Some days, I know just what I want for dinner. My wife (who is, regrettably, not Italian) thinks that is a weird Italian thing. But whatever the reason, some days, I just know.

Most days, though, it’s a bit of an interactive process to figure out what to make for dinner. I have a picky teenager, a spice–averse wife, and a limited budget; these are the challenges.

The weather is an influencing factor too. Cold rainy days call for chili or soup; hot summer days call for barbecue, or pasta salad, or heck–with–it we’re eating ice cream today. Today’s weather is mild, not really pushing for any particular cuisine.

I generally start out my planning process by looking at ingredients. Unless I have a serious yen for one dish, or I’m going shopping anyway, I prefer to make dinner out of what I have in the house.
The fridge has smoked sausage, hamburger, and frozen drumsticks. None of them looks too exciting on its own. But it has been a while since I’ve made either meatballs or meatloaf.

Meatballs and meatloaf are quite similar. Hamburg, plus some stuff to make it not quite so dense. Today, since the weather is warm, I would rather not run the oven for long, so meatballs win out.

My meatball recipe, like many of my recipes, traces its roots through my mother, my grandmother, and back to the island of Sicily. This recipe is quick, simple, and American. Like all of my recipes it should be modified to suit your taste.

Let’s meet the ingredients:
  • Ground beef. Ideally, about 85% ground chuck. Ground chuck has a beefier flavor than generic ground beef, and 85% is just about right to be moist, but not greasy.
    • Meatloaf mix is a mixture of ground beef, ground pork and ground veal. It turns out paler, softer meatballs than ground chuck. Tasty, but significantly more expensive for not much advantage.
  • Sandwich bread, with the crust removed. If your favorite bread has nuts and twigs, you may find disconcerting gritty bits in your meatballs. This may be the one time I recommend plain cheap white bread.
  • Garlic! I like the convenience of minced garlic from a bottle, but garlic powder will do. If all you have are cloves of garlic, you should mince them quite finely.
  • Parmesan cheese. The shaker-bottle stuff is fine. You can use nine dollar a pound artisanal cheese, but it won’t taste any better than the prepackaged stuff. If you want me to build a recipe for really fancy meatballs, tell me in a comment!
  • Spices. With the reasonably slow cooking and moist environment of a meatball, dried spices do just fine. If your parsley is brownish or dusty, toss it and buy new; it usually has about a six month shelf life.
In a large mixing bowl, drop three slices of bread (with crusts removed and discarded) and half cup of milk. Once the bread soaks up the milk, shred it. Add the egg, Parmesan, garlic and spices. Mix it into a gloopy mess. Add the ground chuck, remove your rings, and use your hands to mix and smoosh the beef and gloop together until they’re fully mixed. Try not to over mix, as this leads to tougher meatballs.

Next, you need to make an important decision. Meatballs in Italy tend to be much smaller than American meatballs (in fact most things in Italy tend to be much smaller than their American counterpart!). Depending on your audience, family tradition, and mouth size, you may prefer meatballs ranging from a tablespoon of meat mixture up to about three quarters of a cup. Whatever size you choose, make sure all of the meatballs are pretty close to the same size.

One trick to make meatballs quickly, used in most restaurants, is to grab an ice cream scoop, or a melon baller or if small meatballs are your preference.

Wash your hands and leave them wet. The meat mixture won’t stick to wet hands as much as it will to dry ones.

In any case, scoop up a measured portion of the meat mixture and drop it into your hand. Roll the proto-meatball between your hands until it is round, then set it on a plate, not quite touching any of the other meatballs. If the meatballs stick to your hands, make sure your hands are quite wet.

Lather, rinse, repeat until you are out of meat mix. The temptation to grow to bigger meatballs as you get tired of rolling them is strong; don’t give in.

Now, you have choices. You can fry, grill, broil, or bake the meatballs. Or you can use a Nuwave oven, if you have one- it is the easiest method here and turns out quite decent meatballs.

All the time shown below assume 2 ounce meatballs, such as you would get from a common ice cream scoop. If your meatballs are much smaller, adjust the time down accordingly. If you like tremendous meatballs, adjust the time up significantly.

Frying: set up a frying pan (preferably cast-iron 9 inch) with oil over medium heat. When the oil reaches 350° gently insert 4 to 6 meatballs and keep them moving. When the meatballs have a decent crust all around, remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels, and start frying the next batch.

