This is Abby. And I know you can relate to being so busy that you just can’t cook. Sometimes life moves way too fast. Sometimes you feel like cooking and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re just too busy to make even the most basic meal. You’ve heard of the phrase “pay it forward”…well, I have one too, “cook it forward”.
Several times a year, my job requires me to work many long hours for weeks at a time. For the next couple of weeks, my husband and I will barely see each other and I won’t have the time or inclination to cook. So over the weekend, I did “The Big Cook.” I cooked a small mountain of food and stocked the fridge and freezer with things we can eat cold or defrost and prepare quickly.
You see, I work in public radio and you know what that means….pledge drives. I actually love pledge drives, even though listeners refer to them as a “necessary evil”. My mom, Bonnie Goldstein, was also in public radio. She was the Membership Director at KVLU in Beaumont, Texas for twenty-two years. For every pledge drive, my mother would make meatballs for the volunteers and staff. She called it “Meatball Night” and every volunteer wanted to be there when Bonnie Goldstein made her famous meatballs. She was known to punish and reward certain volunteers by inviting them or excluding them on Meatball Night. You knew you were in good shape if you got a personal invitation to come answer phones on Meatball Night.
When I became a public radio Program Director, I carried this tradition forward by making meatballs for the staff during pledge drives. Of course, my recipe is completely different from my mother’s and I have experimented with so many variations that I no longer have a standard recipe. I make them differently every time. I have a pledge drive coming up this month and, even though I’m not cooking for the staff this time around, I still felt compelled to make meatballs.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This Big Cook started on Friday night with some planning and checking the weather forecast. Saturday was supposed to be a very nice, but Sunday was supposed to be cold, rainy and maybe a little snowy. I planned to use the nice weather and grill a whole lot of chicken on Saturday, then do my indoor cooking on Sunday. On Saturday morning, we went to breakfast and then to the grocery store.
I started my food prep at about 2:00 pm Saturday afternoon with the sauce. I took some advice from the latest edition of Cooks Illustrated, which included a recipe for classic Italian Sunday gravy. The article I read suggested cooking the tomato paste first until it was thick and dark as a way to develop richness. I started by cooking a roughly chopped large onion and a green bell pepper, diced very finely, until they started to turn soft. Then, I unloaded a large can of tomato paste into the pot and cooked it for about half an hour on medium heat, stirring frequently, until it was a very dark color. I deglazed with some Merlot and a little balsamic vinegar and cooked that down until it was very thick again, then added 6 huge cloves of sliced garlic, a bunch of seasoning including dried oregano and red pepper flakes, then a little more wine and kept cooking it down until I had this very dark red, very thick goo in the bottom of the pot. Seriously, I could stand a spoon up in this stuff. A lot of canned Tuttorosso tomato products followed, 4 big cans of crushed tomatoes, 1 big can of puree and 1 big can of whole tomatoes that I smushed up with my hands as I added them. This was the base for my sauce and I turned the heat down to low to let it come up to heat. In a skillet, I browned 6 links of hot Italian sausage until they started to plump up, then dumped them in the pot. The Cooks Illustrated article I read called for dried porcinni mushrooms, which are expensive, but a very small bit goes a long way. They are profoundly rich and meaty and they give the sauce this amazingly earthy flavor. I normally keep them on hand but I’d run out some time ago. I bought fresh cremini mushrooms, but I wanted to give them some chutzpah, just a small bit of the power that dried porcinnis have. I cleaned and quartered the mushrooms and cooked them in the same pan on high heat until they were browned….then deglazed the pan with some wine and dumped that in the pot. Okay, time to let this huge pot of sauce cook on very low heat for a very long time.
Next I turned my attention to the chicken. At about 4:00 pm, I got my charcoal started, cut up the chicken and tossed it with a little Stubbs spicy bbq sauce. We’d bought some lamb sausage from Kelly Corner Farm at our outing a few weeks ago and I’ve been dying to try it, so I’d taken that out of the freezer earlier that day. By 4:15, the charcoal was ready, so I set everything on the grill.
By 5:30, the chicken and sausage were done. I made a cucumber yogurt sauce with a little lemon and mint to go with the lamb sausage and we had pita bread, olives and dolmas on the side. It was absolutely delectable. My highest compliments to Tim at Kelly Corner Farm, that lamb sausage was amazing!!! The chicken wasn’t bad either. So, dinner was over on Saturday night and I still had this swinging pot of spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove. After about 4 hours of cooking, I turned off the heat and let the sauce cool off for a few hours. Before I went to bed, I put the whole pot in the fridge.
On Sunday, the Big Cook continued with meatball preparation. I took the pot of sauce out of the fridge and set it on low heat to come up to temperature. Spaghetti sauce is always better after it sits around in the fridge and this was definately the case for this pot of sauce. It was excellent, even before the meatballs went in. At about 1:00 pm, I started the meatballs.
In a huge bowl, I mixed a pound of ground veal, a pound of ground pork and two pounds of ground beef, two large eggs, about a cup of breadcrumbs, 1/3 of a cup of grated parmesean, a whole lot of chopped fresh parsley and basil, and spices including sally, peppy, red pepper flakes and dried oregano. I like a speecy, spicy meatball. I baked as many as I could fit on a big jelly roll pan that I’d sprayed with cooking spray in a 450 degree oven for about half an hour, until they were browned. The rest of the meatballs I browned in a skillet. And I added it all to the sauce. The pot was completely full and I could barely stir it without slopping sauce everywhere.
By 3:00 pm on Sunday, the Big Cook was over. I had 14 pieces of chicken, 1 lamb sausage and 1 big tupperwear container of sauce and meatballs in the fridge, plus two big tubs of sauce and meatballs in the freezer. I cooked a pound of thin spaghetti, we had spaghetti and meatballs for dinner and put the leftovers in lunch size containers. We have enough food to last us at least two weeks and probably well beyond. My only regret is that I didn’t get to the chocolate cupcakes I’d planned to bake….but I guess it’s just as well.