These meatballs are really mystical if you consider the sway they hold on my husband, his brother, and his father. They go wild for these meatballs.
Well, wild in that very restrained Northern Italian way.
If they were Southern Italian, where a dinner conversation can seem like a minor riot, their meatball response would barely register on the scale. It would signal almost utter disregard for the meatballs.
But that, in fact, is not the case. The meatballs hold some sort of magical, mystical charm.
Marisa, of course, is my mother-in-law and these are her meatballs. She considers them quite unusual, having learned to make them from her mother and basically not remembering any other relatives or friends making something similar.
And, as meatballs, they ARE unusual!
Click HERE to join our mailing list and you’ll never miss a recipe again!
But here’s a secret that I haven’t told anyone yet. They really AREN’T meatballs. They’re croquettes! Crocchette in Italian.
There, I said it. Marisa’s Mystical Meatballs aren’t really meatballs. But everybody in the family calls them “Ma’s Meatballs.” “Ma’s Croquettes” doesn’t have the same alliterative allure, even if it’s more accurate.
When I did a Google search for crocchette, Google turned up about 1,730,000 results in 0.51 seconds. When I searched for crocchette patate e carne (potato and meat croquettes), Google returned 1,500,000 results in 0.72 seconds.
And that was doing searches in Italian!
I found a Japanese woman who seems to have the same relationship to her mother’s meat and potato croquettes (korokke) as my husband and his family have to his mother’s.
Follow us on your social media platform of choice
The meat for these “meatballs” (a word I’ll use in deference to my husband and his family of origin) is boiled before being finely chopped. This presents a perfect opportunity to make a really nice beef broth. You don’t have to do that, of course, but since you’re going to be boiling the meat anyhow, and since it only takes a few extra minutes to throw some aromatics into the pot, why not!
The broth from the meat for the specific batch of meatballs shown in this blog is sitting in the freezer ready to be turned into Auntie Helen’s Stracciatella, which will be coming up on the blog next month.
If you have a favorite family recipe and a bit of a story to tell, please email me at email@example.com and we can discuss including it in the blog. I am expanding the scope of my blog to include traditional recipes from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t seen Bertha’s Flan or Melinda’s Drunken Prunes, take a look. They will give you an idea of what I’m looking for.
Marisa's Mystical Meatballs
Marisa says she usually uses cross-cut beef shank for the meatballs. When we made them, she also a piece of beef she bought for soup so we used both. In the end, we got ½ pound of cooked beef, with fat and gristle removed. Adjust the proportion of the other ingredients if you get substantially more or less cooked beef. If you want to use just cross-cut beef shank, I would try about 2 ½-3 lbs. The beef is boiled and then finely chopped to make the meatballs, giving you the opportunity to make a really nice beef broth with just a few minutes more work.
Roasted peppers are a classic of Italian cuisine. They are a perfect example of ingredient-driven cooking. All that is required are good peppers, good olive oil, and a few minutes of scorching heat. There’s no way to hide bad ingredients, since there are only two (not counting salt).
A wonderful presentation is to prepare an array of roasted vegetables such as peppers, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, and scallions served artfully arranged on a platter and anointed with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt.
It’s a “wonderful” presentation because it looks beautiful, it tastes great, it’s easy to prepare, and it can all be done in advance and served at room temperature. It makes an impressive antipasto platter in the winter and an inviting warm-weather side-dish in the summer.
But let’s not get carried away. Peppers are classic and work very well on their own. If you like how they turn out you can experiment with other vegetables.
The first time I got serious about making these was back in the late 1980s when we lived in Chicago. We had a four story townhouse. The top floor was the master suite with a very large deck. We had redwood planters made to encircle the perimeter of the deck. In addition, we added scores of pots and, when things got a little too crowded on our deck, we expanded to Billy and Carla’s deck next door!
We grew an amazing amount of produce on that deck. I can’t begin to remember all of it but it included tomatoes, tomatillos, sweet peppers, hot peppers, eggplant, a fig tree, corn, cucumbers, zucchini, and an abundance of herbs including enough basil to feed a small country. We installed a grape arbor but the grapes didn’t do well.
We bought an upright freezer and put it in the garage so that we could put up food from the garden.