Grilling: much like frying, only with a lot less oil. Get a nonstick frying pan, heat it for a minute over medium heat, and add about a dozen meatballs (if they’re small; large meatballs will have smaller batches). Leave them in the pan for about three minutes, then stir them to start cooking another surface. Once you have three or four surfaces of each meatball crispy, set those meatballs aside and start on the next batch.

Broiling: best for large meatballs, because small ones will go from raw to scorched in no time. Put all the meatballs on a broiler safe tray with a grease drain. If you don’t have a broiler tray with a grease drain, a broiler tray with a cooling rack can substitute. Broil under 500° for about four minutes (assuming large meatballs: small meatballs will cook more quickly). Turn the meatballs, broil for the same amount of time.

Baking: my least favorite method. Baked meatballs don’t get as much of the interesting crust and flavor that the other methods give you, but this method does work; and for big batches, it is one of the most efficient methods. Put the meatballs on a cookie sheet not quite touching, and bake at 425° for 10 minutes. Turn the meatballs, bake for another 6.

Nuwave Oven: the easiest of the methods I’ve shown here. Lay out the meatballs on the 4 inch rack, not quite touching. Bake for 5 minutes, then flip, then bake for 5 more.

Now, if you’re planning to serve these on spaghetti with sauce, your meatballs will benefit from an hour simmering in the sauce. If you’re planning to serve them without a simmer, it’s time for the meat thermometer. The USDA says cook to an internal temp of 160°F for ground meats. If you’re simmering the meatballs for an hour, they’ll certainly reach that internal temperature. If you’re not simmering them, jab a few of the larger and/or paler meatballs with your meat thermometer and cook them until they’re safely at 160°F (71°C).

I’ll come back with a few recipes for sauces in a few days.

Basic Italian Meatballs:
3 slices white bread, crusts removed and discarded
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
2 tsp dried parsley
1 large egg, beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 lb 85% ground chuck
  1. In a large mixing bowl, soak the bread in the milk, then shred the sopping bread.
  2. Add the egg, cheese, spices, salt and pepper, and mix well.
  3. Add the ground chuck and mix with your hands. Mix just until it is well blended; overmixing leads to tough meatballs.
  4. Scoop out a measured portion (an ice cream scoop works well for large meatballs; a melon baller works well for smaller ones). Use your hands to form the meatball, roll it briefly to round, and set aside on a cookie tray or plate.
  5. When you’ve formed all the meatballs, choose your cooking method:
    •     Nuwave oven: The easiest.
      •      Lay out the meatballs on the 4″ rack
      •      Cook for five minutes, flip the meatballs, cook for five more.
    •      Frying.
      •     In a cast-iron frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until it is shimmering hot (around 350°).
      •      Working in small batches, fry the meatballs for about five minutes on a side, then stir, and fry for five more.
      •      When the meatballs have three or four crispy sides, remove them with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
    •      Broiling.
      •      Broiling is best for larger meatballs. If your meatballs are less than 2 ounces each, broiling is likely to result in overcooked, tough meatballs.
      •      Lay out the meatballs on a broiler pan with a grease drain.
      •      Broil at 500° for four minutes, flip the meatballs, cook for four more minutes.
    •      Baking.
      • Get a cookie sheet with walls and place a cooling rack in it.
      • Lay the meatballs so that they don’t quite touch
      •      Bake at 425° for 10 minutes, flip the meatballs, cook for 5 more minutes.
      • Be careful- the grease from the meatballs will be quite hot, so when you move the cookie tray, don’t burn yourself!
    • The long slow simmer.
      •      Best for smaller meatballs.
      •      Using a slow cooker will most likely not give you meatballs, but a bolognese sauce with meat evenly distributed. Tasty, but we’re making meatballs today.
      •      If you’re making a Ragu sauce or a soup which will simmer for more than an hour, you can simply add the raw meatballs to the sauce and let them cook in it. You won’t get the tasty crust, though, so this is not my favorite method.
      •      Add the meatballs to the already–simmering pot. Continue to simmer for one hour, then check a meatball for doneness.
  6. At the end of any of these cooking methods, check one of the larger or paler meatballs for doneness. Your meat thermometer should show 160°F/71°C. If the internal temperature is not up to code, cook the whole batch until it is.

Slow Cooker Lava Cake

If you want to ruin the diet of everyone in the whole party, this should be your go-to recipe.

Chocolate lava cake is like a chocoholic’s dream. Chocolate cake, with melted chocolate chips, so moist that it needs a bowl. And it’s dangerously easy to make.

