“On top of spaghetti, all covered with” — actually, hold the cheese. These meatballs are kosher.
The person responsible for transforming the classic Italian-American staple that is usually made with ground pork — in addition to ground beef and veal — and at least one type of cheese is Marcia Friedman. The cookbook author was on hand to share her family-favorite meatball recipe from her new cookbook, Meatballs and Matzah Balls: Recipes and Reflections from a Jewish and Italian Life at the Gershman Y’s Book It! event on Feb. 4.
The Italian-American Friedman was raised in a fairly Christian household, but converted to Judaism about 20 years ago.
She saw Judaism — its values, traditions and history — through her husband’s eyes, and found that the more she studied and learned, the more she embraced it.
Friedman does not keep a strictly kosher kitchen at home — no pork or shellfish allowed, for example — but all of the recipes in her cookbook can be made kosher.
At the Gershman Y, she prepared the aforementioned orbs with kosher meat, fresh vegetables, spices and tomato sauces.
At first, Friedman acknowledged, the rules of kashrut and the tiny details that followed were difficult to perfect, especially for Passover seders.
“Coming from Italian traditions, I never thought about mixing milk and meat,” she said. At other times, she thought she was “all set on a swordfish recipe, but I didn’t realize that some authorities don’t consider it kosher.”
Eventually, she found that Italian and Jewish cuisines have a lot of similarities.
“Culturally, Italians and Jews really have a great emphasis on food and coming together around the table and having that be a very meaningful experience,” she observed. “Culinarily speaking, there’s the overlap of some of their foods, which was probably due to the travels of Romans and Jews across Europe. So there was a little bit of a cross-pollination of some of the types of foods that they were making.”
For example, twice-baked cookies with almonds overlap both cultures, as seen and tasted with Italian biscotti and Jewish mandelbrot.
It took Friedman about 10 years to write the book, time that included gathering recipes from family members — her husband’s grandfather’s latkes, her dad’s tomato sauce — and tweaking classic dishes on her own.
“Some recipes were brand new, ones that I wanted to create that represented both traditions to me personally,” she said.
“As I was exploring these cuisines and trying to get better in touch with Jewish food, I looked to some classics like matzah balls and created my own version” — one that involves cooking the knaydlach in olive oil.
She also blended those traditions into the signature dish of the book, a meatball-matzah ball Jewish-Italian dumplings recipe that, she explained, is a mash-up manifestation of “what I was trying to do in my own life.”
Some recipes are based on dishes she had never prepared before, like brisket.
Her mother-in-law discovered a new brisket recipe around Passover one year, and Friedman offered to help.
“I really had no appreciation at that point about how long it takes to cook a brisket and, really, what to expect,” she confessed. “So I was pretty distressed when it wasn’t cooking the way I expected it to, but then it actually turned out quite good.”
Friedman is always looking for new recipes to try, and to learn more about the history and traditions.
“I don’t want to stop learning,” she said. “It’s just been so fun — I’m always looking at new recipes. I actually love just kind of going down the rabbit hole when I’m researching recipes and enjoying the history so much.”
Friedman hopes the cookbook provides inspiration for others, too.
“I hope [the book] is something that can be inspiring, especially to people who have converted or maybe are thinking about converting, or interfaith families — just trying to find ways to integrate Jewish culture and flavor into their lives in a meaningful way.”
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737
It seems like we can never have too many of these meatballs, a childhood favorite of mine. Browned in olive oil and braised in tomato sauce, the seasoned beef becomes tender and richly flavored with spices and tomatoes. Serve the meatballs as appetizers or with the cooking sauce over pasta. The only significant change I’ve made to my mom and dad’s tried-and-true recipe is to omit the cheese to make them kosher.
2 lbs. ground beef
¾ cup finely chopped sweet onion
2 thick slices of nondairy sandwich bread (with crusts discarded), thoroughly soaked in water and gently squeezed of excess
¾ tsp. salt, or to taste
1½ tsps. garlic powder
1½ tsps. dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
Extra-virgin olive oil
Tomato sauce (Berney’s Italian Tomato Sauce from Meatballs and Matzah Balls or your favorite tomato sauce)
Mix beef and next seven ingredients (through eggs) together in a bowl until just combined. Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a large pan (such as a Dutch oven or frying pan) over medium-high heat.
Roll the meat mixture into balls about 1½ inches in diameter (or to desired size). Place as many as will fit in a single layer in the hot oil, and fry, turning to brown on at least two sides. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate. Repeat with any remaining meatballs.
Assemble the sauce and, when warm, stir in the meatballs. Simmer for at least 1 hour. Use a slotted spoon to remove from sauce if serving as an appetizer, or spoon meatballs and sauce over warm cooked pasta.
Yield: 30 to 40 meatballs