One year I roasted peppers and conserved them under a layer of olive oil in the refrigerator. They were good but I subsequently discovered that the USDA recommends against this technique as the covering of oil creates an environment where anaerobic bacteria, like the one that causes botulism, can grow.
After that first year, I didn’t preserve roasted peppers in olive oil again but I did make flavored olive oils and flavored vinegars every year right up until we moved full-time to Santa Fe. The USDA has the same recommendation regarding putting herbs in oil but, for some reason, I chose to ignore the advice.
These days, when I want roasted peppers, I just buy fresh peppers at the farmers market, farm stand, or supermarket and roast them. Luckily Bell peppers are available year-round.
In addition to good-quality ingredients, scorching heat is required. The idea is to blacken and blister the skin quickly. If you do that too slowly the flesh of the pepper cooks too much and becomes mushy. For all practical purposes, you cannot blacken the skin too quickly. The flesh will always cook enough to be good. My usual method, as described here, is to use my gas grill on very high heat. If I only want to roast one or two peppers, I put them directly on the gas flame of my stove. Like I said, you cannot blacken the skin too quickly.
As good as the peppers are on their own, they can be used as ingredients in other dishes. Remember the uncooked tomato sauce I posted a few weeks ago? I said that the dish could be made with roasted peppers when tomatoes aren’t in season. Now that tomato season is coming to an end, consider roasting a few extra peppers and using them to make pasta later in the week.
Click HERE to join our mailing list and you’ll never miss a recipe again!
Roasted Sweet Peppers
Red, yellow, and orange bell peppers are sweeter than green ones because they are fully ripe. I usually use an array of different colored peppers. Many recipes suggest steaming the peppers in a paper bag after roasting. I don’t like using a bag as it absorbs the juice that comes out of the peppers. A heatproof bowl with a tight-fitting lid allows the peppers to steam and preserves the pepper juices.
Fried Zucchini Blossoms are one of the joys of summer at our house.
Simple, unadorned flowers, coated with a small amount of an equally simple batter (flour, salt and water), are addictive.
Stuffed zucchini blossoms are common and often quite good but in my estimation the stuffing does not pay homage to the blossom. One really tastes the stuffing, not the blossom. This is fine if one has such an overabundance of zucchini blossoms that one can squander them by stuffing them.
Don’t get me wrong, I like stuffed zucchini blossoms but I’d much rather nibble my way through the crispy fried flowers with a cocktail. Bourbon, did someone say bourbon?
On a summer trip to Italy a few years back, one of the pizzas that I kept seeing was topped with zucchini blossoms alternating with anchovies. It made a striking presentation (which I suppose was the point) but there was no way the taste of the blossoms could stand up to the anchovies. But taste isn’t everything. I’ll admit that appearance is equally important.
When I was in college I ate fried food with abandon. Most of it was fried in lard that I rendered. My roommate and I would sometimes do an entire meal of fried food in the Italian manner, a frito misto. These days I rarely eat fried foods except for fried zucchini blossoms and fried sage leaves in the summer.
Over my years of frying I have tried many different batters, with and without eggs (some with whole eggs mixed into the batter and others with the yolk used as part of the liquid and the stiffly beaten white folded in at the last minute to lighten the coating), with and without baking powder, and with club soda or seltzer in place of water or milk, among other variations. In the end, I settled on the simplest of batters that I had at Great Aunt Fidalma’s house in Tuscany: flour, salt and water.
It works beautifully, turning out a thin crunchy coating.
You can use the batter on most any kind of vegetable though watery vegetables like zucchini and mushrooms are challenging.
My only alternate coating (when I’m cooking in the Italian manner… which is most of the time) is the one my mother used for cauliflower. She would par-boil the cauliflower, cut it into florets, dip it in egg, and then coat it with fine, dry breadcrumbs. Because some of the breadcrumbs come off during the frying, the oil has to be strained after every few batches of florets are fried otherwise the loose breadcrumbs start to burn imparting a burnt taste to the cauliflower. It’s really pretty easy to accomplish as long as you’re prepared for it.
I set up a very fine mesh strainer over an empty pot and use it to strain the oil. A quick wipe of the pot used for frying and the strained oil can be poured right back in and the pot put back on the heat. The whole process takes less than 30 seconds.
