I love meatballs. There are no two ways about it – I love them: it's as simple as that.
And not just because meatballs are great food – which they are – but because it was one of the first things that I really felt that I could make well.
That was thanks to a recipe that my friend George gave me: a version involving paprika and sherry, and with the nuggets of tastiness cooked together in their sauce with small potatoes.
I've tried other versions since and those too have worked, and I still regularly cook that Spanish-style one. But tonight, it was meatballs with a tomato sauce and pasta, and for the first time, it was cooked without as much as a single glance at a recipe book and absolutely no recourse to the scales or a jug or anything else to measure with.
So, here's what I did.
For two people:
Take around 150g of pork mince and 150g beef mince. To these add, one thick slice of stale bread that has had the crusts removed and been blitzed into breadcrumbs.
Add a good teaspoon or two of paprika and around the same of dried oregano.
Meatballs don't need to have egg added – this is a myth (and the same goes for burgers too). Thankfully, this was a hint that George included with that recipe and it's never served me wrong. After mixing together the ingredients, keep your hands just moist and roll into balls about the size of a walnut. The above quantities gave me 10 and a baby one.
Gently heat some butter in a large sauté pan. When it's starting to foam and you can smell that lovely aroma, add the meatballs. Don't move them around; let them caramelise. When one part is done, turn them gently and so on, until they've got a lovely, golden surface. Remove to a plate.
Next, add a chopped onion, a chopped stick of celery and a finely chopped clove or two of garlic to the pan and soften gently. If you need it, add a little more butter or some olive oil, although apparently it's also a myth that adding olive oil stops the butter burning – but that's why you need to go gently (thank you, Raymond Blanc).
When all this has softened, add a tin of plum tomatoes (preferably ones in their own juice). If you only have a tin of complete ones in the cupboard, just cut them up roughly in the pan.
Rinse the tin out with hot water and add that (no need to waste that juice and no need for any stock). Check the taste and add salt as required. Grind in plenty of black pepper, add some more paprika and a little touch of dried chili, then a good squeeze of tomato purée.
Next up, a glug of milk – yes, you read that right. Tinned tomatoes are great – no less a culinary luminary than Escoffier championed them – but they can be a touch acidic, so the milk will counter that, and you won't even notice it. Finally, a teaspoon of brown sugar.
Stir it all gently – and taste again – bring to the boil and add the meatballs. Cover and turn the heat down to a minimum. Give it 20 minutes.
Then cook your pasta. I used linguine, with a recommended cooking time of 11 minutes. But since visiting Italy last year, the realisation has dawned that such timings do not actually produce pasta as you find it there. It might be supposed to be al dente, but in Italian reality, that doesn't seem to mean what is produced when you cook something for the time listed on the packet. Or not in my experience.
So it needs a minute or three more. While that's happening, take the lid off the meatballs and sauce, and turn up the heat.
Take a colander and rinse it under hot water before decanting the pasta in it to drain. Plate up the pasta.
By this time, the sauce will be velvety smooth, with chunky bits. Blanc says not to cut onion two finely if you don't want it to melt away but to give you some texture.
And that is that.
The meatballs were light and the sauce full of layers of flavour – the paprika really adds something. That was a darned good dish.
And if I loved meatballs before, I think it's even more the case now. Because cooking like this – without a recipe, without scales – is what Nigel Slater talks about. Now, finally, with some real knowledge and understanding, and some experience, I can cook with passion rather than simply by rote.