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A Chance of Meatballs

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So I hadn’t cooked for a few months — dinners at the Ginger and Padraic O’Donnell house consisted of me working at my computer and snacking on Skinny Pop and Padraic, gracious and accepting of my flaws whilst being settled into more healthy routines — whipping up some scrambled eggs or roasted salmon or low key tomato sauce and pasta. But — my mother and father in law were coming for their second stay at our newish house, and gosh darn it, I was DETERMINED to make spaghetti and meatballs.

There’s a backstory here…

I like white noise when I work, so I often grade to the tune of Barefoot Contessa on YouTube, and I was smitten with the episode where she surprises her boss by making him something down-home and casual, and of course the best version of down-home and casual — a rocking plate of the best meatballs and homemade tomato sauce you’ve ever tasted, plus homemade garlic bread. (Actually, let me correct myself — I’ve probably never had a strong craving for spaghetti and meatballs, but from a cook’s perspective, I feel like meatballs combine the best of baking and cooking — instead of balls of dough, you’re crafting cute balls of, eh, ground meat, and laying them out neatly on a cookie sheet, plus the idea of spaghetti and meatballs, such a classic, stoked my enthusiasm… And, garlic bread, that I can eat for days…) I was also enamored with the idea of simply replicating an entire Barefoot Contessa episode, just following, which is a fun and delightfully brainless way of cooking that I often fail to consider.

So what started as a simple family dinner — my parents, my brothers, and my mother and father in law — quickly amassed into four pounds of ground meat and two loaves of ciabatta fit for a feast:

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I make sense of my impulse toward massive quantities of meat this way: First, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the passionate cook in me who has been lying dormant in lieu of what Padraic just today, on summer break, referred to as the “grog” — is that a word? I knew exactly what he meant — a sleepwalking state of grading, planning, waking up at 5:30 am, and then repeating that process for weeks on end. By god, I shall awake myself with copious amounts of Italian food! seemed to be the work of my unconscious. Then there’s the factor of in-laws-visiting-our-newish-home, and the internal pressure I felt to redeem myself after treating them to sloppy, mediocre Mexican delivery around a folding table when they visited in October — then, our very new house was a very slow work in progress, and my head was half in my work. Then there’s the factor of my parents coming over, as well as my brother, and this sudden feeling, “We live near my family now! By god, we should make memories! And entertain!” And finally, there’s the f— it mentality I have when called upon to make rough mathematical calculations — more is more, we have a freezer, and it’s easier to double a recipe than it is to one-and-a-half it.

The meatball event started with a trip to Bolyard’s Meat and Provisions, which I can’t help but tout since I am now a proud resident of the Maplewood corner of Saint Louis, formerly known as Maplehood and now dubbed Mapleweird. It was my first time visiting my local butcher, and look, I found this:

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And this! I envision my future nephew to be a hip little dude, if his older sister is any indication. So I figured he needs a fresh start in this world with a touch of the Mapleweird:

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Now commences the meatballing:

Ina Garten’s “Real Meatballs and Spaghetti”

Adapted & Doubled by Yours Truly

Serves a small army*

Materials

Big mix bowl
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Liquid measuring cup
Small bowl and fork for beaten eggs
Two clean hands
Large pot or dutch oven
Kitchen tongs
Several sheet pans (preferably rimmed)
Parchment paper
Paper towels
Can opener
Mixing bowls of various sizes
Two large skillets

Meatball Ingredients

3 pounds of ground beef
1 pound of ground pork
2 cups fresh white bread crumbs (I used Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread)
1/2 cup seasoned, dry bread crumbs
4 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup store bought fresh Parmesan cheese
4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil
Olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup red wine
2 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pasta Ingredients

3 pounds spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
Parmesan cheese

  • Dump the meat, bread crumbs (dry and fresh), parsley, Parm, salt, pepper, nutmeg, egg, and 1 1/2 cups warm water in a bowl. Mix lightly with your hands.
  • Line several sheet pans with parchment paper.
  • Using your hands, lightly form 2-inch meatballs and place them on the parchment. (Don’t be afraid to form solid, cohesive, meatballs than won’t break apart in the cooking oil. I took the injunction to “lightly form” a little too seriously and some of my first meatballs fell apart in the dutch oven. A deft but firm touch when forming meatballs…)
  • Pour 1/2 cup olive oil and 1/2 cup olive oil into a liquid measuring cup. Pour the mixed oils into a large pot or dutch oven and heat the oil over medium to medium-high heat. As the oil heats, cover a dinner plate in paper towels and place it next to the dutch oven on the stove.
  • To test whether the oil is hot enough, see if the oil sizzles when you add a meatball. If it sizzles, you’re good to go. Reduce the heat to medium-low and fill the pot with as many meatballs as you can, assuring that they have room to float around a bit. Let each batch of meatballs cook for 10 minutes in the oil, turning them regularly with your tongs. Drain the balls on yet another sheet pan lined with paper towels.
  • Once you have your small army of meatballs cooked, set them aside. Chop and measure out your ingredients for the sauce — chop your onions, garlic, measure out your red wine, open your cans of tomatoes, chop your parsley, and measure out your salt and pepper. Pour out the oil in your dutch oven or pot while pouring scalding hot water from the faucet down the drain at the same time. Then let the dutch oven or pot sit in the sink and soak with dish soap as you continue with the sauce.
  • Place two large skillets on two burners, side-by-side. Pour a tablespoon of olive oil into each, and heat it over a medium flame. Add half the onions in one skillet, half in the other. Sauté the onions until translucent, about 10 minutes. Divide the garlic and cook in each skillet for 1 more minute. Turn up the heat to high and split the wine between the two skillets, until almost all the liquid evaporates. Stir in the tomatoes (one can per skillet), as well as the parsley, salt, and pepper (divided into two skillets).
  • Divide the meatballs into the two skillets and let them simmer in the sauce on low heat for 25-30 minutes (or less, if you’re getting hungry).
  • Meanwhile, make 3 pounds of spaghetti according to package directions.
  • Serve, and grate a little extra Parmesan on top.

