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Food, Lifestyle

Raisins in a meatball? Absolutely!

Pictured are meatballs with raisins. See the recipe below.


“If you have time, will you make us some meatballs?” asks daughter Danielle. She’s thinking about having an easy heat-and-serve meal in the fridge to feed her family after a long day in the classroom. But she’s also seeking, I imagine, the aromas and flavors that she grew up with filling her house.

A new restaurant concept is happening in New York, featuring meatballs, several dozen on the menu. A brilliant idea. And so much easier for the owner than having to deal with the extensive inventory, prep work and staff education that is required to execute a normal menu concept.

I still make meatballs the way I did in my restaurant. It starts with three pounds of a blend of ground meats – pork, veal and beef – as well as bread, eggs, raisins, pine nuts and garlic (the recipe follows.) The results are very different from what is often served in this country: those hard, uninteresting, round hockey pucks that are so common. These meatballs are soft and filled with flavor.

My husband Todd says no one makes meatballs as delicious as mine. Not many people had the advantage of learning at the side of an Italian grandmother who ran a busy family kitchen preparing meal after meal of wonderful food.  Most people might have found learning from her frustrating, at least for a while, however. “Mix it till it feels good,” she would tell me. How much should I put in? “Just enough,” she would say. It was only by working with her over time and absorbing her sense of what was right that quantities needed would become clear.  

Nothing was easy back in those days. From Revere we would take the trolley to Maverick Square (East Boston) and then board another for the ride to Boston, where we shopped in the North End at the first farmers market that I knew, near Government Center, with the push carts and vendors and all their wares lined up on a Saturday morning.  

Noni had two leather shopping bags. She was always looking for a bargain with so many mouths to feed. The bruised and over-ripe tomatoes made the best sauces for the best price. She taught me a lot about buying what was in season. The butcher, who was flattered by her culinary questions, saved her the bones for broth and the bone from prosciutto that was the “secret” to her fabulous minestrone. She also knew how to have a good time, stopping after a few hours for a cannoli and coffee.

The shopping energized her, which was good because the work of making the meal was physical. We can now purchase blended ground meats. And much of the actual making of the meatballs is now quickly achieved in the food processor. Back then, Noni would attach the meat grinder to the table and do everything by hand.

Last weekend was perfect for a road trip, given the warm weather, so we drove to Springfield to visit granddaughter Kelley and her boyfriend Adnan. When I asked Kelley what she would like to cook with me she said, without hesitation, “meatballs.” She has mastered the Bolognese, which we made on our last visit, and she wants to learn to make my meatballs, or more accurately, her great- grandmother’s. You should learn, too.

We stopped in Salem to pick up some wood-burning- oven bagels at the Rover Bagel popup (open Thursday through Sunday) in Bambolina’s on Derby Street, and made another stop for lunch and to buy bread at the incredible Birch Tree Bread Co. in Worcester (the best and most exciting bakery we’ve found in Massachusetts).  

I love this period of life, minus health concerns. With grandchildren it is all about watching them at sports events. Seeing 11-year-old Ethan score a basket last week was a thrill!  The granddaughters are also on a basketball team and I love cheering them on. However, I have been warned and reminded not to cheer too loudly or to mention their names! That’s a tough lesson to learn for a girl who grew up in Eastie, where being loud was the only way to be noticed.

Noni’s Meatballs    

In a large bowl, place 1 pound each of ground pork, veal and beef.  

In a food processor, place 6 slices of day-old bread, broken up with 3 cloves of garlic, 1 tablespoon each of fresh thyme and rosemary, 1 tablespoon of dried oregano, 2 teaspoons salt. Pulse to mix. Add to the bowl of meat.

Again, in the processor, pulse 3 eggs and 1/4 cup of milk together and add to the bowl.  

Soak 1/3 cup of raisins in 1/3 cup of Marsala wine for 10 minutes. Drain and add to the meat.

Toast 1/3 cup of pine nuts in a sauté pan. Then, roughly chop in the processor and add to meat mixture with ½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese.  

Chop enough flat leaf parsley (just flowers) to make 4 tablespoons. Add to bowl.

With wet hands, roll and shape the meatballs in the size you like, about 2 to 3 inches.

In a large sauté pan, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil and add the meatballs.  

Sauté until the meatballs brown all over, being careful not to break them.

Transfer the meatballs to a Pyrex dish, cover with tomato sauce and put in a 325 degree oven for 30 minutes. Then, turn them gently and cook for another 10 minutes.

Note: For a quick and easy solution, some sauces in jars, like Virgilio’s meat-and-tomato sauce (they have a bakery/sandwich shop in Gloucester), is very good as a substitute for your own.

And put aside a few cups of your meat mixture for use in Italian Wedding Soup. I make small meatballs, which I drop in simmered chicken broth with a few cups of chopped escarole.   


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