As I previously mentioned, I was born into a family of bad cooks. My mother’s signature dish was ham casserole: ground ham topped with mashed potatoes from a box (do they still make these?) topped with a can of Hunt’s tomato sauce. My maternal grandmother (Grandma Alice) had a rather horrible way of making spaghetti and meatballs: A jar of purchased tomato sauce with cut up hotdogs to make it meat sauce. I will give them both credit for one signature really good dish. My mother makes the best macaroni and cheese and Grandma Alice made a wonderful apple pie complete with a homemade crust! We will talk about those another time.
I was lucky to marry into a family with a grandma (Grandma Celia) who was a really amazing old-fashioned Italian cook with lots of amazing traditional Neopolitan dishes in her repertoire. Like most of her peers, Grandma Celia NEVER wrote down a recipe. She made her own tomato sauce from tomatoes that she and Grandpa Carl grew and canned. I remember Grandpa Carl pulling and drying seeds from tomatoes that looked particularly promising for reproduction.
I begged Grandma Celia for the “recipes” for many of her specialities. It was always “a little of this, a pinch of that, a handful of these.” I have found her sauce is sadly impossible to replicate (largely because of their use of their home harvested, hand-selected tomatoes). As a really good substitute, I really like Giada DeLaurentiis’s marinara sauce: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/giada-de-laurentiis/marinara-sauce-recipe.html. I make three simple changes to this wonderfully simple sauce: I only use 2 tablespoons of olive oil, I puree it after it’s done cooking, and I add a handful fresh slivered basil after that. Grandma Celia wouldn’t make a tomato sauce without fresh basil! (Of course, they grew their own basil too!)
One of our favorite Grandma Celia foods was her amazing meatballs. We all tried to watch her as she threw in a little of this and that, but no matter how hard we tried we couldn’t get it exactly right. After many years of trying, several years back, sadly after she was no longer around to critique them for me, I think I mastered (or at least have come really close) to her original flawless formula.
Grandma Celia’s Meatballs
1/2 lb lean ground beef
1/2 lb lean ground pork
6 slices of white bread toasted, then ground into breadcrumbs
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup of grated parmesan (the stuff from a can is fine, it’s what she used!)
2 garlic gloves, crushed
1 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1T (or less) extra virgin olive oil (more if you’re not using a nonstick skillet)
Toast the bread and grind into breadcrumbs. They don’t have to be super fine. Put the breadcrumbs into a large bowl and add water, a little at a time until the breadcrumbs are thoroughly moistened and begin to stick together. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Mix thoroughly with your hands, and form the mixture into balls about 1.5-2″ diameter.
Fry the meatballs at medium heat in a skillet (preferably nonstick) with just a little bit of extra virgin olive oil. Keep turning them so they maintain their round shape and until they develop a crust on all sides.
Grandma Celia said the “crust” keeps the meatballs from falling apart when you put them in the sauce. Also, following Grandma Celia’s advice, I usually double the batch so there’s plenty left over to freeze for future use!
This was the dinner my middle daughter, Hilary (who LOVES to cook too) and I prepared on Sunday: Giada’s marinara sauce, Grandma Celia’s meatballs with bucatini and a delicious arugula salad and ciabatta bread (to soak up the excess sauce). I felt it was time to pass on this recipe to the next generation and show her how its done, just like Grandma Celia had shown me when I was just a little bit older than Hilary is today.
This tradition is too good to pass up!
Grandpa Carl and Grandma Celia