It all began innocently enough.
A friend of ours recently underwent a grueling 10-hour back surgery, when it was expected to only be 6 hours; only by comparison does a 6-hour surgery seem like “not so much.” You can imagine the mental and physical state of the surgeon at the end of it all. And the anaesthesiologist. And her husband, Jim. And, last but certainly not least, our friend, Stella.
We thought to ourselves, “We should take them a meal or something.” They have lots of friends who are culinary wizards, I’m sure, so they won’t be starving. But we aren’t the types to send an aging fruit basket or a balloon bouquet. The least we can do is throw a quick meal together.
Being a bit work-weary from the week, I instantly thought about something quick and easy: A box of spaghetti, a quart of Gary’s already-made marinara and meatballs, some parm, and a bottle of chianti. I mean, I’d be happy with that, wouldn’t you?
So, I pulled a couple of packages of Angus hamburger meat out of the freezer to thaw. That should do it, I thought. Yep, just a quick trip to the store for some marscapone and I’m done. A nice meal for Stella and Jim and one for us too.
I got this.
And then Gary asked me what meatballs I was going to make. Well, I only have one recipe that I’ve ever made and liked, so I told him Fabio’s. Gary countered my decision with an alternative proposal: Why don’t you make Jim’s meatball recipe instead? He had just enjoyed Jim’s meatballs and arrabiata sauce a few weeks ago, so the memory was still fresh in his mind, unlike where he left his reading glasses or why he had walked into the garage.
Of course, I’m a fine one to talk — after ten minutes of searching and power-swearing the other day, I found my wine glass in the laundry room; why I would need wine in the laundry room is still a mystery to me.
OK, I said. I grabbed my cappuccino and dug through my not-insignificant pile of hard-copy recipes and found it. I was momentarily distracted by ten other recipes in the pile, but stayed on task. I threw it in my purse so I’d have it when we went to the store.
Then Gary asked what sauce I was going to make. I replied that I thought his marinara sauce would be delicious. Again, Gary countered with an alternative proposal: Why don’t you make Jim’s arrabiata sauce instead? It’s so good with the meatballs, he said. Can’t argue with that kind of logic; I too have enjoyed this combination and still dream of it when I’m on a protein kick.
But, these days, since I’m on the “No Carbohydrate Left Behind Diet,” I can totally wrap my head around this meal.
Back to my pile of recipes to find the arrabiata sauce. Got it. Into the purse it goes and out the door we go to hit the grocery store.
Once at the store, I actually look at the recipes. Oh. I had pulled out two packages of ground beef which, actually, is three pounds’ worth. But the recipe calls for half ground beef and half Italian sausage. OK, sounds good. I grab three pounds of Italian sausage and start fantasizing about leftovers.
Gary then asked what are we taking them for dessert? I respond with no sarcasm whatsoever: I have no idea. That’s not my department. He suggests making Jim’s chocolate cremeaux, a heavenly concoction of thick chocolate pudding, accented with a bit of olive oil and a kiss of flaky sea salt. Sure, sounds good to me. That means I get to lick the bowl when he’s done and I’m good at that.
He takes off with the cart and plucks the necessary ingredients from the aisles while I stare at the gourmet cheese display, dreaming.
He reappears with a much fuller cart and a look of satisfaction. I hear some cheese call my name, so I toss it gently in the cart.
What cookies should he make to go with the cremeaux, he asked? Again, not my department. I love homemade cookies more than life itself most days, but the cremeaux is so sinfully perfect, that it almost is too much to throw a cookie in its midst. But again, I’m not in charge. I said: You decide, because he’ll do what he wants anyway. Again, recent memory takes over for Gary and he quickly settles on Jim’s Spanish almond-lemon cookies. Apparently he is channeling Jim today, not an altogether-bad idea. Then he disappears into the aisles again.
He emerges victorious, with a fuller cart and then takes off for the bread aisle, where he scores two fresh baguettes. We head for home and into the kitchen, he to his side and me to mine.
Louis Prima seems like perfect music for cooking this meal, so I put on the Big Night soundtrack. (If you love a good food movie, this is one of the best, ever.)
I pull out the meatball recipe and, being the math whiz that I am, realize that I now need to make six pounds of meatballs. This is not a small amount of meatballs, unless you are feeding, I don’t know, Wichita. I haven’t made this recipe before, so I start prepping.
I quickly find a huge bowl and fill it with the six pounds of meats and all of the other ingredients. I have to admit that I am not good at repetitive tasks; I believe that the only one I’ve mastered so far is breathing. With this in mind, I decide to make BIG meatballs, easily 2” in diameter, instead of the more typical ping-pong-ball-sized. Fewer to make, fewer to cook, I figure. Gary looks askance at me, as if he had just caught me putting ice in my single malt scotch; he clearly does not approve. He’ll get over it.