The one problem is that lava cake is only really good when it is first served. Leftovers, if there ever are any, aren’t nearly as good as the fresh dish.

Slow Cooker Chocolate Lava Cake

  • One box of chocolate cake mix
    • 1/3 cup oil
    • 1 egg
    • water (per instructions)
  • one box of instant pudding, chocolate flavour
    • 2 cups milk
  • one bag of chocolate chips
  1. In the crock pot, milk up the cake mix per the instructions (they usually take one egg, 1/3 cup of oil, and some amount of water).
  2. Mix the pudding mix and milk, and pour onto the cake batter.
  3. pour the chocolate chips on top of the batter and pudding.
  4. stir briefly, four or five strokes.
  5. Turn the crock pot on high, cover, and ignore the scent of chocolate for two hours, then start checking it every twenty minutes or so. When the cake is just starting to pull away from the edges of the crock but the center still looks wet, serve with a soup ladle and vanilla ice cream.

Surprisingly Good Greek Food in El Paso

El Paso is justly famous for Mexican food. That’s no surprise, considering that it straddles the border with Ciudad Juárez.

A random (but very photogenic) salad, borrowed from Zino’s website.

I was surprised, however, to find a pretty good Greek restaurant in the center of El Paso.

We visited Zino’s with some traveling friends.

Zino’s is a small place, in a strip mall in the middle of town. The decor is classic 20th century American pizzeria. Nothing about the outside says, good food ahead.

Once inside, though, service is pleasantly quick and you can see into the clean, bright, well-equipped kitchen. We ordered a basic meal of gyros on pita bread, with fries and tzatziki.

The service was quick (the restaurant was not crowded that night). We found the portions to be generous, the food fresh and savory, the fries surprisingly delicious with their garlic and Parmesan and their tangy dipping sauce.

Most restaurants will have us a ‘star’ food, such as a steak, surrounded by a supporting cast of indifferent quality. Zino’s food had the star, the gyro, the pita, vegetables, fries and tzatziki were all equally attractive and tasty. The spiced beef and lamb were a treat that I hadn’t had in years, since I enjoyed street food in Amsterdam — Shawarma.

We finished the meal with baklava. Zino’s has three varieties of baklava: chocolate baklava, pistachio baklava, and classic honey and walnut baklava.

I like to be adventurous with food, but the idea of chocolate and baklava meeting filled me with dread. Two great things that should never, ever exist together. I didn’t have the courage to try it. I guess that I’m more of a traditionalist than I’d thought.

Pistachio baklava, on the other hand, sounded like an improvement on the traditional. Unfortunately, other people who thought this already, and bought Zino’s out of their day stock. Lo, I was bummed.

So we tried the traditional baklava. It was flaky, sweet, and dense, just the way baklava should be. I will certainly be back some time to try the pistachio baklava, but I was not disappointed in the traditional baklava that we bought.

We’ve been back to Zino’s a few times now. I would highly recommend it for anyone looking for Mediterranean food in the El Paso area. The portions are generous, the prices are good, and the food is well worth a visit!

February 20th update We went back and tried the pistachio baklava. It is interestingly spiced, with more than a hint of pumpkin pie spice. Marvelous texture, though I do prefer the fillo be layered more (this was more sandwich than lasagne- dough, filling, dough; I prefer many layers of dough with a bit

pistachio baklava

of filling between each) but it was certainly enjoyable and we’ll be back for more in the future.

My lovely wife photographed the food for me. If you enjoy her work, check out her travel blog.

An Adventure at the Oriental Market

I’m not Asian. I’m an American, of pan-European ancestry. I’ve never traveled farther east than Switzerland. My culinary DNA is mostly Italian, but there’s true appeal in good Chinese cuisine (as served in American restaurants).

have worked in several Chinese restaurants, and I’ve always enjoyed the balanced teamwork that Chinese food shows. A good dish will always have some sour, some sweet, some salty and some bitter. Crunchy water chestnuts snuggle up against soft noodles and crisp bamboo shoots, all unified by savory sauce.

I revisited a local Oriental market yesterday. It’s a small shop, for a place that sells the foods that 4.5 billion humans enjoy. The shelves crowded with exotic (to Western eyes) preserved vegetables, a hundred varieties of rice, and aisles of sauces.

I’ve found that most of these shops’ proprietors are knowledgeable and quite willing to explain what their mystery ingredients (many of which are not labeled in English!) are, or how to recreate a restaurant favorite. Yesterday, though, I was just killing time and shopping for whims.

