AN ITALIAN, AN AMERICAN & AN AUSTRIAN WALKED INTO our kitchen …
The Médoc meatball challenge
This is when we pick up where we left off. At the end of last post Mr. Carter Inskeep and his associates had just left us and what followed was a quiet week-end, en famille (quiet that is if you overlook the school show on Saturday night that ran “charmingly late” as usual). We had another workshop coming up days later and I was frankly in the mood to relax. I must admit thinking that the first workshop had gone so well, been so special, that we were bound for a slight disappointment with the second one. No doubt the group arriving would be very lovely but the big question was as always, how do you recreate magic?
I think I have the answer to that question, well partly at least, but before I get to that let me once again take a look at the Château log and remind myself of what happened in our house, just before and just after workshops number two and one:
Monday March 16th was a beautiful, warm day in St Yzans and just after noon Mr. Matthew Hranek, full-time (first class) traveler, style editor and our soon to be part-time neighbor walked into my kitchen with his usual swagger holding a single piece of very mediocre baguette (it’s a joke that takes too long to explain) which he then proceeded to eat. He was followed by his friend and architect, the Austrian Oskar Leo Kaufmann, who was accompanying Matt to make some work estimates on the properties across the street, recently acquired by Matt and his wife, the lovely Yolanda Edwards. Within minutes Matt and Oskar were sipping Rosé wine (the very first of the “summer” – for Rosé can only be served in summer … and “summer”) – and by sipping I mean drinking af fast as their lives depended on it. We had prepared a few little snacks, some Piémontaise salad, really good baguette, dried sausages, pickles – you get the picture. As soon as they were on bottle number two – and believe me that didn’t take very long, something about Americans fresh of the plane and ice-cold rosé that really works well together – another visitor presented herself in my kitchen. Allegra Pomilio of Pescara Italy who will be working with us on the workshops and seasonal restaurant had come by for a quick visit to see if we liked her and if she liked us – a two-day audition … with food & wine. As you can imagine the day after that is more or less a blur of foie gras, champagne, beautiful entrecôtes grilled on sarments, stunning Médoc wines and good times. What can I say, I liked Allegra a lot, I liked Oskar a lot and of course we all adore Mr. Hranek, although I must say that this time I missed him wearing his tuxedo in the evenings.
In the middle of all this food and fun blurriness, probably around midnight, my husband got it into his head that we should have a cooking competition the next day between all the visiting parties, the food should be Italian, probably meatballs … which later got changed into “Must be meatballs”. The raison d’être for this competition, according to Oddur, would be to A: Have fun B: Give me a little break C: Find out if Allegra could cook D: See how competitive Matt would get, even when competing against a 21-year-old. Let me just go on record and say that while all of the above may have figured in his plans the main reasons was probably that he just wanted meatballs. But fair enough, I like meatballs as much as the next girl, probably a little more.
The next day, an equally beautiful spring day, I stayed behind preparing for the workshop starting the next day but most of the group went looking for ingredients. First stop, the butcher in St-Estèphe (they have great lamb) where it seems to me Oddur dragged the butchers out of their store to pose for pictures with the contestants. They had lunch in Saint-Julien and bought a few great bottles of wine (thank you Oskar) to share in the evening. They arrived late (which made me a little nervous because I was preparing for a workshop) and starting prepping their cooking. That’s when I realized that Matt was in it to win it. He styled his surrounding, used hot water to remove the labels from the passata bottles, he was confident, even threatening. Matt’s mother is Italian and maybe he wanted to win this for his Mamma? Oskar wanted no part of this Italian war and proposed to make a little salad that he loves. When two Italians fight, nobody wants to get in the way. Allegra started slowly but showed great determination, she phoned her mother (quite a few times) she worked with precision and though she wasn’t very fast her commitment earned her some fans in the kitchen. She was not at all fazed by Mr. Hranek’s bullying. I just enjoyed it all, helped out a little bit with Allegra’s meatballs and fiddled around with a lemon ricotta ice cream that turned out pretty nice but will be perfected later. This was also the night that all our visitors fell in love with Bordeaux whites. I feel compelled to share the white wine list: Château Talbot from Saint Julien, Smith Haut Lafitte from Pessac, Villa Bel-Air from Graves, La Louvière from Pessac.
The sun really played ball with us that evening and shone through the front of the house, all the way to the kitchen where it lit up our little meatball jewels and made the atmosphere magical. Early on we pre-tested Matt’s meatballs and Allegra had to admit “they were good”. But Oddur would reserve his judgement until later. Matt’s king size meatballs, Italian-American style were really good, so was Allegra’s spaghetti with the cutest little meatballs. I was just glad I didn’t have to pick a winner.
The result was kind of boring, but probably fair. Oddur raised himself from his seat and declared the result a draw. Allegra was happy, Matt not so much. “WHAT?” was his reaction.
I just say, win or lose it’s all the same to me as long as the food is great!
When we thought our evening was more or less over, nothing left but to enjoy the ice-cream, and drift slowly into blissful food coma, Tim Steer, our resident gardener/musician threw us a little surprise. He and Anne had spent the afternoon in Bordeaux picking up the next group of people who were scheduled to start cooking in my kitchen/workshop the following morning. Due to a series of events, the pick-up had taken a bit longer and they were now stuck with a minibus filled with very patient but very hungry people, heading for a B&B with no room service, not even a bar. He asked if he could bring them all over, a day (or by then a few hours) early. Of course he could. We had two pots filled with delicious meatballs waiting for someone to have them. It was pure meatball destiny. Then another competition started, between Matt (of course) and Oddur, of who could be more entertaining, funnier, the bigger charmer. I picked my winner from that competition a long time ago but I must say it was close.
