Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chicken Meatballs with a Spectacular Marjoram Sauce


The funniest book I read last year was Lily Brett's You Gotta Have Balls (also published as Uncomfortably Close). Ruth Rothwax longs for a group of supportive women with whom she can meet regularly and talk about empowerment and mutual cooperation. Instead, she gets an ageing father, Edek; his enormously busty Lycra-clad Polish girlfriend, Zofia; and Zofia's weedy hanger-on, Walentyna. Among other skills, Zofia has an incredible knack with balls: meatballs, chicken balls, vegetable balls and, one presumes, Edek's balls.

Like so many good comic novels, You Gotta Have Balls has a serious side. Edek is a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and much of the book is about the ramifications sixty years later. Edek is determined to live exuberantly. For him, each day is a bonus and he is open to all the wonderful possibilities life holds. On the other hand, Ruth, a child of survivors, is earnest and hardworking, stifling her emotions and preferences in overcompensation for all her parents went through. Like the children of so many survivors, good fortune, and life in general, weigh heavily on her; and Brett explores the tensions between the generations gently and well.

However, she really shines in the comic passages. As I read page after page of Edek urging Ruth to try the balls (you gotta have these balls, Ruthie, these balls are unbelievable), I found myself collapsed with laughter at a cafe in Lygon Street, wiping the tears from my eyes and being looked at rather snootily by the unamused patrons at the next table. I can't be entirely sure what annoyed them most: perhaps it was my sitting alone or my grotty clothes? Or could it have been the great snorts of badly suppressed laughter that rudely punctuated their interminable boasting about their holidays?

Whatever it was, it caused a stir and the waitress came over to check that I was okay. She had never, she said, seen anyone laugh at a book like that; but somewhat unbelievably she didn't write down the title. If I saw someone guffawing in a public place over a book, especially someone who wasn't drinking, I would have run over and made sure I had the title down pat.

Maybe laughing aloud at a book is weird and the incurious waitress is more the norm, yet I know which I prefer. Anyway, it can be useful. Years ago, I had to sit in the passports office for several hours. I had with me Neal Stephenson's The Big U, also hilarious, and as I read and laughed and read some more, the section I was sitting in cleared out and I found myself alone in an otherwise crowded waiting room. For that matter, if you ever want a compartment of four seats to yourself on the tram, I can recommend reading a funny book, and laughing – or breastfeeding, of course.

In homage to Edek and Zofia and laughing in public places, here is my recipe for balls. What follows is a very plain chicken meatball; the ball is no more than a vehicle for the scrumptious marjoram sauce, which is not quite salsa verde and not quite salsa agresto but certainly sits in the range of both these lovely sauces. Marjoram is a sweet and delicate herb whose flavour is greatly diminished by cooking. So there is a little marjoram in the balls (think of it as a preliminary whisper), and a great deal of marjoram in the sauce (a fanfare of trumpets and a clashing of cymbals). Put them together, and you have music in your mouth.

The sauce is also good eaten with other meats and felafel; it can even be used as a strong dip. It tastes best the day you make it. The meatballs are enough for two meals for our family, so I make a half quantity of the sauce fresh for each meal. It takes about three minutes, hardly an effort.

Chicken Meatballs with Marjoram Sauce
The Balls
- 500g chicken mince
- 1 large red onion
- ⅓ cup marjoram
- good pinch of salt
- olive oil

Chop the onion and marjoram, or pulse chop them in the food processor, until they are very fine. Do not let them go to mush as you want a little texture. Mix them with the mince and a good pinch of salt, using your hands to knead it all through.

Form the mixture into small balls, 1½ to 2 tbs of mixture per ball. The balls will, if anything like mine, always resemble 3D trapezoids; clearly, I don't have the knack. You should get 16 to 20, depending on how large you make each one, of course. Place the balls onto a tray, cover with plastic film, and refrigerate until you are ready to cook.

To cook the balls, warm the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. When it is reasonably hot, place the balls close together in the pan; they should all fit. Cook without moving them until the bases are golden. Then using a thin egg slide or similar, gently scrape under each ball and turn it onto one side. Continue to cook and turn, cook and turn, for about 15 minutes. When all the sides are golden, cut the largest ball open (like a good tailor, I'm assuming your balls are not identical) and check that it is cooked through. Keep them in a warm oven until you are ready to serve.

The Sauce
- 10 to 12 sage leaves, preferably from the tips of the plant
- 20 stalks flat leaf parsley
- two small handfuls of sweet marjoram
- 8 walnut halves
- 2 fat cloves of garlic
- 2 tbs balsamic vinegar
- 6 tbs olive oil
- a good pinch of sea salt

Ensure the herbs are clean and dry. Chop off the bottom half of the parsley stalks and discard. (Keep the top ends of the stalks as these are less fibrous but very tasty; no need to pick all the leaves off.) Peel the garlic. Throw all the ingredients into the small bowl of a food processor (or chop very finely) and whizz. Check for acidity; you may need a little more oil or vinegar. Scrape the sauce into a small bowl. It will be very thick and nubbly. This is enough sauce for all the balls; halve it if you intend to eat only half the balls today.

If you are making the balls for a party, form smaller balls and cook for less time; then arrange the balls in a single layer on a platter, and dot each ball with a delicious blob of sauce.

The Marjoram Sauce is adapted from a recipe in the intelligent, absorbing and absolutely delicious The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today by Barbara Santich, which is, sadly for you, out of print.

(Local: onion, marjoram, sage, parsley, walnuts, garlic, olive oil. Mysterious provenance, but free range and chemical free: chicken mince. Not so local: balsamic vinegar, salt.)

You Gotta Have Balls

1 comment:

  1. I love meatballs and I love Lily Brett - her poetry is heart-breaking. The book you've mentioned is very (self-consciously) funny and makes you CRAVE delicious, home-made meatballs - will definitely trying these. Thanks :-0