I am closing in on thirty-five. What I have found—aside from all the wonderful experiences—is that my body has a way of gently reminding me that I will die one day.
Once you hit your thirties, the signs are there if you listen. Exercise gets harder and hangovers last for days, as do the biological effects of cheeseburgers. These maladies are your body’s way of telling you to pay attention. And, perhaps, to stop behaving like a twenty-two-year-old and to slow down and appreciate, not only the roses, but also modern miracles like penicillin and B12 supplements.
Instead of death, I have reflux that burns like battery acid and have developed a somewhat maladaptive mindfulness practice around it. A friend once said that she almost enjoyed heartburn because it made her feel alive. I understand what she meant. Though it can also feel like I am slip sliding towards facility living when planning certain activities within the confines of a rigid gastric emptying schedule. Which, when explained, is both gross and frustrating for everyone involved.
On Saturday morning, I made the mistake of googling the beloved North End pizza shop, Galleria Umberto, and found a recent article that addressed a rumor about it closing. (It isn’t, but the assurance was too little, too late.) While I maintain intimate awareness about the ephemeral nature of my own existence, I had not even considered the shop, which has been open since the seventies, might not be around forever.
Things were further complicated by their very Italian business hours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until the slices run out. This was a specific threat to my midday gym plans.
So I did what any rational, red-blooded American might. I called in an order for ten Sicilian slices and put the elliptical on hold. I will report there was something particularly triumphant about eating pizza that day, though it did incite immediate heartburn.
Thus far, I have shown the restraint of an addict in my refusal to give up things with tomato sauce, and I mean no disrespect to the addicted. This is where the meatballs come in. I have been working on perfecting them since 2012 and their sunk cost is real. And this is what I am really here to talk about.
These meatballs are seasoned with the usual suspects: parsley, garlic, and parmesan, plus a pinch of allspice or baharat, a Middle Eastern blend. (Before the purists revolt, let me remind Italy is not far from places like Lebanon and Turkey. I like the warm compliments the spice shares with the tomato, leave it off if you do not.) I use various meat mixtures—beef, sometimes a mixture of pork and veal, and occasionally lamb. Though the quality of meat is important, the type is less so.
I used to insist on pan-frying, but trying to evenly cook a circular object on a flat, hot surface while oil violently splatters everywhere is akin to entering Dante’s seventh circle. Baking is the only sane way to go.
The final touch came a few years ago when a now ex-boyfriend said he knew what my meatballs needed—and added that I wasn’t going to like it. He was right. What they needed was more white bread. This is the secret to tender meatballs. (It is not, however, the secret to a good relationship.)
But I am now blessed with a badass spaghetti and meatball framework. I add my heartburn magnets to this sauce just long enough so the two become one and deeply recommend this course of action.
Nothing is certain but death and taxes, as they say. I’ll get my meatballs while I can.
Meatballs for a Spaghetti Dinner
- 4 to 5 ounces of white bread (or a little less than half a baguette, see notes)
- a few splashes of half and half, plus a little water (or whole milk)
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- pinch of allspice or baharat spice
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¼ cup finely minced parsley
- 5 tablespoons parmesan cheese
- 2 to 3 generous pinches of salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 pound ground beef (or combination of pork, veal, lamb, etc.)
prior to the meatballs
Have a batch of sauce cooking—I prep this recipe ahead of time and have it ready to go on the stove top.
for the meatballs
Set the oven to 400 degrees.
Cut the bread into small chunks and then pulse in a food processor until you get crumbs no larger than the size of peas.
In a large bowl, add the fresh breadcrumbs. Pour in a splash of half and half and another of water. Mix with your hands, squeezing the bread like you would a sponge to incorporate the liquid. Ultimately, you want the mixture to be the texture of ground meat, so add enough liquid to reach this consistency.
Add in the shallot, garlic, spices, parsley, parmesan, and salt and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning—at this point it should taste a little salty, on the edge of being too salty. Crack in the egg and add the ground meat; mix gently with your hands until everything is combined.
Oil a large baking sheet and roll the mixture into small balls (aim for golf ball-sized). Place on the oiled sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes.
Add the meatballs into a gently bubbling tomato sauce and cook for another 5 minutes or so—longer is not required.
Makes 15 to 20 meatballs
- The bread type doesn't matter much. I typically use a fresh loaf (it's okay if it has a nice crust to it). The liquid will soften the crust and that's ultimately what you want, it just might require a little more liquid than, say, Wonder bread.
- I have half and half in the recipe because it is what we have around—no need to buy it specifically for this recipe, if you keep milk around.