In addition, I have had a busy week and am headed into another few busy days. Instead of cooking today, the combination of the cool and misty weather and the lull in life's busyness brought on a long nap. It's kind of a perfect day to be able to pull something delicious out of the freezer and augment it with market produce and pantry staples:
I occasionally teach a class called "The Well-Stocked Pantry". In addition to talking about maintaining pantry staples (pasta, dried beans, spices, aged cheeses, condiments, storage vegetables like carrots, onions & potatoes, etc.), I talk about making your own "frozen dinners" that are frozen in portions that you are likely to use. Lots of home-cooked foods freeze very well—certain pasta sauces, stews, baked goods, vegetable casseroles (like Moussaka), just to name a few. If you make a habit of freezing your own prepared foods, then on nights when you don't have any time (or maybe you're just not in the mood to cook) you can still eat very well.
Tonight I decided to pull a container of chicken meatballs out of the freezer. Meatballs are time-consuming to prepare. Since they freeze well, it makes sense to make a large batch when you make them. On a day like today, to be able to sit down to a meal of homemade meatballs is truly a luxury. All I needed to round out the meal was a starch and a vegetable.
These meatballs are a favorite from an old issue of Food & Wine. They are cooked in a rich tomato sauce and I always like to serve them with a dark green vegetable like Swiss Chard, Spinach, Broccolini or Broccoli (although, they're pretty good with roasted carrots, too). I had picked up both broccoli (the first of the season!) and spinach at the market on Saturday. Spinach takes more effort to prepare (strip the leaves, wash multiple times...). The broccoli only takes a few seconds (just cut into florets and rinse). Since this was a lazy food night, I went for the broccoli. After cutting it up, I blanched it in boiling salted water. Broccoli goes from being firm to overly soft pretty quickly, so I usually start tasting it at about two minutes. It's done when it's cooked the way you like it. Drain it, shake the excess water off and dress it with a drizzle of a fragrant olive oil.
This meatball recipe makes a generous amount of sauce, so for the starch, something simple to go with all the sauce is best—mashed potatoes, buttered couscous or rice, polenta or noodles. I had some Idaho potatoes on hand, so I made mashed potatoes. From start to finish the meal took less than 45 minutes to prepare—and I had time to sit down and work on this post while the potatoes cooked.
My only problem now is I have finished off my last container of frozen chicken meatballs. If we are going to have a cold summer, I may have to make some more....
Chicken & Arugula Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for sautéing the meatballs
3 thin slices pancetta or bacon, (about 2 ounces), chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 oz. arugula (or spinach), stemmed and finely chopped
1 pound ground chicken (dark meat is best)
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons plain dry bread crumbs
½ cup freshly grated Pecorino-Romano cheese (about 1 ½ ounces)
2 tablespoons drained capers, chopped
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 large shallots, minced
¼ cup brandy
One 35-ounce can Italian peeled tomatoes with juice, coarsely chopped in a food processor (this is a difficult sized can to find, a 28-oz. can is fine, but you can add half of a 14-oz. can if you like a lot of sauce)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a large non-reactive skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the pancetta and cook over moderate heat until crisp, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the arugula and cook, stirring, until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and let cool.
In a large bowl, combine the ground chicken, bread crumbs, cheese, capers, egg, ¾ teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper. Add the arugula mixture and beat until well blended. Roll the mixture by teaspoonfuls into ¾ -inch balls.
In a large skillet, heat some more olive oil. Add half of the meatballs in a single layer and cook over moderate heat, turning, until browned all over, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to a large plate. Repeat with the second batch of meatballs, adding more oil if necessary. Discard the fat and wipe out the skillet.
In the same skillet, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the shallots and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the brandy, raise the heat to high and cook until evaporated. Add the tomatoes and thyme and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce is thickened, about 8 minutes.
Add the meatballs to the sauce and simmer over low heat until hot through and very tender—15 to 20 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.
(Recipe adapted from Food & Wine, May 1997)