*Make this in two batches. You will not have pots and pans large enough to make it in one big batch.

While I’m at it, here’s Ina’s recipe for the garlic bread. I’m sure her recipe writing skills are better than mine. If you want to “adapt” it my way, just double it:

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This tale ends with packets of frozen meatballs doled out for days to grateful grandmothers, hungry neighbors, and one overstuffed husband. Meanwhile, I learned, a couple times, how easily frozen garlic bread thaws in the microwave, which translates to, send the garlic bread home with the fam next time. 

Despite the tight fridge space, the freezer bags, the monotony of one plate of leftovers after another, and probably a few other inconveniences, I learned that if food is love, and love and family go together, I have plenty of love to go around. Here’s to this guy, arriving soon!

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Saint Louis Days, Saint Louis Nights

eddiejdf a thousand forks CC BY-NC-SA 2.0It’s been 12 days and 13 nights since Padraic and I made our way from Chicago to Saint Louis. I’m taking a break from willpower talk to celebrate some of the good food we’ve enjoyed here since our wind down I-55, in full view of funnel clouds and spectacular displays of lightning, in the thick of that eery calm and loaded sky that characterizes tornado weather in the Midwest. We stick pretty resolutely to a weekend night dinner out, so no sooner had we unloaded the U-Haul, set up (temporary) house in my grandmother’s guest cottage and rid ourselves of the wet dog smell that was a byproduct of hauling boxes in thick sheets of rain, we were on the prowl for a good restaurant. And now, I’ll savor it once more by describing the stuff we ate! And I mean…in detail…thanks for indulging me in this notably privileged, comfortable business of blogging about food 🙂

Publico

This new, Latin American gastropub is located in the Delmar Loop, a strip of restaurants, shops and music venues near Washington University (and a throwback to my weekend nights in high school). We got there around 8 o’clock, so we decided to keep our small plate sampling very small: two tacos al pastor consisting of “spit roasted pork shoulder, pineapple, guajillo, crema, charred onion salsa” and an arepa, or corn pancake, topped with roasted meat. Our meal was delicious, notwithstanding the frozen margarita that I ordered because it was cheaper than the classic version. Sipping tequila in semi solid form gives me quite the brain freeze.

Whiskey and Soba, Sauce Magazine, and Feast Magazine have put their collective finger on the pulse of this place, so I’ll do my best to summarize: The star of the menu, as described by Feast, is the restaurant’s “custom-made wood-burning hearth,” on prominent display towards the back of the space. As outlined by Whiskey and Soba, “the menu is split into 5 sections: crudo (raw dishes), Platos Pequenos (small dishes), Arepas (corn ‘pancakes’), Tacos, and A La Parilla (grilled).” The decor is sleek and modern, with a big, backlit bar occupying considerable space in the center and a line of brown-toned booths underlying wooden tree sculptures along the wall. We sat at the bar — the bottles grouped casually on large countertops, without fussy shelving, and cutting boards with slices of lemon, lime and other garnishes in full view. You really get to watch the bartenders do their thing. The food was served on colorful china with vintage floral patterns. The meal was at once light and rich, a welcome change from the heavy, sticky, cheesed-out feeling of so many Mexican joints. For two small plates and two drinks, I think our tab was a scant 30 bucks.

Robust Wine Bar

On our second Saturday night in town I had the chance to sample the dinner menu of this Webster Groves hot spot, alongside a flight of crisp, summery whites. A mixture of California and Oregon brands, the wine description touted notes of peach, pear, mango, honey dew and passion fruit, tasting subtle and fragrant while maintaining a desired acidity and dryness. As for food, I recommend the plate of Délice de Bourgogne cheese from France, with a moderately sized but uber creamy cheese wedge, thin slices of buttery toast, dried apricots and salted Marcona almonds. The Bresaola Carpaccio Style is also delicious: paper thin slices of salt-cured beef topped with arugula, shaved Parmesan and truffle oil. Check out their dinner menu for a full list of what’s available — next time I’ll have my eye on the Green Goddess salad with oven-roasted beets, the Shrimp & Grits and the Roasted Mushrooms, and possibly a taste of the Goat Cheese Cheesecake, you know, when I’m taking a break from my pursuit of willpower.

