It wasn’t planned.
There wasn’t a secret memo saying We’re all going to make meatballs, FYI.
Last Friday, Susan and I managed to get the last two seats on a flight out of Raleigh Durham; I had flown down to do an event with the amazing Marcie Cohen Ferris as part of her Food For All project at UNC, and was on the fence about leaving because I had a few book signings planned for the next few days at the [amazing] Quail Ridge Books, The Regulator and Flyleaf books, but Hurricane Matthew bore down on the south and there was no guarantee that North Carolina would be safe (it wasn’t; the eastern part of the state was hit terribly hard, and there have been casualties) or that we’d be able to get home if the storm turned north. At some point in Raleigh Durham — land of voracious readers, phenomenal food, and lovely people — I decided to lift my knapsack up with my right hand and blithely fling it over my shoulder (this is the knapsack that ends up weighing 40 pounds because of my laptop, my iPad, the three books I carry with me everywhere and never read, my two Moleskines, and my various plugs and jacks). Mid-fling, I knew I was in trouble: I felt a sharp stabbing pain in what I know to be my coracoid process (my ex was a doctor), dropped my bag, and whined the rest of the way home. My amazing massage therapist had an opening the next day and I nearly passed out on her table. After it was over, all I could think about was Sunday dinner which, because I cannot use my right arm, would have to be made by Susan who — I never talk about this but I should — is an extraordinary cook. Not only is she great at everything she makes, but because she’s a book designer, everything that needs to be uniform is uniform. Like little soldiers.
It was debate night, and we wanted something comforting; we (suitably) opened up Julia Turshen‘s new cookbook, Small Victories, to the meatball recipe. We went out shopping, came home, and Susan deposited me on the couch with my iPad and my iPhone, both of which were showing low levels of battery juice, so I plugged one in while I mindlessly scanned the other. What the hell I was scanning for I will never know, but I know what I found: rage, enmity, divisiveness, fury, anger, panic, virtual pugnaciousness, tantrums, nonsense, paranoia.
I texted a writer friend who lives nearby. She said she was making comfort food for dinner. What was she making?
Another friend in Seattle, hunkering down for their storm of the century, was also cooking. Meatballs.
Everywhere on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest, scores of people who don’t even know each other were also apparently making meatballs. Some were healthier takes on tradition (pine nuts, masses of kale, ground turkey; grass fed beef, masses of kale, currants), some were fried, some were baked, and some (all pork, for the hardcore) were very traditional, and simmering in Sunday gravy. Some were vegetarian, some were vegan and made from lentils. But on this, the first officially cool night of the season, with the future of the country unspooling before our very eyes in ways that have left both sides of the aisle gasping for air, everyone, regardless of political persuasion, wanted meatballs.
It reminded me of this past summer, when literally every person I know was going to the water on vacation. Lake, ocean, river, pond — images of docks and lighthouses and beaches and sand clogged up Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest feeds like mud. Everyone, it seemed, was fleeing for safety to what is universally known as a source of healing and comfort, whether they realized it or not. As humans, we know when are souls are hurt; we know what we want, and how to nurture and care for ourselves.
Still, we’re generally not big meatball eaters in this house. The few times that my beloved Gaga made them, each one weighed in the neighborhood of half a pound, making them more like polpettone than polpettini. She also was not of the mind to soak bread in milk and stuff it into meat — and not because she was kosher, which she wasn’t — but because she thought it was somehow wasteful; I loved everything else she ever made for me, but her meatballs were solid meat and the consistency of a Lower East Side handball: dense, rubbery, inconsistently bouncy. Also, I grew up in a Queens neighborhood blessed with several very good Italian restaurants (among them Lidia Bastianich‘s first restaurant, Buonavia), so there was really no need to make our own meatballs: if we wanted them, we knew where to get them.
When I make them, they’re invariably lumpish and hard, but the other night all I wanted to do was soothe my heart with a small bowl of them set atop a tangle of [gluten free] pasta blanketed under a rich, thick, garlicky tomato sauce. So that’s what Susan made: Julia Turshen‘s Small Victories turkey and ricotta meatballs. They were the very best I’ve ever had, of any kind, anywhere. By the time the night was over, I, like so many others, was worried, angry, bewildered, and sad that our politics has devolved into a sideshow straight out of Duck Soup.
I did the only thing I could do: I grabbed my bowl and headed for the kitchen, where the pot, still warm, was sitting on the stove, and had a few more.
Julia Turshen‘s Turkey + Ricotta Meatballs
from Small Victories
Possibly the best meatballs I’ve ever tasted. Julia Turshen calls for ground turkey, preferably dark meat; at first, I was dubious because every turkey meatball I’ve ever had could double as a squash ball. These were remarkably tender, flavorful, and so tasty that I’m still dreaming about them. One small change: the original recipe calls for Parmesan cheese. We used Parmigiana-Reggiano, freshly grated.
Serves 8 or 4 with leftovers (makes about 30 meatballs)
Two 28-0z cans whole peeled tomatoes
7 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
7 garlic cloves; 4 thinly sliced, 3 minced
1 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 cup Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
1-1/2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiana Reggiano
2 pounds dark meat ground turkey
Pour the contents of the tomato cans into a large bowl (reserve the cans) and crust the tomatoes with your hands. Rinse one of the cans with 1/4 cup of water, pour it into the second can and swish it around to get all the excess tomato out of the cans, and then pour the water into the tomato bowl.
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, add the sliced garlic, and cook, stirring, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and a large pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer, stirring every so often, until it is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil on the baking sheet and use your hands to rub it over the entire surface of the sheet. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the minced garlic, basil, parsley, ricotta, Parmigiana, turkey, and 1 tablespoon salt. Blend everything together gently but authoritatively** until well mixed. Then, use your hands to form the mixture into golfball-sized meatballs; the mixture will be sticky, so wet your hands with a bit of water to help prevent the meat from sticking to them. Transfer the meatballs to the prepared baking sheet as you form them. Drizzle the meatballs with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and roast until they’re browned and firm to the touch, about 25 minutes.
Use tongs to transfer the meatballs to the simmering sauce (discard whatever fat and juice is left on the baking sheet). Cook the meatballs for 10 minutes in the sauce (they can be left in the gently simmering sauce for up to 1 hour) and serve.
**Best process instructions EVER, said the former cookbook editor.