During my final semester of law school, towards the beginning of spring, I visit Lucille in New York. It is her turn to choose where we go out to eat, and we end up at Boqueria for tapas.
We begin with glasses of pale, minerally cava and a dish of mixed olives – tiny brown olives, shrivelled black olives, and my favorites, the big fat green olives. We eat jamon serrano and smoked blood sausage, and lamb skewers seasoned with lemon and garlic and salsa verde. Our forks make short work of a dish of squid a la plancha, a satisfyingly salty tangle of tender squid, fried radishes, and radicchio, and a platter of asparagus salad, sweetly charred spears and arugula leaves scattered with bits of bacon and flakes of aged mahon cheese, punctuated by two perfect halves of soft-boiled egg.
We dab salt cod fritters with lemon aioli, breaking through their crisp exteriors to reach interiors as smooth and creamy as pommes puree, and tear pieces of chewy, crusty bread to sop up the tomato sauce from a dish of lamb meatballs draped in soft fresh sheep’s milk cheese. Finally, we eat churros dipped in thick, bitter chocolate, licking cinnamon sugar from our fingers.
The salt cod fritters are spectacular, and the churros are just the way I like fried dough, but it is the meatballs I file away for future reference, warm and savory in their bright tomato sauce.
The summer I study for the bar exam is also the summer I cater my first wedding. I plan during borrowed time, writing out recipes in the margins of my notes and scribbling ingredient lists on the backs of discarded practice essays. I compose emails discussing shopping and equipment and logistics as I listen with half an ear to lectures over streaming video. I think about the menu when the steady thrum of anxiety threatens to fill my head, reviewing and refining until I find some measure of calm.
White cake filled with mixed berries and lemon curd, frosted with mascarpone cream. Roasted mixed vegetables: red and yellow bell peppers, zucchini and eggplant. Wheatberry salad with goat’s cheese and dried cranberries. Greek salad, insalata caprese. Spiced couscous with orange zest and golden beets. Brook trout with herbed brown butter. Chicken phyllo triangles, sautéed Swiss chard. Lamb meatballs in tomato sauce bright with mint and basil, topped with creamy ricotta. A plan, a promise. A prayer.
Fifteen pounds of ground lamb. Fifteen pounds of crushed tomatoes. Four heads of garlic, one-and-a-half dozen eggs. Eight pounds of onions, and a bundle of fresh rosemary, mint, and basil as thick as my wrist. There's a rapid tattoo of blade against board as herbs are blitzed into chiffonade and onions become fine, translucent dice. Never have I been so grateful to have an assistant with the knife skills I lack.
Bowls of raw lamb and onion, spiced and salted. Meatballs resting on wax paper, sauce simmering on the stove. Meatballs browned in the pan, moistened with tomato and braised in the oven. The air grows thick with the scent of lamb fat and spice, spilling out of the kitchen into the summer night.
This work, complete. All that remains is the unveiling, the eating.
(Not my photo. I wasn't going anywhere near a camera that day.)
Savory Lamb Meatballs in Herbed Tomato Sauce
(Makes twelve to sixteen meatballs. May be frozen.)
This is a chopping-intensive recipe. Ready your chopping board and favorite knife, a small mixing bowl and a big mixing bowl.
Grab a small bunch of fresh mint and a small bunch of fresh basil. Pick off the leaves. Place the leaves on your cutting board, and blitz them into fine shreds. Put these in the small mixing bowl.
Mince four cloves of garlic. Heat a little olive oil in a shallow, heavy-bottomed pan with lid. Add the garlic. Cook until the garlic starts to smell fragrant, then add two tablespoons of the chopped basil and mint. Give everything a stir, then pour in a sixteen-ounce can of crushed tomatoes. Add water. Cook the mixture at a low simmer, stirring occasionally.
While the sauce simmers, make the meatballs. Start by prepping your workspace: cover a few baking sheets with wax paper, and a few plates with paper towels.
Grab the big mixing bowl and put a pound of ground lamb in it.
Take a small yellow onion and mince it very finely. Take your time; you’re going for something that’s almost onion mush. Place the minced onion in the bowl.
Take a sprig or two of fresh rosemary, strip off the leaves, and mince them, same as the onion. Measure out one tablespoon; add it to the onions.
Add half a teaspoon ground coriander, half a teaspoon ground cumin, and half a teaspoon salt. Crack in one egg.
Stick your hand into the bowl and start turning the mixture. Stop when your onions and meat are well-combined, and a handful holds together when you squeeze it.
Form the lamb mixture into golfball-size balls, setting them on the wax paper as you go.
Place a heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium heat. Brown the meatballs in the pan without adding oil – ground lamb, like sausage, will cook just fine in its own fat.
Drain the browned meatballs on paper towels, then slide them gently into the tomato sauce. Put the lid on the pan. Cook at a gentle simmer for an hour, stirring occasionally to make sure the sauce doesn’t burn on the bottom. (Add a little water if it seems to be getting too thick.)
When the cooking time is up, spoon the meatballs and sauce into a serving dish and sprinkle with extra chopped basil and mint. Serve with fresh ricotta for dolloping on top.
Note: This recipe multiplies well, and if you’re making it in big quantities, the meatballs can be cooked in covered pans in the oven at 350F for an hour.