My arsenal of Thanksgiving appetizers is a rotating one—some years may feature a black olive tapenade, goat cheese drizzled with orange blossom honey or a triple crème cheese covered with roasted garlic onion jam. But one item remains constant: my mother’s sweet and sour meatballs. As family and friends arrive, they are offered a glass mug of these mouthwatering meatballs ladled from a simmering pot on the stove.
For me, these meatballs are everything that’s good in this world—their very aroma strikes an emotional chord and transports me back in time to my mother’s kitchen…and my youth.
One day, many, many years ago, I followed Mom around the kitchen taking notes while she prepared sweet and sour meatballs. I had to do this if I wanted to learn—and remember—how to make this dish, because Mom had no written recipes, as far as I know. In fact, I can’t remember there ever having been a cookbook in our home. She had her recipes committed to memory and cooked in that intuitive, non-scientific way that many good cooks of an earlier era did. In his memoir, Sam Levenson described this method:
How much flour do you use, Ma?
What do you mean, how much do I use?
I mean a cup, a half cup…?
What do you need cups for? You use your head.
Okay. So how many eggs?
Not too many.
How much sugar?
Not too much.
How much salt?
Not too salty.
How much water?
What? Okay. So how long do I leave it in the oven?
It shouldn’t burn.
Not long ago, while looking through my old recipes, I came across the yellowed index card with the recipe I had written down. Anyway, that was how she made the meatballs that day. I realized that I make them somewhat differently now; her approach to cooking (and life) left me free to improvise, experiment or modernize some of her recipes. In fact, my daughter makes Mom’s sweet and sour meatballs using ground turkey with much success.
Even though these meatballs won’t evoke the same warm associations for you, they are delicious and smell great while cooking. Moreover, this is a relatively healthful recipe, calling for all natural ingredients and no fillers. It works as either an appetizer or an entree, depending on how generous you are with the meatballs. Best to have fresh challah on hand for dunking in the sauce!
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced onions
olive oil, or oil of your choice
2 (14½ oz.) cans stewed tomatoes
salt & pepper
1 lb. ground beef
dried onion flakes
1 onion, grated
3 stalks celery, grated
at least ½ cup sugar
at least ¼ cup lemon juice
Sauté carrots and onions in a small amount of oil; add 2 cans of stewed tomatoes with juice. Add salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste. Let simmer. To ground beef, add egg, dried onion flakes, grated onion and celery. Mix well and season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Wet hands and form small meatballs and drop in simmering sauce. Cover (partially) and simmer for about 30 minutes. Then add ½ cup sugar and ¼ cup lemon juice. Stir and taste and adjust sweet/sour flavor to your taste. Cook another 15-20 minutes.
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