Robust’s wine menu is organized by wine profile, dubbed the “robust factor,” which makes the beverage selection and food-pairing process more intuitive, less painstaking for a wine novice like myself. The chef is Robert Hemp V, with a food philosophy that keeps things simple and local. As Evan Benn writes for the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, he “manages to take broad cooking influences — European, American, Meditteranean and Asian elements populate Robust’s menu — and present them in ways that complement rather than compete with what’s in your glass.” A few years ago, the restaurant opened a Washington Avenue location in downtown Saint Louis that caters to a crowd of “locals, tourists…and conventioneers.” There’s also a Robust in Edwardsville, Illinois.

Meanwhile, I’ll recommend a local cookbook, titled “Saint Louis Days, Saint Louis Nights,” compiled by the Junior League of Saint Louis, to tide you over between weekend night dinners out. I’ve been making French onion soup from this book for years, requiring nothing more than a few onions, beef or chicken broth, a spoonful of flour, butter, Parmesan cheese and a sturdy, crusty loaf of bread. It also contains a notably no-fuss recipe for a whopping three loaves of pumpkin bread. In fact, all the recipes are decidedly no-fuss, one reason I gravitate towards them when I want something substantial and simple, or on the rare occasions when I’m cooking for a crowd. For a light but filling dinner series of spring dinners, try making a batch of “Scrumptious Eggs” on a Sunday afternoon. Happy eating.

Scrumptious Eggs

Tools

9×13 casserole dish
Cutting board
Chef’s knife
Sauté pan
Large mixing bowl
Whisk or fork
Measuring cups
Measuring spoons

Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
3/4 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
1/2 large onion, chopped
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, plus extra for the dish
1 cup cubed ham or bacon
11 eggs, beaten
1 3/4 cups milk
3/4 cup flour
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

  • Butter the casserole dish and place half of the cheese on it.
  • Clean the mushrooms with a moistened paper towel and cut into slices. Chop the onion. Sauté the mushrooms and the onion in the butter until tender. Place the cooked vegetables over the cheese.
  • Cook, cool and chop the bacon, if using, then spread the ham or bacon on top of the mushroom mixture.
  • Beat together the eggs, milk, flour, parsley and salt.
  • Pour this mixture evenly over the casserole and top with the remaining half of cheese.
  • Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes.

Gratitude and Roasted Red Pepper Soup

“Soup is a lot like family. Each ingredient enhances the others; each batch has its own characteristics; and it needs time to simmer to reach full flavor.” — Novelist Margaret Kennedy

bourgeoisbee Roasted Tomato Red Bell Pepper Soup CC BY-NC 2.0 There’s something you gotta love about soup that’s predicated on one vegetable, simmered and softened, then pureed. It’s an act of gratitude, piling raw peppers into a pot and making the most out of them.

Lately I’ve wondered what it means to actively practice gratitude — not just ticking off  lists of thanksgivings but fully embodying a spirit of thankfulness, in the way that we go about our day, in the things that we desire, in the way our goals and hopes are oriented. It offers us a way out of changes in mood or circumstance, a way into feeling still, centered, and easy.

I’m grateful for the singleness of focus I’ve had lately with my writing. My family is all so supportive of my writing goals, which is motivating and sustaining; it makes me feel like less of an impostor when someone asks me what I “do.” It isn’t so much doing as it is thinking and then recording my thoughts. Which brings me back to my gratitude for soup. A steaming bowlful, topped with a dollop of mascarpone cheese, is a reminder to inhabit the moment more fully, to savor the flavor of a single vegetable, and be filled with warmth.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup
Makes 3 large servings
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons white wine
6 red bell peppers, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
A sprinkling of red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
Mascarpone cheese for garnish

Tools

Chef’s knife
Cutting Board
Measuring spoons
Measuring cups
Large pot
Wooden spoon
Immersion blender or blender/food processor

  • Slice the onions, mince the garlic, chop the bell peppers, and measure the thyme. Have the chicken broth, salt, and pepper out, with measuring cups nearby.
  • Swirl the olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until they soften and turn a bit golden.
  • Swirl the olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onions and cook on medium-low heat until they soften and turn a bit golden.
  • Add the minced garlic and cook for another minute.
  • Add the two tablespoons of wine and cook on medium-high heat until the liquid is reduced to 1 tablespoon.
  • Add the peppers, broth, thyme, and red pepper flakes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Cover the pot and simmer the peppers for about 30 minutes, or until they’re soft.
  • Purée the mixture using an immersion blender or a normal blender/food processor.
  • Serve warm (or chilled) with a scoop of mascarpone cheese in the center.
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