I’ve always fried in a pot on the stove, never in a dedicated deep fryer. I’ve never even used a thermometer to test the temperature of the oil. I flick a drop of water on the oil and watch how it skitters across the top to judge when the oil is hot enough. There’s a lot of trial and error learning involved in this method so I’d recommend you invest in a deep-frying thermometer (or even a dedicated deep fryer) if you’re not already skilled at frying.
My two favorite pots for deep frying are a Lodge cast iron pot and an Indian-style karahee. The cast iron is better at holding the temperature steady but the karahee uses less oil because of its curved bottom. A karahee can only be used on a gas stove, however.
Although I use lard for some baked goods, I don’t deep fry in in on a regular basis any longer. I use corn oil. I think it works a little better than other vegetable oils for frying. Results are even better if one adds a small amount of oil that was previously used for frying to the pot with the fresh oil.
Fried zucchini blossoms are always served informally in our house. Since they are best right after frying, with just a moment to cool down, everyone gathers in the kitchen, cocktails in hand. When the first batch comes out of the oil, the flowers are put on absorbent paper while the next batch is battered and put in the oil. The previous batch is then salted and passed around. It’s about one minute from the time the flowers come out of the oil until they are being eaten.
Click HERE to join our mailing list and you’ll never miss a recipe again.
Fried Zucchini Blossoms
These zucchini flowers are coated with the simplest of batters. The amount of water needed cannot be determined precisely as it will depend on the flour to some extent. Refrigerating the batter allows the flour to fully hydrate, after which it will need to be thinned with a bit more water. Cold batter also sticks to food better than warm batter. Gently scraping the battered flower on the edge of the bowl allows for the amount of batter to be controlled. The flowers should just brown slightly otherwise they can start to taste bitter. Zucchini flowers are very delicate and do not stand up well to rinsing under water so only wash them if absolutely necessary. One cup of flour will make enough batter for at least two dozen flowers.
To clean the flowers, remove the stem end by breaking the flower where it creases, about ½ inch above the stem.
Pull out the stamen and stigma.
Remove any green bits (calyx) at the base of the flower.
Lay the flowers on a tray or plate, cover lightly, and refrigerate until ready to use.
Mix the flour and the salt.
Add the water, a little at a time to the center of the flour, stirring in a circular motion with a fork to incorporate more and more of the flour.
Keep the flour and water mixture thick until all the flour is incorporated. The stiffness of the batter will break up any lumps that might form. You can tell from the ridges in this batter that it is thick. Thinner batter will have a smooth surface.
After a thick batter is formed, continue to add water, mixing well after each addition, until the batter thinly coats the fork.
Cover and refrigerate the batter for at least one hour and up to one day.
When ready to use, thin the batter with more water until it once again lightly coats a fork.
Bring oil to frying temperature, approximately 350°F.
Dip a flower into the batter, scraping off excess batter on the edge of the bowl.
Drop the battered flower into the batter and continue to add flowers, without crowding.
Turn the flowers frequently.
Just as they begin to turn golden, remove the flowers from the oil allowing excess oil to drip into the pan.
Put the flowers on absorbent paper. Batter the next batch and put the flowers in the oil.
Salt the previous batch and serve while still hot.
In early 2014, my husband and I were lucky enough to go to Cuba with two close friends. This was prior to the loosening up of restrictions on travel by Americans to the island nation.
Because of the guidelines governing such travel, we had to spend a significant portion of our time interacting with Cubans, not being tourists. We visited a schools for the arts and music, toured cultural sites, attended lectures, saw a cigar factory, and met with some Cubans in their homes, among other activities.
All of Cuba is divided up into small units that are under the watchful eye of a trusted local who reports any unusual activities to the authorities. These units could be a section of a street, for example, or a multi-unit building. What turned out to be one of the most memorable events was meeting with the residents of one such building one evening in Cienfuegos.
The children put on a small performance, we had refreshments, then spent several hours chatting with the building’s residents. It seemed to us that everyone was quite open, talking about the challenges, as well as the benefits (such as free education and health care) of life in Cuba. In fact, while it seems that most Cubans we met were in favor of a more open society they were understandably very protective of their access to education and health care.
