Hugo will be eight weeks old this week. Eight whole weeks! In the past two weeks, he has started smiling at us, big, toothless grins that I have decided are the best thing since sliced bread, the steam engine and the birth of Steve Jobs put together. He stares at us in wonder when we speak, uttering little coos like he's trying to answer our absolutely inane questions, eats like a champ (and, for that matter, sleeps like a champ, unless the hubris of putting this down in type damns me forever) and is an absolute delight.
I have always wanted to be a mother. I've had baby fever my whole life, at least as far back as I can remember. I babysat avidly as a teenager, nannied as a young woman and fawned over my friends' babies when they were born. I very, very much looked forward to becoming a mother myself one day. And yet, still, the first three weeks of Hugo's life were a kick in the teeth. I don't want to say they were the hardest days of my life, because they were bound up with the wonder of Hugo - the boy who made us family - but they were hard.
(Proof? This tweet, in that wretched third week, was totally, completely, wholly unrhetorical in nature.)
Our culture, our society, prepares us endlessly for birth. But no one prepares you for what comes next. It's because, of course, there is no preparation. The sleep deprivation, the hormones (the hormones!), the terror of realizing in one split second that you are this little person's caretaker, its most important person, for the rest of your life, man, it is seriously heavy stuff that is very difficult to handle, much less prepare for. I realize now how right other societies have it when their new mothers are surrounded by their community for the weeks following birth, caring for her, washing and feeding her. A new baby doesn't really need much, but a new mother needs everything.
If you're a cook and you know a new mother or a woman who will be one soon, these meatballs can be your contribution to the cause of keeping that woman fed and sane (sort of). They're easy to make, they freeze well, they are nourishing and the new parents can even use the leftover sauce for a separate meal (we don't eat meatballs on spaghetti in Italy*) - a boon for those weary souls who will probably find it difficult even just to boil water at first.
My mother doesn't consider herself much of a cook. (More on that in the book. And more on the book next time! Whee!) She only uses one cookbook, Ada Boni's Il Talismano della Felicità and even that one she only uses for inspiration, shall we say. (She takes a rather loose approach to following recipes, which irritates me to no end, but that's my cross to bear.) These meatballs come from there, but with one crucial difference: instead of frying the meatballs, she plonks them raw into a simple tomato sauce, eliminating a messy step and creating meltingly tender meatballs. (I think she got this idea from me? I'm not sure. I hate frying meatballs with a passion.)
To make the meatballs, gather up the following:
1/2 pound of ground beef, 1/2 pound of ground pork, two eggs, 2 slices of white bread, the crusts cut off, enough milk to soak the bread, a bunch of parsley, a nutmeg for grating, salt, pepper, and, er, that's it.
Put the meat and eggs in a bowl. Tear the bread into little pieces, then soak them in the milk and squeeze them out, adding them to the bowl. Mince up the parsley and add it to the bowl. Grate a bit of nutmeg into the bowl. (30 strokes? To taste.) And salt and pepper the mixture. (I used about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. I think.)
Then, using your hands, mix all of this together until it's a smooth, uniform mass. Cover the bowl with a plate or some plastic wrap and stick it in the fridge for a few hours. When you're ready to cook, form the meatballs. I like smaller-sized meatballs, about the size of a small plum, two inches at most in diameter. Put them on a plate.
Next you have to make your tomato sauce. Which is as easy as browning a clove of garlic in olive oil and then dumping a 28-ounce can of good-quality tomatoes (puréed, chopped, whatever) and their juices into the pot and cooking this over medium-low heat for about 25 minutes (don't forget to salt the sauce). When the sauce tastes good and cooked, for lack of a better descriptor, gently plop the meatballs into the sauce like so:
Then put the lid on and let the sauce and meatballs simmer slowly away. Resist the urge to stir the pot; if you are concerned, shake the pot a little. 25 minutes later, turn off the heat. Let the pot sit there until fully cooled. At that point, you may freeze the meatballs or package them up to take to the new mother who needs feeding. This recipes makes enough for at least two meals for two people.
(*Are you asking yourself what on earth do Italians eat meatballs with, if not spaghetti? Well, this Italian likes serving them with polenta (also because leftover polenta fried in butter and doused with maple syrup is a prairie breakfast of the gods) or steamed rice, the better to soak up the sauce with.)
Meatballs may seem like a pretty humble offering, but to a hungry, bleary-eyed, frightened new mother, they can be deeply comforting. Especially if you tell her that I promise that whether she believes it or not, one day, not so far off in the future, she'll be feeling capable enough of making those meatballs herself.