I found, though, that I entered a somewhat meditative state as I made the meatballs, tucked the morsel of mozzarella in the center of each one, and closed it up. Note to self that this is far less work than yoga and doesn’t require any expensive, trendy clothing from Athleta, so it’s probably an ideal alternative.
I counter this state with a well-deserved second cappuccino. Wouldn’t you?
Two cookie sheets of meatballs eventually made their way into ½” of olive oil to brown. I set them aside and look at the sauce recipe.
Once again, math whiz that I am, I realize that I now need to quadruple the sauce recipe to come even close to having enough of it to keep most of the meatballs company.
It’s a lovely recipe, but now requires chopping four onions instead of one, which means I’ll be sobbing for at least ten minutes. I drag out the second biggest pot that I own and start making the sauce.
It requires two or so cups of wine, so I opened a bottle of red wine, poured it in, and since it was after noon, I poured the small remainder into two little glasses for me and the dessert chef. Our eyes locked and we headed for one of the baguettes and the hunk of cheese, and then had our way with them.
Gotta keep up our strength.
The meatballs need to finish cooking in some form of sauce, so then I realize that if I cook the six pounds of mega-meatballs in this pot of sauce, not only is the pot now way too small, but I fear that any oily by-product from cooking the mountain of meatballs in it would turn it into a Valdez-inspired oil slick, which would make me very sad and render it completely inedible.
So, I need another pot of sauce to cook the meatballs in; two quarts of Gary’s marinara sauce saved the day. As the arrabiata sauce cooked down into its utter wonderfulness, I patiently cooked the many batches of meatballs in Gary’s sauce. Surprisingly, there was no significant oil slick to contend with, so yay, we could even enjoy the marinara later. My Italian stomach is now grumbling.
Meanwhile, Gary makes the chocolate cremeaux and I lick the bowl. He starts on the cookies after his little glass of mid-day cabernet. He decides to double the recipe because, well, Gary will always opt for more than less.
The cookies require, among other things, a lot of lemon zest, so he soon had a pile of denuded lemons on the kitchen counter. “Hey, what should we do with these lemons?”, he asks. There is only one thing that comes to mind this time of year, now that winter is mostly gone and the house was baked with warm sunlight: Make pisco sours. The national drink of Chile, pisco sours are a perfect blend of fresh lemon juice, superfine sugar, an egg white, and pisco.
They sound innocent enough but don’t be fooled; gentler than a margarita, but no less potent. Could be used as a truth serum, I think. While the last batch of meatballs is cooking in the marinara sauce, I make a little pitcher of pisco sours and stick them in the frig.
And one more question: Should we cook the pasta ahead of time for them? Sure, I said, searching for one more big pot large enough to hold a pound of Italian spaghetti. Why not make it as easy as possible for Stella and Jim. Pasta cooked, cooled, dressed with a little olive oil, and into a ziplock bag. Done.
The kitchen is now a terrifying sight. We have a large kitchen, so there’s plenty of counter space to mess up. Our dog, Henry, scouts the perimeter for whatever we may have dropped on the floor. While everything cools down, we tackle the kitchen.
We started this culinary day around 1:00. Our plan was to throw this meal together, and then head outside for an afternoon of forced labor in our large and mostly untended vegetable garden.
I look at the clock. It’s now 6:30 pm. I reach for an industrial-strength anti-inflammatory and start thinking about a small pisco sour. I am not the only person with this idea. The hell with the garden.
Maybe just one pisco? OK. They go down so easily. Like lemonade, only much, much better.
These glasses are really small. We should have one more.
A few minutes later, Gary’s son calls him and asks how he is. Having now consumed two small glasses of truth serum, Gary spurts out: “I’m drunk!” This isn’t probably completely true, but two little piscos can make you think you are. There’s a slight pause before his son responds, not sure whether it’s true and if his father has a possible drinking problem or not. But he should know better. We taught him everything he knows about overindulgence. When Gary further explains that we just had two pisco sours, he gets it. I think.
The end of the story? We took the meatballs, sauce, pasta, baguette, cheese, wine, chocolate cremeaux, flaky sea salt, and cookies over to Stella and Jim’s the next morning in a very large box. They looked at us as if we were insane. Which we are. Which they knew. But I also think they were quite pleased.
We went on a meatball diet for the next two days and still managed to freeze four meals’ worth of meatballs and sauce. Amazingly, a few of the cookies also found their way in the freezer, instead of immediately onto my hips. The chocolate cremeaux? Gone in a flash, like a spectacular sunset.
I’m only human.
This is how one little thing becomes a very big thing in our household. And exactly why we’re never as thin as we’d like to be. And why we have a pantry the size of my first college dorm room.
It’s what we do here.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.