29 May, 2007

a visit from the Midwest (and the best meatballs ever)

How many of your college roommates do you keep up with? I have to confess honestly to only about... four. It isn't that I didn't appreciate them while I was in school, and in fact I remember quite panicking on the last day of college in 1987 when I realised that, for the first time in four years, I was going to have to make new friends. All that history, in the hothouse environment that is (or was, in the much more innocent days 20 years ago) a sorority at a very small university in the remote-ish wilds of central Indiana. We all made very fast friends.

But then I moved away, and it was as if a curtain came down between 1987 and the rest of my life. All new people, all new places, shortly to cross the pond to live in London the first time around in 1990 and REALLY start over. And through the years the number of girls I kept in touch with dwindled, down to just a few whose name on an email or Christmas card gladdens my heart and takes me back to such a different time and place. And one of them is Cynthia. Would you believe she married my husband's college roommate? What are the odds. And a couple of months ago she got in touch to say she would be in London with her family and could we get together? I realised that the last time I saw her was at our tenth college reunion and my last photograph of her was with six-month-old Avery on her shoulder.

It was wonderful to get together. There is something about a Midwestern girl, and her family, that is unchanging: a sense of forthrightness, total honesty, patient affection, good-humoured generosity and cheerful optimism. I almost forget about those qualities, or at least forget that I miss them, until I'm back with one of my own and I realise what a lovely profile that is. A very steadying feeling in a life that still at times feels foreign, where nearly all my friends were strangers a year and a half ago. Someone who remembers me at age 18! She brought pictures of John and me 24 years ago: scary indeed. Why did I ever think a red polyester dress with enormous shoulder pads was a good look for me? Impossibly young and innocent looking, we were.

Our children got on famously. We had a nice dinner, and one thing took me back to my childhood: Cynthia helped me in the kitchen! In both New York and London, I have found (but never thought of it until Cynthia was here), dinner guests are just guests. Every once in awhile there's a token offer of help, quickly dismissed, but most of the time no one offers. It just isn't done, and you wouldn't offer at someone else's house either. You're company. You know that you're there to be given something delicious for which you aren't allowed to make any effort, and when your hosts come to you, they'll be able to lean back and do nothing as well. And it's a perfectly nice custom.

But something about Cynthia's carrying dishes from the kitchen to the dining room, and helping clear up afterward, was a total throwback to my early life when it was always all hands on deck in everyone's house. More of a family feeling, less of a performance. Any transplanted Midwesterner will know what I mean. We had a lovely time. I hope it isn't another ten years before I see them all again.

The day before their visit was... meatball heaven. While you'll have to make a bit of an effort to find the spices, it's so worth it. Follow the links in this post, and you'll be all set. It was our Morocco trip reunion of sorts, with Vincent, Peter, Mike, his boyfriend Jean-Jacques, and Boyd sitting around the table tucking in. If you're lucky enough to have a Moroccan or Lebanese grocery near you, as I have in Green Valley in Upper Berkeley Street, ask for "mince for kefta" and you will be given a ready-mixed blend of lamb, parsley, tiny grains of rice and some mysterious herbs. If not, plain lamb mince is just fine too. And all the spice quantities can be adjusted to suit your palate. Ours is a fairly spicy blend, down to the cayenne, which we liked and even went over a treat with three little girls.

Lamb Kefta with Poached Eggs
(served ten but just barely)

1 1/2 kilos lamb kefta mince, rolled into little 1-inch meatballs

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 white onion, finely minced
10 soup-size cans peeled plum tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, minced, if using plain lamb mince
1 tbsp ras el hanout
1 1/2 tbsps ground cumin
1 tbsp lemon-ginger powder
1 tbsp sweet paprika
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tbsp salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
5 tbsps fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley

In a very large, heavy-bottomed deep saucepan, saute the onion in the oil and add tomatoes and all the flavorings except 3 tbsps of the parsley, which should be set aside. Stir occasionally over a medium heat, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. In my humble opinion, there is no place in this life for tinned chopped tomatoes. Don't you wonder what sort of tomatoes they use when they know they can get away with them not looking like a tomato? Just buy whole and break them up during the cooking process, I say.

This sauce must simmer for at least two hours, but it can sit almost indefinitely. I bet it is even better the second day, but... there was no second day. We ate it all.

About an hour before you want to serve the dish, drop the meatballs into the sauce, in one even layer, as many as you can fit (we ended up with 50 meatballs and about half fit the first time around). Then cover the pan and leave to simmer for 20 minutes. Lift the lid and the meatballs will be cooked enough to be quite hardy, so you can stir them about to make room for the other half of the meatballs. Cover again and cook until done, about 30 minutes. Again, these can sit almost indefinitely with no risk of becoming tough.

When the meatballs are thoroughly cooked and you are about 10 minutes away from serving, break eggs, one at a time, into a soup ladle and lower into the sauce, as many as you can fit (we managed about 8). Cover and cook until the eggs are poached, about 8 minutes. Throw the remaining parsley on top. Resist the temptation to play with the eggs until they are cooked through! I didn't manage to make the eggs look perfect, but hey, it was the first time and they tasted lovely anyway. A bite of egg yolk and a bite of meatball smothered in the sauce was... divine.

This dish smells like nothing in this world. Your guests will feel they have died and gone to heaven, and you will be a star. I served this with steamed potatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with parsley, and a salad made of cucumbers and dill in sour cream. Oooh, I wish I had some now.


We're headed out to Richmond-on-Thames to see a play, so I will have to wait until later to tell you about our... house? Maybe! Fingers crossed.

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