloves of garlic went in the sauce, but I remember our Italian friends’ reactions. Needless to say I learned that you never presume that Italians like garlic, especially when you’re in the north, although really that’s a story for another day.

Trattoria Anna Maria, Via delle Belle Arti, 17/A, 40126 Bologna; 051 266894; www.trattoriaannamaria.com

Le Sfogline, Via Belvedere, 7, 40121 Bologna; 051 220558; www.lesfogline.it

Pesto(ish) for a rainy day

So after Spring made a very brief appearance, in particular yesterday which gave us a day in which we all breathed a sigh of relief from the awful weather we seem to be having recently, today it is cold, grey, raining and utterly miserable. Burian 2 is on its way, or the beast from the east is making a comeback, as they call it in the UK. It’s the kind of day where the only real option is to just stay at home and stay in our pyjamas, hence the Saturday morning cooking.

Not that there was actually that much cooking involved. Today I made pesto with a handful of parsley that I’ve recently planted on the balcony. Pesto literally means made with a pestello or pestle. It’s one of those things that might sound complicated but is actually ridiculously easy. Once you’ve made it you’ll never want to buy the supermarket stuff again.

In this case though I used a hand-held blender.  I blitzed the handful of parsley that I’d cut up with scissors beforehand with half a large garlic clove, about 50g of ready-peeled almonds and added a good slug of olive oil, enough to coat the pasta smoothly rather than clog it up. I then mixed in a couple of tablespoonfuls of finely grated pecorino romano or, to be more accurate, I put the cheese in a mini blitzer that does this in seconds.

If you do blitz it, resist the temptation to do it too finely. I personally prefer it when it’s got more texture to it. And do taste as you go along. If you fancy a bit more cheese, add it. If you want to mix in a few more ground almonds at the end, do. And if you don’t happen to have any pecorino romano sitting in your fridge, use parmesan or any other hard cheese. My neighbour is an amazing cook who lives to the rule that she would never go to the shop just for one ingredient, so don’t feel you have to either. She just substitutes with anything suitable she has in her fridge, and experiments.

Besides, this isn’t the real pesto. You have to go to Liguria for that. Ligurian pesto is made with basil that’s grown on the sunny shores there, and if you were to suggest to anyone who lives there that this were called pesto they would object, and rightly so. Ligurian pesto is food of the gods. I know this every time I’ve eaten it there. I once ate it at a friend’s vineyard. Her grandmother had made it, and I was presented with a dish of gnocchi swimming in the most heavenly pesto I have ever tasted. No, this is not pesto. This is pesto(ish). So please do not consider calling it pesto. A final word about salt. I personally don’t add salt as I think the pecorino has enough flavour, but this is up to you.

Mix your pesto in with some rigatoni you’ve cooked in the meantime. Keep about a third of a cup of the cooking water as you’ll need this to help it bind. Add the water very gradually and mix as you go along, as the last thing you want is watery pasta. You could also use any long pasta such as spaghetti or linguine but I’d run out so it was rigatoni instead. Sprinkle with ground almonds and more grated pecorino romano, a generous twist of ground black pepper, and lunch is served.

Dream of sunshine and Ligurian villages where you can eat the real thing.

Cacciucco, or chickpea soup amidst the snow

Cacciucco, a fish soup associated with Tuscan coastal towns such as Livorno, Viareggio, and in my case memories of a camping holiday in Castiglione della Pescaia where I had these rather romantic visions of the good life in a tent until the people in the tent next to us started singing Carpenters songs. I have nothing against Carpenters songs, just not when they’re emanating from the tent next to me. (Long story. ) And it turned out I don’t really like camping quite as much as I thought I did. I like the idea, but the reality leaves me somewhat – err, uncomfortable. Airbeds don’t do much for a bad back.

Castiglione della Pescaia on the other hand is beautiful, as is the whole of the Maremma region, some of which is a natural park, and if you’re planning a trip to Tuscany it’s definitely an area to consider. Outside August though, which pretty much applies to any Italian holiday, if you can.

