Last week my mother asked if I would make my grandmother’s sweet and sour meatballs as an appetizer for our Passover Seder. I use the term Seder lightly, as my family does a 15 minute abridged version (further abridged by my father skipping whole paragraphs when my mom is in the kitchen checking on the soup). For us, holidays are less about the formality of religion and more about gathering and catching up over a fantastic meal. So when my mom asked about the meatballs, I happily asked, “Where’s the recipe?”
As I read the notecard my mom handed over, I had quite the chuckle. Mix ground meat and breadcrumbs with half a cup of water. Okay… How much ground meat? A pound? Three pounds? Yet, she was so specific with the water measurement. Breadcrumbs?? It’s Passover, no bread! I found the lack of specificity and need for substitutions so endearing because it’s just the way I cook. In fact, I am challenged putting my recipes on paper because I rarely measure. Hence, why I cook and don’t bake. I imagined my grandmother relaying the recipe to my mother copiously taking notes and getting frustrated with all the questions about specifics that she finally relented and said a half cup of water. For my grandmother, cooking is a feeling. What’s the texture of the meat? Is it too thick and need more water? Does the fat content require more breadcrumbs? One day you may need half a cup, another, two thirds.
Off to the market I went to guesstimate my ingredient amounts. I knew I wanted to double the recipe, so I could do an advanced screening of the meatballs for some friends I was having over on Sunday. So, two pounds of grass fed 90% lean ground beef, matzo meal for breadcrumbs, several onions and the addition of parsley and I was back in my kitchen to figure out how much garlic is too much?? (the answer: never too much garlic!)
Into the bowl went the meat, about a half cup of breadcrumbs, an onion and a half, finely chopped, 5 large cloves of garlic, grated, salt and pepper and some water. Just like my grandmother, I got my hands into the mix and began to feel. The mix felt too tight, so in went more water, just a touch at first to see how it loosened, then a little more until it felt right. Off to patiently sit for an hour before being shaped into little balls and getting set on the stove with the rest of the ingredients to simmer away for an hour and a half.
What went in neat and orderly came out rich and melted together. The anticipation was killing me, so I notoriously burned my mouth on my first taste. Delicious. My Sunday night guests agreed, but the real test was Monday’s Seder. It was with great pride I served my 96 year old grandmother her meatballs. And it warmed my heart even more when she said I got it right.
Sweet and Sour Meatballs
One pound ground beef
A handful of breadcrumbs
½ cup water
One medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, grated
Parsley leaves from 10 stems, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
One medium onion, chopped
One can of cranberry sauce
One can of tomato sauce
Half a large head of cabbage, diced large
Mix chopped meat through salt and pepper well and let stand for one hour in the fridge. Shape into small (one inch) meatballs
Brown the second onion in a heavy bottomed pot. Mix cranberry sauce and tomato sauce together. Pour half of the mixture into the pot. Put all of the cabbage on top of the mixture. Drop the meatballs on top of the cabbage and cover with the rest of the sauce. Simmer stove top over a low light for one and ½ hours until the cabbage has wilted, and the meatballs have cooked through.