Which brings me back to what I said at the beginning of this text about recreating magic. First you have to tear the sentence apart – deconstruct it. You remove the re- and all you are left with is create. Magic should not be recreated but created. For it to be truly magic, it has to be new, unexpected, different every time. And it was. The first 6 ladies set the bar high, the next 4 + Kevin (remember Sunset wine from Wisconsin Florida?) managed to measure up in a very different but equally delightful way. I must say that the second group cried a little more and as I am writing this I can feel a tear coming, must stop now, love you ladies … I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, at the Soulac market or Anne’s Brocante.
Notes from the meatball judge. (my husband, Oddur)
So here I am, so soon after my annual post, stealing the spotlight again. I apologize profoundly but in my defense it’s for a good cause. Italian Meatballs.
For those of you who don’t know Matt he’s a brash, stylish, funny fellow. He loves food, and he loooves to win … at any cost. He intimidated, though in a playful way and tried (though not seriously) to undermine his contestant. He gets points for presentation (his styling was top-notch). He gets points for entertaing the audience and he gets a lot of points for his overblown confidence. He even gets points for showing a softer side and giving Allegra tips on the side (which she probably didn’t need, but still).
Allegra on the other hand is a fairly serious girl who never waivered from her task even if it ran a bit long. And credit to her she wasn’t fazed by Matt’s friendly bullying. She stretched and she reached. Many points for her perseverance.
But all those points mean nothing when it comes to picking a winner. The funny jokes or 24 karat smile (I’m talking about Matt here) or even the Rolex mean nothing. It’s all in the mouth. And my mouth told me that there was no winner because in the end they didn’t cook the same thing. One was meatballs on a plate, one was a pasta dish. Both were excellent, end of story. Except Matt is probably still wondering how he lost. So let me say it again “A draw is not losing, capisce!”
But the story doesn’t end here. Maybe there was a winner after all. By the time Allegra finished her meatballs it was so dark and everyone so hungry there was no time for shooting. I put some meatballs aside and promised to shoot them later. Which I did 48hrs later. I also put the rest of Matt’s meatballs in the fridge. Yes he made so much that even after feeding us, after feeding a whole workshop there was still lots left. So I cooked some spaghetti, shot the pasta with meatballs, ate it. Then I heated Matt’s meatballs, ate them too.
The result, a draw. Again. Everyone wins, especially the judge who got exactly what he wanted.
Beetroot, Avocado and Pine Nuts salad
Adapted by Oskar Kaufmann from Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe
2 small raw beetroots
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 red chilli, sliced finely
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra to finish
¼ teaspoon superfine or caster sugar
2 teaspoon Tabasco or Mexican Cholula hot sauce
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large avocado, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup pine nuts, slightly roasted
Peel the beetroots and slice them very thinly, around 2-3mm thick. It is best to use a mandoline. Put the beetroot in a pot with plenty of boiling water and simmer for three to five minutes, until semi-cooked; it should still be crunchy. Drain and put in a large bowl.
Add the red onion, vinegar, oil, sugar, chilli sauce, salt and pepper to the beetroot bowl and toss everything together gently with your hands are the best tool for this. [Use gloves since the beetroot will turn your hands pink.] Leave to one side for 10-15 minutes, then taste and see if you want to add more sugar, salt or vinegar – it needs to be sharp and sweetish.
When you’re ready to serve, spread half the beetroot mixture on a large platter or in a shallow bowl. Top with half the avocado. Drizzle one tablespoon of the lemon juice over the avocado. Sprinkle the coriander, mint, and pine nuts over the avocado slices. Add the rest of the beetroot and arrange the remaining ingredients on top. Drizzle with the remaining lemon juice and a little oil and serve.
1 onion, chopped finely
1 garlic, sliced finely
1 carrot, diced finely
1 liter /1 quart of tomato passata
A handful of basil leaves
5 tablespoons white wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Cook the garlic, carrot and onion for a few minutes, then pour the white wine and continue to cook for 6 minutes or until softened. Stir in the passata and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and cook for 2 hours or until thickened and reduced. Add a pinch of sugar if the taste is too acid and at the very end, throw in the basil leaves.
Tip: Add a tablespoon of grated parmesan to sauce before serving.
500 g/ 1 pound of minced meat ( I usually mix pork and veal )
80 g/ 1/2 cup stale bread, soaked in milk
1 garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of parsley (finely chopped)
60 g/ 2/3 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, then roll into 2 cm-diameter balls Heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Working in batches, fry meatballs, turning, for 3 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Set aside.
Add the meatballs to the sauce and continue to cook on a low heat for 15 min.
Matt’s Mama’s Meatballs
1 kilo/ 2 pounds ground beef (should not be too lean)
45 g/ 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese
60 g/ 1 cup breadcrumbs
2-3 garlic minced
60 g/ 1/2 cup crushed pine nuts (this is my addition)
A bunch of chopped parsley
Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Duck fat for frying
Extra Pecorino cheese, grated, for serving
For the sauce:
A few plugs of olive oil
2 garlic cloves, smashed
A small bunch of parsley, chopped finely
2 liters/ 2 quarts tomato passata
Make tomato sauce
Start with a warm pan, add a couple plugs of olive oil
Add 2 garlic cloves, smashed.
Throw in a handful parsley.
Season with salt and pepper.
Cook on a low heat for about 1 to 2 hours.
In a large bowl mix ALL ingredients – make nice medium-sized balls (Americano style), fry in duck fat until browned. (my mom would have used Crisco filling us all with trans fats – but in honor of the Médoc duck fat was used)
After frying the balls drain on paper and add to the sauce and cook for until they are cooked through – about 30 min.
Serve with extra sauce in a shallow bowl with some graded pecorino.