But back to the cacciucco. There’s also a chickpea version which would be a cacciucco di ceci rather than a cacciucco di pesci, and this is what I decide to make today. It felt ideal for the day as it’s snowed again, although the Big Snow forecast was nowhere as big as expected. “Mum, we have three centimetres of snow!!!” Precisely. I wasn’t planning to make cacciucco today but I’d spent the whole morning dreaming of Tuscan towns (and naturally Tuscan food) as we’re planning to go there at Easter. And so cacciucco it was.

As with most traditional recipes, there are many variations. One recipe I found said to use shallots, but as I didn’t have any, I just used a red onion. You could use half but I used a whole one because I love onion, chopped finely and lightly fried with a whole head of garlic. I didn’t chop the garlic as it was rather large and I think the trick with garlic is to use it to flavour without letting it overpower the whole recipe. (If in doubt, use it whole.) I then added two packets of chickpeas, having drained them first of their juices. Of course you can also add the juices, I just prefer not to. Then add a washed and chopped bunch of Swiss chard, a generous tablespoon of good quality tomato passata and cover with just enough water to cover the chickpeas. The Swiss chard will steam anyway. Add salt to taste, and simmer until the chard is cooked. Some recipes suggest you use stock instead of water but I didn’t as I didn’t have any fresh to hand, and it was still very tasty.

Drizzle the soup with olive oil and sprinkle with black pepper. You can choose to keep this vegan, or sprinkle with grated cheese, in which you case you would need a firm Tuscan pecorino if you can get it.

Ideally this should be served with toasted Tuscan bread that you can either serve with the soup ladled over (in which case the bread will go all squishy and effectively become part of the soup) or on the side. I ate mine with a wholemeal nut roll of the type that I’m pretty much addicted to at the moment.

Serve, and dream of Tuscan hills.

Monday soup for the soul

After last week’s impromptu “let’s just all have a week off as everyone got ill”, everyone’s back and out of the house and so I spent the whole of my Monday morning – err, cleaning the kitchen. Yes, really, life is that glamorous, although it’s actually quite a nice feeling in a way, kind of puts the world to rights and all that. And sometimes the world really does need putting to rights, especially as it’s the week leading up to the elections on Sunday with its climate of hate.

It’s a feeling that’s getting to a lot of us. Even my son was feeling something this weekend. On Saturday evening, he announced: “Mum, tomorrow I’m going to tidy the house. I need to create ordine,” ordine being order. Maybe it was really just to do with a messy house, maybe not, but thankfully that didn’t happen and we were all able to just slouch on the sofa instead.

The picture is of soup, or what I tend to call dry soup, my own version of the thicker soups that some call minestrone or minestra, and if you’re in Tuscany you may also call it ribollita. The idea is that the Tuscan ribollita is “re-boiled” and bread added which results in a thick, chunky soup. The version I made this lunchtime is literally a re-boiled, re-heated soup from Saturday. I started with the basic soffritto – the fried base that’s often the basis of many soups and pastas, in this case, half an onion, one carrot and a clove of garlic for good measure as I’m trying to limit our consumption of salt, although you do need some salt to give flavour. Add a common or garden cabbage, a couple of chopped potatoes and half a cup of pearl barley.

When I made mine on Saturday I added the pearl barley later as an afterthought. This  really depends how cooked you want your vegetables. If you want them less cooked, then add the barley at the same time as the vegetables. The soup should remain relatively thick, so hold back on the water. The cabbage can just steam on the top, and will eventually become absorbed. Serve when all is cooked through, and do check the barley as it may take longer than the recommended cooking time. By the time I reboiled it today, it had all become gloriously thick, perfect for serving on two slices of pane di segale or rye bread, with crumbled (ish) goat’s cheese as I couldn’t find the cheese grater, and the obligatory drizzling of olive oil without which it just wouldn’t feel complete.

So I was officially supposed to be back at work today but it didn’t quite happen that way and now the sun’s come out and has lit up all the snow. Roma è sotto la neve or Rome is under snow, along with most of Italy, and the lunchtime news is filled of travel inconveniences and other stories.  Burian, the icy Siberian wind has arrived and in the north we’ve had our own sprinkling. And very pretty it is too.