Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Zen and the Art of Meatball Manufacture

Sometimes I use half beef, half veal...sometimes I use a cheap cut of beef and jazz it up with some pancetta but I gotta have The Godfather soundtrack playing when I make meatballs. I stand at my chopping block, slurp some red and just for a moment I am Vito Corleone, not Michael but Vito...this dish is old school. It's a wonderful meal to make after a hard days grind in the 'olive oil' business.

Now, I live a long way from Sicily and am about as Italian as fish and chips but the smell of lemon zest and fresh oregano; the slice and dice of garlic and onion; the deep red bubble of slow cooked tomato sauce - these things activate the latent Soprano gene in a man.

I finely cut the beef and veal by hand if I am feeling extra authentic. Often I just blast it in the blender though, but only for a few seconds - I want some texture. I would user a mincer if I had one. Crumble in some breadcrumbs: home-made or otherwise. I add lemon zest, thyme, oregano and nutmeg or sometimes fennel seed (especially if I make the meatballs with pork ), crumble in fresh parmesan, slip in an egg and splash some milk - shape into small balls and put in the fridge. For the tomato sauce: fry some garlic, chop some tomatoes and add to the pan with a splash of white wine and cook down for some time. This is not food that likes to be timed nor measured - make it a few times and get a feel for what works, keep your scales and measuring spoons firmly in the cupboard. Maybe you will add some dried smoked chilli to your tomato sauce to give it depth, maybe not. I always finish the sauce with loads of fresh parsley and basil and when I say 'always' I mean if I have it in the fridge or herb patch, if not 'forgedda boud it'. We are free styling here - your time, love and effort are the most important ingredients. Just keep it simple and do not add too many ingredients to the sauce nor the meatballs.

I fry the meatballs on a high heat to add some colour then pop them into the tomato sauce to cook through and share flavours, I roll the balls fairly small so cooking does not take long at all. Boil some spaghetti and mix through the sauce. Serve sprinkled with more parmesan, chopped parsley and drizzle with some best extra virgin olive oil. My young children are not yet members of the nice and spicy chilli appreciation club so if I want some extra heat I just scatter some finely chopped chilli over my serving or a couple of glugs of home made chilli oil.

I love this kind of Italian home cooking: I make fresh pasta and pizza dough with my children. They shell fresh peas to add to home made tomato sauces. They crush toasted fennel seeds in our mortar and pestle to sprinkle over grilled sardines. The missus picks the tiny thyme leaves from the woody stalks and pours more red wine. This kind of cooking brings a sense of unity, of time well spent together. It is cooking for la familia.

Occasionally, it is in these moments that I feel that I am on the right track in life. Sometimes this feeling is subtle and fleeting, at others it is a powerful sensation that has a knock on effect that reverberates through my life - good things start to happen. An idea comes to life that leads to positive change or something that has been in the pipeline for a long time begins to pick up pace. Maybe an old contact does something out of the blue that brings new significance to our relationship, a better connection. Or something happens to make me think about a current challenge in a new way that gives it momentum, anxieties subside and pace gathers.

I have a loose fitting rule about this phenomenon that floats around at the back of my mind unwilling to be tied down - it is something along the lines of 'luck happens when I work hard on the right things.' It is at these times that I feel the guiding hand.

Unfortunately that right thing may not always be to make fresh meatballs and tomato sauce with my family. When it it's not I just enjoy the simple pleasure of life in la cucina.


  1. Im sold, im stopping at Waitrose on the way home to pick up the ingredients and their finest bottle of Barolo

  2. How mad. have a young Lady coming over for dinner on sat and was going to do my meatballs. Which is a variation on JO's
    You have added a few nice twists for me Dano.

    I started Conor on the Chillie buzz when he was about 4. Very mildly to start. "Daddy why is my tongue all tingley"
    Am I a bad parent for actively making my child an addict?

    We now often enjoy a good ol Mardas and sometimes Vindaloo together anas he has reached the grand old age of 12.

    My first time on your Blog Dan. Love it keep up the good work mate.

    Looking forward to trying some of this food, prepared in the best kitchen in the world.

    Surely there's a Blog all in itself. Your happy environment Hahaha


  3. This smells wonderful! I'll be cooking up a dish all the time listening to Led Zepplin. Haven't yet decided how I am going to expose the real Daniel Shields. The Young American