One man, seemed particularly open about the difficulties of life in Cuba. This was surprising to us as his wife was the designated party operative responsible for overseeing this particular building. Our suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he disappeared into their apartment shortly before the evening ended after his wife gave him “the look.” As our vehicle was pulling away from the building, he ran out and waved us good-bye. Clearly he had been banished from the meeting but kept a watchful eye from his apartment, exiting at just the right moment.
In addition to spending the major portion of our trip interacting with Cubans we were prohibited from actually going to the beach! This was supposed to be an educational and cultural interchange, not fun.
Even more interesting is that, at the time, Americans were prohibited from buying Cuban cigars and rum. Mind you, I’m not talking about bringing these items back to the United States which was definitely forbidden, but buying and using them while in Cuba.
This would seem to be a singularly difficult rule to enforce and I can’t say that anybody paid particular attention to it. One of our most pleasant experiences was sitting at a park on the waterfront in Cienfuegos sipping rum (from plastic cups) smoking cigars and watching the sun set.
We ate a lot of croquetas in Cuba and drank a lot of rum punch, mojitos, and cariocas. After we got back we pulled together a Cuban dinner with a few other friends. I made the traditional finger-sized croquetas—seven dozen of them, actually! Here is a picture of me frying them as well as a platter full of cooked ones along with some plantain chips and mojitos.
For this post, since I was cooking them as an entrée rather than as a nibble with cocktails, I made them larger.
Croquetas de Jamon (Cuban Ham Croquettes)
Instead of ham, croquetas can be made with cooked fish, salted cod, or potatoes among other ingredients. Cracker crumbs are the standard coating used in Cuba but fine dry breadcrumbs will work fine. I really like using plain panko crumbs whizzed in the food processor to finely pulverize them. They give an amazing crunch! If you are making these to serve as nibbles, you should get seven dozen. If you are making larger croquetas to serve as a main course, this recipe will make 16. Two or three of the larger croquetas will serve one person depending on what else is being served.
If the ham was cooked with a sweet glaze, rinse the glaze off using warm water.
Cut the ham into one-inch cubes.
Finely grind the ham in a food processor or meat grinder. Reserve the ground ham.
Over medium heat, warm the milk in a small saucepan.
Meanwhile, in a two-quart heavy bottomed pan, sauté the onion in butter on medium heat until soft, approximately 4-5 minutes.
Add the flour to the onion-butter mixture and cook for about two minutes, stirring constantly. Do not brown the flour.
Note, the flour will appear golden from the combination of the butter and the onions.
Add about three tablespoons of the warm milk to the flour mixture. Stir well to fully incorporate. Continue adding about three tablespoons of warm milk at a time, stirring well after each addition, until all the milk has been incorporated. The mixture will form a rather heavy dough.
Continue to cook the dough for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, without browning.
Reduce the heat to low and stir in the ham. Keeping the mixture warm makes it much easier to blend the ham into the dough which would otherwise seize up with the addition of cold ham.
Off the heat, stir in the nutmeg and parsley. Taste and adjust salt and pepper.
Spread the mixture into a small oblong pan. Cool to room temperature uncovered.
Cover and refrigerate until very cold, about six hours or overnight.
Form the croquetas. If making small ones, roll portions of the dough into ½ inch diameter cylinders. Cut the cylinders into pieces about 2 inches long. If making larger croquetas, divide the mixture into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball then flatten into a patty about ½ inch thick. Put the croquetas in a single layer on a cookie sheets. Refrigerate the croquetas until very cold.
To bread the croquetas, beat 3 eggs seasoned with ½ teaspoon of salt. Dip the croquettes in the beaten egg then roll in crumbs.
Put the croquetas onto cookie sheets once again. Refrigerate until cold.
Repeat the egg and crumb coating a second time. The second coating is necessary to get the traditional crunch. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
Cook the croquetas in a deep fryer at 350°F until deep brown. Alternatively, put ½ inch of oil in a heavy bottomed frying pan. Bring the oil to 350°F. Fry the croquetas, turning once, until deeply browned. Drain briefly on absorbent paper. Keep the croquetas warm in a low oven until they are all fried.