Starting in the produce section, I found bags of peeled garlic cloves. Convenient! It costs a bit more to buy the pre-peeled cloves than it does to buy heads of garlic, of course, but the convenience is worth it.

Next, I grabbed Enoki mushrooms. They’re tiny mushrooms, looking like a tiny ball on the end of a stalk of grass, all the color of ripe wheat. They’re great in stir fry.

Bok choy was tempting but for whatever reason, didn’t really keep my attention, so I put it back and wandered to the next aisle:  noodles.

Italians are famous for pasta; history tells me that Marco Polo brought it back from China in the thirteenth century. We owe him a debt of gratitude! I grabbed a package of flat rice noodles, looking like a paler version of fettuccine. My random dinner was taking shape.

The last aisle that I shopped was full of sauces, more than half of which had English labels. Korean barbeque sauce, oyster sauce, eight feet of varieties of soy sauce all jostle for attention.  I grabbed a bottle of teriyaki (which is childishly simple to make, but I couldn’t find mirin and was feeling lazy).

On the way to the register, I found a bag of dried black fungus. When it is dry, it looks like random scraps of leather cut from an old shoe. Rehydrated, it is supple, interesting and deeply flavored. It went into my basket and I left before I could impulse buy anything else.

Once I was home, I took the last of a bag of shrimp out of the freezer to thaw, and my dinner ingredients were complete.

This meal could have come from any part of the market. I might’ve grabbed rice instead of noodles, or water chestnuts instead of (or in addition to) the black fungus. The improv nature of stir fry is one of the reasons why I prefer it to the much more measured field of baking.

Since raw (or lightly cooked) garlic is a very strong flavor, I decided to caramelize it. Long slow cooking turns garlic from a bright blast of flavor to a sweet, rich but soft one. I dropped about two tablespoons of coconut oil into a wok, added the garlic, and put it over the lowest heat my stove would do, then went away to check my email. I tossed the garlic three times in the next half hour, until it had changed from firm white cloves to soft, golden cloves with a hint of browning.

The noodles’ instructions said to soak them in hot water for ten minutes. I’ve tried that before and they come out quite underdone, so this time I soaked them for ten minutes, as directed, but then added them to the wok. Since the black fungus needs rehydration, I added it to the same zip-loc bag as the noodles.

I turned the heat up to high under the wok and added the enokis. You’ll have to trim them off of their base but that it just one or two cuts.

Enokis are small, so you’ll want to keep either stirring or tossing the veggies or they’ll burn. I sauteed them for about a minute, until the stalks were starting to relax towards limpness, and then added the (drained) noodles and black fungus.

I added the teriyaki sauce and covered the wok. This lets the whole mixture steam. Then I peeled the shrimp, stopping every few minutes to toss the veggies around to mix them.

Once the shrimp were peeled, I removed the wok cover and dropped the shrimp on top of the noodles, then tossed the wok so that the shrimp were on the bottom.

These shrimp were super mongo huge 13-15 count shrimp, so I cooked it for about three more minutes, until the shrimp were uniformly light pink, then served the mix in bowls. If they’d been the smaller shrimp that I usually use, it would have taken less time, but a local supermarket had a really good sale a few weeks ago so huge shrimp is what I had. It’s a cross to bear.

Pretty Good Impromptu Oriental Noodles
Serves two hungry people, or four as a side dish
4 oz peeled garlic cloves
2 tb coconut oil
4 oz dry  banh pho noodles
2 oz dried black fungus
4 oz enoki mushrooms
2 oz teriyaki sauce
6 oz shrimp

  1. Caramelize the garlic: add the oil to the wok, over very low heat, then add the garlic. Cook for about half an hour, until soft and slightly darkened.
  2. Rehydrate: soak the black fungus and the noodles for about ten minutes in hot water. A large zip-loc bag is convenient for this but a cake pan or large bowl works fine too.
  3. Peel the shrimp. Slice the enoki mushroom so that the long stems are separated from the base, and discard the base.
  4. Drain the noodles and dried mushrooms.
  5. Bring heat under the wok to high and saute the noodles, teriyaki sauce and fungus (stirring every minute or so) for about five minutes at high heat. Noodles should be quite pliable when done.
  6. Add the shrimp, mix them to the bottom of the wok, and cook for about 2-3 more minutes. They should be light pink all the way through when done.

Eat well, have fun, enjoy life.