Writers Who Cook: Maryann’s Meatballs with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
In uncertain times, it can be comforting to honor the rituals that have nourished and grounded us over the years. And with so many people cooking at home these days, we thought we’d ask some of the writers in our communities to share favorite recipes and the stories behind them. We hope these recipes provide you with some inspiration, comfort, and company in your own home kitchen. If you’re a writer who cooks and would like to be featured in our series, please reach out to email@example.com.
Today’s recipe comes from Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest.
When I’m in need of comfort, when I’m anxious or upset, or, say, quarantined in a strange new world, I try to conjure the smells of my grandparents’ kitchen—the safest, most comforting space I’ve ever known. I can see the tiny kitchen in Utica, New York perfectly. The peeling linoleum floor. The ever-present percolating coffee pot. The plaque next to the wall phone with a prayer to Saint Francis. The table that magically accommodated as many people as needed to be fed.
My grandparents, Maryann and Dominick, had very little materially, but they had love—and food—to spare, and their door was always open. Like most Italians, my grandmother had her own version of Sunday sauce, which I make all the time, but for some reason, it’s the meatballs that bring her close. I can see her in her apron—cigarette in one hand, wooden spoon in the other—carefully turning the meatballs and placing them on a plate, stirring a pot of tomato sauce. I can see my grandfather kneading a loaf of bread, and most of all, I see them at opposite ends of a long dining room table, welcoming anyone who needed a cup of coffee, a plate of food, a comforting word, a good story, a hug. So I make the meatballs these days, think of them, and try to be patient—waiting for the day we can all open our doors again to break bread, offer comfort, share food, and embrace (if I know you, the next time I see you, you are getting a fierce hug).
In the meantime, here’s the recipe for the best meatballs on earth.
*I’ve never made these from a recipe, so measurements are my best guess.
1 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
1 loaf of basic Italian or French bread (nothing fancy here, a whole commercial loaf is best)
Milk to moisten bread
2 grated or pressed garlic cloves
Fennel seeds, toasted (1 tbsp? Maybe more depending on how much you like fennel)
1/3 cup Italian parsley
1 cup ground Pecorino or Parmesan (grated is also okay but if you can find ground in the store it’s better)
Salt to taste. If using Pecorino, less salt than if using Parmesan.
1. Hollow out the bread and tear the pieces until they’re pretty. Leave the crust behind.
2. Soak the bread pieces in milk.
3. Add garlic to eggs and whisk.
4. Combine the meats well.
5. Squeeze the bread dry and add to meat.
6. Add eggs with garlic, parsley, fennel, cheese, and salt to meat and mix well.
7. Refrigerate for an hour or longer before cooking.
8. Roll the mix lightly (don’t overwork) into golf ball-sized meatballs.
9. At this point, you can add them straight to a pot of tomato sauce to cook. Or, you can bake them. Or, if you want them to taste phenomenal, fry them in a pan with any neutral oil until crispy and done inside.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest spent more than six months on The New York Times Bestseller list. The book was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, a best fiction finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award, and was named one of the best books of 2016 by People, The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Amazon, Refinery29, and others. The Nest has been translated into more than 27 languages and optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her novel Good Company will be published in May 2021. Sweeney lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.