Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

I love to travel. So much so that I surprised people a few months back on a Facebook quiz by saying, even above cooking, that it’s my favorite thing to do. That quiz was not fabricated; similarly to good meals, I find myself thinking about our next vacation as soon as the current one is over. Last year (yes, it was sooooo 2009) we ‘took it easy’ and spent a week in Antigua, soaking up as many rays as the Caribbean sun would allow, scratching mosquito bites that only I seemed to get, and drinking more Merlot than I, quite frankly, cared to drink in a lifetime – but when it’s ‘free’ you gots to drink what they give you! Plus, for Merlot, it was good.

We took a long weekend trip to Napa as well, at which time I fell in love with the place and have made it my life’s goal to own a B&B there. And the year before Antigua, we were in Spain. I smuggled chorizo, ate kangaroo, and shopped in an outdoor grocery market that was so big, and so awesome, that I couldn’t have even dreamed it up. Strangely enough, it was in Spain that I was summoned by Morocco.

Yes, Morocco. Literally a hop, skip, and a jump across the Mediterranean Sea via the south of Spain lies beautiful, colorful, Morocco. Ever so slightly, I was reminded of its’ proximity to Sevilla, a city we’d considered touring during our visit. I thought about how easily we could hop on over to Morocco for a day or two, ending our trip back into Spain with a relaxing day at a beach along the Costa del Sol. Then I remembered Barcelona and Hubs’ insistence on not ‘city-hopping’ but instead taking in the sights at a relaxing pace – and I knew Morocco and all that Spanish sunshine would have to wait.

So, in the meantime, we have cold, we have snow, we have cloudy skies, and we have meatballs. Meatballs haphazardly studded with onions, garlic, and the next best thing you can add besides a trip to Morocco itself – all of its’ amazing spices & herbs – cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cilantro, parsley. I tell you, those Moroccans – they know a thing or two about spices. There’s the fresh, almost floral hint of ginger, the sweet warmth of cinnamon, and the turmeric and saffron – in small quantities – help to round off the spice profile but also color the dish a beautiful golden, amber shade. And then you’ve got the bitterness of spinach, the acidic tomatoes, and the golden raisins working together in a totally harmonious way so that every bite is true perfection.

You may not actually be there, but if you eat this (and add the b’stilla from last week to your weekly menu), you may soon find yourself searching Expedia for the next trip, just like me.

Moroccan Beef Meatball Tagine
Adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2010; serves 6

‘tagine’ has double meaning: in some cases, it’s the oddly-shaped clay cooking vessel with a triangular lid, made to keep condensation on the bottom of the dish. Here, it’s an actual Moroccan stew, which is commonly called a ‘tagine’. I prefer the stew with a nutty, firm grain like barley or farro – they are great in the stew, adding a nice texture. if you’d prefer though, go all-Moroccan and use couscous.

printable recipe


1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1/3 c coarsely grated onion
1/3 c panko breadcrumbs
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
1 lg egg, beaten to blend
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 t turmeric
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t ground cinnamon
1/2 t ground nutmeg
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1/2 t coarse kosher salt
1/4 t ground ginger

1 c pearled barley (or other grain, like farro)
1 T olive oil
3 1/2 c chopped onions
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cinnamon stick
1 t turmeric
1/8 t saffron threads, crumbled
2 c beef broth
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
1/4 c golden raisins
2 c 1/2-inch-thick carrot slices (cut on diagonal)
1 zucchini, peeled and sliced diagnoally (optional, if you have it)
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro plus additional for garnish
1 5-ounce package baby spinach leaves
cilantro and lemons, for garnish, optional

For meatballs:
Line large rimmed baking sheet with plastic wrap. Gently mix all ingredients in large bowl. Using moistened hands and 2 tablespoonfuls for each, roll meat mixture into 1 1/2-inch meatballs. Arrange meatballs on sheet.

For stew:
Bring barley and 3 cups of water to boil and reduce to simmer. Cover and cook about 1 hour or until tender. Keep warm.

Heat oil in heavy large ovenproof pot over medium heat. Add onions; sauté about 15 minutes. Add garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, and saffron; stir 2 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes with juice, and raisins.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Bring stew to simmer. Stir in carrots and zucchini. Carefully add meatballs to stew; gently press into liquid to submerge. Sprinkle 1/4 cup cilantro over. Cover pot; place in oven. Bake until meatballs are cooked through and carrots are tender, about 35 minutes. Sprinkle spinach over stew. Cover and bake until spinach wilts, about 5 minutes longer. Gently stir to mix in spinach, being careful not to break meatballs. Remove cinnamon stick. Season tagine with salt and pepper. Spoon couscous into bowls; top with tagine. Garnish with cilantro and lemons.

A Marriage of the Minds = Music + Meatballs

Pearl Jam set

We are getting ready to head out to Napa for a 4 day weekend. Tomorrow will center around finishing up some things at work amidst a day full of seeing patients and talking about genetic testing, grabbing some last minute goods at the shops such as new sunglasses (we haven’t seen too much sun here in Chicago so they haven’t been a necessity yet as they probably/hopefully will be for Napa) and picking tunes for the drives up and down highways 29 and 128. Then packing. Packing sucks. I dread it immensely and without fail will forget something. Luckily I haven’t forgotten PJ’s in a long time, but that’s about due.

