I woke up with an insatiable need to eat a meatball parm sub, and when you live in China, that can be problematic. First of all, there are Italian eateries in Changzhou, but they can either be very pricey or some can be slightly off when it comes to taste and flavor. Changzhou doesn’t have a significant expat population enough to support all the western restaurants there could be. Also, if you consider that there are more foreigners in Xinbei than in Wujin, most Italian places tend to be downtown or more to the north. As a result, a lot of “western” cuisine gets needlessly spiced up to attract the locals. It makes sense; restaurants are businesses, and they need to put butts into chairs to make money. I’m sorry, though, but spaghetti sauce shouldn’t taste like it came from Hunan or Sichuan provinces. It defeats the purpose of Italian food!
Forgive me if I sound a little grouchy on the subject. First of all, by way of my mother, I am half Italian. Second, my entire family heritage comes from New Jersey. New Jersey-ites tend to be very passionate about food. This is why, for example, the state has approximately 9,000,000,000,000.8 Italian joints and pizzerias, and inside all of them, you’ll always find somebody complaining about how the food is not perfect. “My mother can cook better than this,” you will hear somebody grumble. And it’s true. I’ve said it too! My dearly departed mother was the best cook on the planet, and if you disagree, them will be fighting words, pal. Of course I am being slightly sarcastic – about the fighting part, not about my mom being the awesomest cook. So, I faced a dilemma. If I lived in New Jersey, I would just simply drive to Wegman’s in Ocean Township or go to Pete and Elda’s in Neptune and just pay for some meatballs.
The only choice I had was to make some myself. It shouldn’t be that, hard, I reasoned. I grew up watching my mother cook. I sort of knew her recipe, but I would have to change it suit the ingredients available to me. Unfortunately for me, all my meat was in my freezer. I had nothing ready to use. So, I would have to make several stops before actually getting down to cooking. With my back pack slung over my shoulder, I set out to get all that I would need. I hopped on my electric scooter, zipped out of the north gate of my college. Ten minutes later, I found myself at Grandma’s Nook and talking to Satina Anziano. Like me, she has Italian heritage. So also comes from Long Island. Her bakery offers a number of specialty breads that you just can’t get in any supermarket. In New Jersey, subs and hot hoagies are nearly a religion, and it must start with good bread. Poorly baked bread can just kill a hoagie dead in its tracks. Lucky for me, Satina had some good, small French loaves in her freezer. I bought all of them. Of course, I stayed and chatted for a while. That just led me to just buying more and more stuff – like Russian tea cakes. Satina also showed me her friend and colleagues’ cured meats. Stuff like pastrami, corned beef, and kielbasa. I had to flee! I was hungry, and didn’t want to just drool all over the place and spend all the money in my wallet. When I told her my plan for meatballs, she even gave me some fresh basil.
Tesco became my second stop. I needed ground pork, at least. My mother always mixed ground pork and beef together. Normally, the Hutang Tesco’s beef looks brown and disgusting. It’s expensive on top of that. I actually saw a package that had been marked down for clearance, and it didn’t have the yucky brown look that normally repulsed me. So, I grabbed it, happy to know I was just a little bit closer to my mother’s recipe. Then, I hoped on my moped and drove home stopping at for red lights and one car crash on Changwu Road near the overpass.
Once, I got home, I felt thoroughly embarrassed. I noticed I was out of garlic, and what self-respecting Italian doesn’t hoard garlic in his kitchen? There were two other departures from how my mom did things. She used dried breadcrumbs from sliced of white bread she would chop up and leave out overnight. Of course, I didn’t have that. I also was about to use fennel seeds in the meat. My mom never did that, but you always find fennel in Italian pork sausage. The actually prep work involved washing my hands first. My mother used to say, “Don’t spice your food with dirt!” This was a necessity of course, because the first step to making meatballs involves actually mixing the beef and the pork. The easiest way to do that involves putting your hands and fingers into the raw meat and squishing things around. When I was a kid, I was afraid to do this. “Richard, are you a man or a mouse? Get your hands in there!”
I then dumped in some fennel, some oregano, and Satina’s fresh basil that I had previously chopped up. An egg needed to go in there as a practicality. Otherwise, the ground meat will not stick together properly. While thoroughly kneading the meat, I had two cans of diced tomatoes and some more basil simmering in a skillet on my induction hot plate. Of course, it needed a lot of chopped garlic, but careless me would have to do without. Once I had the meat and the spices thoroughly mixed, I plucked out lumps one at a time. The best way to shape the balls is to roll the meat gently between both palms. I tried to get them perfectly round before dropping them, one by one, into the simmering tomato sauce. Once they were all in, I made sure to spoon some sauce over top. Some people like to brown meatballs before adding the sauce. (My mom did). I don’t (sorry mom!). I’ve found that cooking them directly into sauce gives the sauce a richer flavor. It was just a case of letting them simmer and turning them slowly and one by one to make sure they were evenly cooked.
Once they were done, I cut open one of Satina’s French loaves, hollowed out some of the bread to make room. There meatballs went into the bread. I spooned some sauce on to and added parmesan cheese. Then, I unceremoniously wolfed it all down in a matter of minutes. After all the legwork involved, I just shoved the thing into my face and didn’t savor my hard work. The leftovers went into Tupperware for lunch on other days. So, how was it? Well, the sauce suffered tremendously from a lack of garlic, salt, and pepper. I would have preferred mozzarella over parmesan cheese. Still, parm is a lot easier to find in China. That said, it was good. The truth is this, though: my mom’s meatballs were much better. They always will be.