Sunday, May 18, 2014

Food & Wine's beef ricotta meatballs, and more Road Trip (!)

I will give you this meatball recipe from Food & Wine's March 2014 issue, as long as you come along with me on a little more of my road trip to Iowa City. Meatballs are sort of hearty and American, aren't they, just as road trips are hearty and American? Did I mention that on a simple walk around my nice cousin's block -- all my cousins are nice of course, I did not mean to distinguish -- I found Grant Wood's home? He bought it thanks to the fortune he earned from painting American Gothic. The address is 1142 Court Street.

The house had belonged to a wealthy family who made their money in brickmaking. Across Court Street, the land slopes noticeably down; this is where the clay was dug to make the bricks that built the Oakes' fortune and the house. In spring the old clay pits are all flowering groundcover, and the trees in other people's backyards.

Now we will start our dinner, chopping, measuring, and braising as we travel. The recipe is "Beef ricotta meatballs with braised beet greens," but we will adapt it because it was a bit fussy and because it included anchovies, which I am sorry I cannot abide. If you have the inner strength to open a can of what looks like red earthworms and then cook with them, I salute you. For my part when a recipe calls for anchovies I substitute a drop or two of Worcestershire sauce, which I believe gives much the same flavor.

To begin, you will heat in a large skillet
1/2 cup olive oil 
and saute
1 carrot
1 onion
1 celery rib
all diced, until they begin to soften. Add 3 anchovy fillets (or not) diced, and some whisper of a tomato -- half a cup of tomato paste, a fresh chopped tomato, a ladleful of canned stewed tomatoes or what have you. Heat this little sauce to bubbling, then remove from heat, cover, and set aside.

Might this humble blue house date from the Civil War? Did women in long skirts and men in suits and neckties sit on this porch on hot summer evenings, anxiously scanning the newspapers for word on the 28th Iowa infantry? My walk around the block also took me past the site of this "Camp Pope," where the 28th mustered and drilled before setting out for war in December, 1862. The sign below,

standing on the lawn, explains that while most of Camp Pope's buildings were taken down and the materials re-used by local people immediately the men left, the house's location and construction do match a Civil War era date. So, I would think, do the massive overhanging trees, which look a lot like the massive overhanging junipers outside 1142 Court. Grant Wood planted those himself.

There are lots of interesting and mostly huge and well-to-do homes in Iowa City. The unkempt mansions are student lodging for the University of Iowa -- as may be the humble blue Civil War house with the styrofoam cooler and red couch on the porch. The gorgeous, very kempt mansions, many perched up on modest hills with gardens spilling down to the sidewalks, belong to University professors, especially those specializing in medical research.

Some people paint their houses yellow.

Three storeys seem to have been de rigueur for home building here in the -- 1880s?

Having made your sauce, now to your meatballs.

In a bowl, soak a thick slice of bread in 1/4 cup milk. In another bowl, combine
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
1 egg
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1 Tbsp finely diced parsley
1/2 Tablespoon ground fennel (seeds will do)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
Combine all this with the soaked bread. Mix well, roll into balls, and brown them briefly, half the batch at a time, in heated olive oil.

Return all the underdone meatballs to the browning skillet and add the reserved vegetable and tomato mixture, which serves as your braising sauce. Simmer everything over medium-low heat until the meatballs are cooked through, about twenty minutes. Serve sprinkled with chopped oregano, sea salt, and more parmesan.

Our recipe calls for beef, but I see no reason why we may not substitute pork. Which reminds us to take a look at this.

It's a part of a little sculpture park outside the Hoover/West Branch truck stop and rest area on I-80 near West Branch, Iowa. Products that the state is known for emerge from decorative flanges at the tops of a set of steel columns. An ear of corn, an acorn, a fish, some things hard to identify. And a pig. In  From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present -- 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun writes,
All styles of art are 'realistic.' They point to varied aspects and conceivings of experience, all of which possess reality, or they would not command the artist's interest in the first place and would not spark any response in the beholder.
Maybe there is the key to understanding what, really, is art. Look at it and decide if you get any response as a beholder.

Finally, home across the River -- people seem to call it only that, not the Mississippi -- which the 28th Iowa also had to cross a hundred and fifty years ago, without benefit of this bridge. 

Until next time, and the next recipe. My nice cousins fed us very well.

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