Monday, September 19, 2011

Dans La Cuisine (and a recipe for marinara and meatballs)

Over the past several years, I have really come to love being in my kitchen and cooking. When I moved to New Mexico seven years ago, I had just spent the previous year teaching English in a teeny tiny town in the south of France. My oldest friend was also teaching in France that year, and by incredible luck, she was placed in Digne-les-Bains, a town about an hour away on the bus. Since there wasn’t much to do in my town, I’d often spend the weekends in Digne where there was a nice community of other teachers and university students. Rosie is an excellent cook, and we made lots of friends in Digne who also loved food and cooking. We’d plan elaborate meals that required days of preparation (we only had 12 hours of teaching per week!), and we’d eat wonderful feasts. Back in those days, I didn’t know anything about cooking so I was in charge of chopping, peeling, mincing, etc. I learned a lot from watching Rosie and our friend Forest cook, but I was too scared of messing something up to try on my own. I was pleased with my role at the cutting board.

When I came back from France, I moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone. Once again, I had a lot of time on my hands for planning meals and cooking. Without any friends or cooking companions, I started trying recipes on my own. I had a great time making my favorite French recipes like lemon tart and crêpes. There were only a few disasters - like the time I made French onion soup for my new boyfriend (who is now my husband). I found a recipe that must have been meant to feed a crowd because it called for so many onions that I was up past midnight caramelizing all of them. Andrew’s entire apartment smelled like onions for days – even poor Lola. Since I had never cooked on my own before and I wasn’t very confident, I followed recipes very strictly back then.

Over the years, I’ve tried lots of new dishes and have become confident enough that I can adapt recipes for the ingredients I have on hand or combine several recipes to make the dish that suits me best. Cooking is now more of a journey to find just the right combination of flavors rather than a series of steps in a recipe. It is a lot more fun this way.

As I was cooking our dinner last Friday night, it really hit me how far I’ve come in the last seven years and how rewarding this approach to cooking is for me. I had decided that we needed some comfort food after a long week so I made spaghetti and meatballs…without a recipe. I thought about trying to look one up, but I didn’t have time before going to the grocery store so I just went for it. As I was standing in front of my dutch oven full of marinara and meatball goodness sipping red wine and listening to Bags Groove, I realized that this is happening much more often in the past year – cooking without recipes, just trusting my instincts, and having the confidence to experiment. It feels pretty good.

Marinara Sauce and Turkey Meatballs


3 pounds of ripe Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 ¼ cups finely chopped onions, divided
4 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1 large can tomato paste
1 small can tomato sauce
Good quality balsamic vinegar
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon or more red pepper flakes
1 pound ground turkey – if you have a higher fat content they will stay moister and be more flavorful
1 cup chopped fresh spinach
1 egg
¼ cup panko or bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute 1 cup of the onions in olive oil in a dutch oven or large, heavy bottomed pot until softened. Add 3 cloves minced garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, a very generous glug of balsamic vinegar, red wine, oregano, red pepper flakes. Bring to gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for at least one hour.

While the marinara is simmering, combine ground turkey, ¼ cup onion, spinach, egg, bread crumbs, a dash of red pepper flakes, one grind of your sea salt and pepper grinders. Mix by hand until well combined. Form into 1.5 inch diameter meatballs.

Twenty minutes before your marinara is finished cooking, carefully place meatballs into the pot with the marinara, gently pushing them below the surface of the sauce with a spatula. Continue to simmer for 20 minutes. Do not stir at this point – just leave them alone while they cook. After 20 minutes check to make sure the meatballs are cooked through.

During this time, you can boil your pasta of choice in salted water according to package directions. Serve over cooked pasta with fresh grated parmesan on top.

Serves 6.

Leftovers make great fixings for meatball subs!


  1. Yum. Don not tempt a pregnant lady.

  2. Yummy, those look good. I think you must have gotten some of those kitchen skills from your mom, too! -Ellie

  3. This has been my experience too! I have been learning to cook for maybe close to 10 years and in the last year or two, I have been experimenting much more and trusting my instincts to improvise! It's fun...almost like art!

  4. PS. I have just begun teaching ESL to francophones....


Hey, thank you!

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