Every year there are things that make each Christmas memorable. That dodgy Christmas present you received from a family member (I’m not naming names), the argument over the dinner table, snow on Christmas day. This year, for me, it will be the food that stays in my memory. Over six years of being together and me and the other half had never spent Christmas day alone together.
This meant that despite my love of cooking I’d never cooked Christmas dinner, or even Christmas Eve supper or a Boxing Day buffet before. It had always been done for us by family members. So this year it was such a treat to do it our way (ie my way!). No dry turkey or over cooked veg, instead a delicious rare roast beef, which was divine eaten later thinly sliced in sandwiches with my honey and mustard mayonnaise and rocket.
But even better was our Christmas Eve meal and I write about it here because it is in no way festive or specific to this time of year. It is the kind of delicious meal you could eat at any time and whilst it could be seen as a simple family meal by some, I think it can be a great dish to serve up when friends are coming around for dinner.
It is homemade Italian meatballs with fresh pasta and tomato sauce, made into a feast by beginning with a big antipasti platter. The one in the photo may not look huge – indeed it wasn’t – but remember it was for only two people.
Italian meatballs with fresh pasta and tomato sauce
It’s true to say there is very little work that goes into putting together an antipasti platter, in fact what it actually demands is just a bit of creative shopping and some careful design on a rustic wooden board, or nice serving plate. That is why it is so good for dinner party – little hassle and no stress but impressive to guests.
Start with some good ciabatta or olive bread, warmed of course to give it a delicious fresh taste. That in turn leads you on to the classic olive oil and balsamic vinegar (the vinegar isn’t essential) but very good extra virgin olive oil is.
A selection of cured meats and salami is next up on my list, you can get nice selections in some supermarkets, but it will never be as good as slices cut at a deli in front of you. While you are there you can also pick up antipasti vegetables, artichokes are particularly good but expensive and I love stuffed red peppers. If you want you can make a small effort you make these yourself by buying those delicious Pepperdew peppers you can get in jars that are slightly spicy and sweet. Mixed good cream cheese or ricotta with fresh herbs, such as basil, mint and chives and carefully stuff little blobs into the peppers. Olives of your choice are an obvious addition, but you could also add grissini (Italian bread sticks) for people to wrap Parma ham around and nibble or some parmesan chunks to make it even more filling.
Be careful not to over-do it, people will happily graze on antipasti until they are full as an egg and then have no room left for your meatballs, which you actually bothered to spend time making.
So on to these delicious little balls of yumminess. I use a recipe by Gennaro Contaldo , having tried and adapted many, many recipes and this one is – I think – failsafe. It uses a mix of beef and pork mince (as many recipes to do) and a lot of bread crumbs, which makes the balls very light and moist, quite the opposite to what people think will happen if you add dried bread. Just a little grated parmesan, garlic and parsley is all the flavourings you need.
In the photo I had used fresh tagliatelle, however my preference is linguine which is thinner. I make a classic plain tomato sauce by frying two or three cloves of garlic in some olive oil for a minute then adding a 500g pack of passata, a swig of balsamic and salt of pepper, simmer for 30 minutes and it’s done. The recipe below is my slightly adapted version of Gennaro’s meatballs.
Italian meatballs (makes enough to serve four if having a starter)
250g beef mince
250g pork mince
½ garlic clove, finely minced
100g fresh breadcrumbs
1tbsp chopped fresh parsley
40g grated parmesan
Put the meat, parsley, garlic, parmesan and breadcrumbs in a deep bowl, get your hands in and really mush it up and squash it together so it is thoroughly mixed and the meat is broken down – this will make the meatball smoother. Add the whisked up egg and mix with your hands again. With wet hands roll into small balls a bit smaller than a golf ball. Put in an oiled baking tray or ceramic dish and bake in a hot oven (200/Gas 6) for about 20 minutes.
Serve however and with whatever you want, but I like it with the fresh pasta and tomato sauce with more fresh parmesan on top and lots of torn up fresh basil. If you are serving two, as I do, then cook them and freeze them once cool. Defrost and reheat them in the tomato sauce when you want them.