One of Chris’ responsibilities, which he would consider it more of a leisurely activity than a chore, is picking out our music. A chore is something like taking out the trash, holding the mail, cleaning the litter box – all things he is very skilled and adept at completing. We’ll be driving around a decent amount (unless I can talk him into a hot air balloon ride which is practically out of the question giving his relentless fear of heights, or perhaps a bike trip. That might happen. Keep your fingers crossed for me), and since we’ll be in the car, we absolutely can NOT enjoy the silence and quietly breathe in the fresh open air of the valleys and wineries beyond, perhaps the ocean. We can NOT enjoy each others voices, at least we can NOT enjoy our voices unless we are screaming above some new music such as the Decemberists or some old music such as Pearl Jam’s Ten Collectors’ Edition. Not that I’m complaining. I love music. Just not quite as much as he does. But on the same token, he doesn’t love cooking, reading about food, and eating food quite as much as I do. So we meet in the middle. And it works. It works quite well.

more Pearl Jam set

Let me use tonight’s experience as my example. Following a full work day for the both of us, I was looking forward to a glass of Pinot and a fettucine & meatball recipe I’d pulled out of my recipe stack. He was looking forward to coming home and slowly perusing his new Pearl Jam vinyl, which is a collectors’ version of their first album, Ten. Now, PJ is one of my absolute favorite bands. Hands down. Next to the Chili Peppers. I too have been looking forward to this purchase. I’m sure he has tracked the shipping since it left Amazon. It arrived today. He took his lunch break to begin the process. Once he arrived home, he was saddened by my inability to meet his excitement – which wasn’t because I was truly not excited, but because I was right smack in the middle of browning meatballs in my favorite Dutch oven. Meatballs that were being stubborn and sticking because I didn’t dump enough oil into the pot. He decided to start the first side of the vinyl and enjoy the music, and he’d wait until I had a “break” from cooking to share the other goodies with me. How nice of him – he IS a doll. Most of the time 🙂

So, he sat and listened. And I browned meatballs. Every now and then, he’d point out some differences in the new-and-improved album. I’d agree. And I’d return to browning. By this point I was making the sofrito (onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes – similar to the French mirepoix). He’d meandered over to the kitchen with some of the goodies. Which meant he was getting antsy and wanting to share his new treasure. I had a break and had just turned the heat to low to let the sauce slowly simmer its way to a thick aromatic consistency. And I can prepare pasta with my eyes closed, so I was practically finished.

sticky balls

So together, we delved (he re-delved) into this work of art. If you are a Pearl Jam fan, you should consider this purchase. What is cooler than a re-release of one of the best albums, if not THE BEST album, of the early 90’s?! A re-make two years in the making, packaged in a cloth-bound vinyl shaped box with CD’s, vinyls, memorabilia, concert posters, and a cassette tape of Vedder’s first audition to be a part of this wonderful band. Can’t get much better.

sauce making

And as if the Pearl Jam box o’ wonders wasn’t good enough, we still hadn’t eaten dinner! oh my! So I did have to get back to the stove and finish the meal. It was definitely a recipe worth being on my waitlist. Full of flavor. Smoky. Spicy. Meaty. Yummy. And similar to the PJ album, it was a reinvention of an old standby, spaghetti and meatballs. This time with fuller flavor but with all the old charm. If you can’t stomach the small fortune the PJ remake costs, this meal will for sure fit the bill. I think the most expensive ingredient was the ham – but if you buy extra you’ll have some yummy samiches for a later day.

smoky meatballs in serrano ham sauce

Smoky Meatballs in Serrano Ham Tomato Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light magazine; serves 4

  • 1 (1 1/2-ounce) slice white bread
  • 1 pound 92% lean ground beef
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 2 ounces serrano ham, finely chopped
  • Cooking spray
  • 2 cups chopped onion
  • 1 1/4 cups chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1/2 cup dry sherry
  • 1 (28-ounce) can no-salt-added whole peeled tomatoes, undrained and chopped
  • 4 cups hot cooked fettuccine (about 8 ounces uncooked pasta)
  • 1/4 cup (1 ounce) finely shredded aged Manchego cheese
  • Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)



1. Place bread in a food processor; pulse 12 times or until coarse crumbs measure 1/2 cup. Combine breadcrumbs, beef, and next 7 ingredients (through egg) in a bowl. Using wet hands, shape mixture into 20 (about 2 tablespoons each) meatballs. Set aside.


2. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add ham to pan, and cook for 3 minutes or until well browned, stirring frequently. Transfer to a large bowl. Add remaining 1 teaspoon oil to pan. Add meatballs; cook for 5 minutes or until browned, turning often. Add meatballs to ham in bowl. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add onion, bell pepper, and garlic to pan; cook 5 minutes or until tender, stirring often. Add sherry; cook for 3 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates, scraping pan to loosen browned bits. Add tomatoes and meatball mixture; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 minutes or until sauce is slightly thickened. Remove from heat, and keep warm.


3. Place 1 cup pasta in each of 4 shallow bowls; top each serving with 5 meatballs, 3/4 cup sauce, and 1 tablespoon shredded Manchego cheese. Garnish with additional parsley, if desired.

all mixed up