Cooking without recipes: understanding the meatball

I don’t always cook without recipes. But I rarely use a recipe for everyday food. I mean, honestly, you don’t need a recipe book for pasta. On the other hand, I always use a recipe when I’m baking, except for Butterfly Cakes, because they were the very first thing my Mum let me bake by myself and I even know those proportions in both imperial and metric. The main reason for the no-recipe situation is practicality. When it’s time to start cooking dinner, I generally open the fridge, take a look around, and then assemble whatever ingredients I need to make a meal for 5 people. It’s not that I have no idea what’s in my fridge, but rather that’s it’s not important. You can make different things with the same ingredients. I have a friend who is very organized. She plans her meals for the whole week on Sunday afternoons, writes them on a whiteboard in her kitchen and does the shopping accordingly. I find that amazing! So much so, that I tried it. OMG, what a horrible few days I spent trying to stick to my plan. It was OK for the first day, but one day I had planned something light when the weather suddenly changed and all I wanted was soup. Which wasn’t on my list. Then I had the problem of leftovers. There were always little portions left over, but since I had my meal already planned for the following day, instead of repurposing the leftovers and integrating them into a new meal like I usually do, they were loose ends I didn’t know what to do with. I realized that cooking to plan wasn’t my thing. To my friend, the plan means freedom to not worry about dinner, because the decision is already made, the groceries are bought and allocated, she can even leave out the recipe, ready to delegate if she so pleases. To me, the plan meant pressure to want whatever was planned, the obligation to not make something else one day which would leave another meal with a missing ingredient. Ironically, the act of planning ahead, stressed me out. In the same way, my friend follows recipes exactly. She will not substitute any ingredients, because if a recipe calls for shallots and not onions, there must be a good reason. Me, on the other hand, I freely swap things around based either on availability or whim. The ability to do this successfully, I am sure, come from experience. Cooking without recipes requires you to understand how something works. For example, I think it’s safe to say that if you know how to make one specific dish, say, Quiche Lorraine, you can make quiche with whatever the heck you want and it’ll turn out fine. Some experiments might taste better than others, but the general makeup of “quiche” remains the same: pastry base (different possibilities here), some sort of filling (veg, meat, fish?) with some sort of egg/cream mix to bind it all together. Agree? There is obviously nothing wrong with writing down your favourite combinations. I do that, too, but to give you an idea, a friend gave me a beautiful little recipe book in 1997. I must be on page 10 or so. So… meatballs! Basic meatball ingredients are:

  • meat
  • seasoning
  • usually an egg
  • usually something to bind it with (flour, breadcrumbs…)
  • often a herb (parsley, coriander…)
  • often onion or garlic

When I was a kid in Germany, my mother used to make Frikadellen which are ground beef meatballs you can eat hot with brown gravy, green paper sauce, or even cold with mustard. I loved them! A few years ago I came across the Italian chef Fabio Viviani on Yahoo’s Ciao Chow channel and saw him make Italian meatballs with ricotta. My kids love them, so now they are a staple in our house. Returning from a trip to Thailand a few years ago, I felt inspired by all the flavours I had discovered and made Asian-ish chicken meatballs with curry and coriander and a yoghurt dip. No recipe. I just thought about what might go well together based on past experience and tried making them as finger food for a party with friends. They loved them, so I make them quite a lot to go with drinks. I like to make lamb meatballs with Ras-el-hanut spice and a side dish of bulgur salad and honeyed onions. Just because. I sometimes take my kids to IKEA just for the Swedish meatballs (Of course we don’t go at the weekends. What do you think I am? Crazy?). Some meatballs are fried in a frying pan. Others are cooked in tomato sauce or in simmering beef stock… Meatballs are so versatile! Oh, did I say you needed meat? Well, just this week on his Facebook page, Jamie Oliver put up a recipe for meat-free meatballs! I haven’t tried them, so I can’t give you my opinion on their taste and how much effort goes into making them, but I love the concept. My point is that once you have understood what the different ingredients bring to the mix, you can swap them for others. You have no ricotta? Look if you have cream cheese or something similar. Are you missing a spice to complete the line-up? Sniff your containers and decide which one would fit in. Are you out of parsley, but have sage? Are you a bit short on ground beef, but have sausage meat? Have you some leftover peas and carrots you’d like to get rid of? Toss them in the mix! So, in the words of some wise and wonderful Kung Fu master of old, to make the meatball, you must know the meatball. IMG_8108 IMG_8112 IMG_8116 For Fabio’s meatball recipe, here’s the video (there’s a long version on YouTube):

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