Unlike most of my friends, my parents didn’t inherit a lot of Jewish food traditions from my grandparents. My mother’s family had been in Canada for so many generations that they ate like WASPs. She grew up with roast beef dinners washed down with a glass of milk, and her mother’s cooking, which I experienced on visits to Montreal, was more a source of comedy than comfort.
Grandma cooked from a lot of cans and powders, which came out of a deep pantry that seemed to be restocked every two decades. She was capable of making a mean roast beef, it’s true, but a stern frugality flavored everything in that Formica kitchen. Her favorite dishes to prepare were “concoctions”, essentially experiments with leftovers. Some — the vanilla iced cream she melted, mixed with crushed red and white swirly mints liberated from restaurants, and refrozen — had their charms. Others, like the casseroles of no discernable origin, had my father sneaking out to Snowdon Delicatessen after dinner, to cleanse his palate with salted meats.
His mother, though more closely linked to her Yiddish heritage, had a few dishes that were legendary in the family. In tribute to her, one of these became our Shabbat staple: Granny Ella’s sweet and sour meatballs. These were golf ball sized orbs of soft, tender meat, simmered slowly in a sweetened tomato sauce. When Granny made them, the meatballs were consistently round and juicy, and the sauce was bright and sweet, with a lingering garlic spice.
When Granny couldn’t make the meatballs any longer, the task fell to my mother, who never met a recipe she couldn’t follow. Working from Granny’s hand scrawled index cards, she spent successive Fridays attempting to recreate the perfect meatball, to no avail. The sauce was too watery, or it was too thick. The meatballs were too firm, or they disintegrated into a Bolognese. Regardless of form, it was all delicious, basically an excuse to use up an entire challah loaf in lieu of utensils, but mom’s Shabbat mood became tied to the fate of her meatballs, as though anything less than perfection would betray Granny’s legacy. About three years ago, something clicked. I’m not sure whether it was the type of meat she was using (a mix of turkey and veal, instead of beef), or the timing, or just a feel for the meatballs, but mom’s been on a hot streak since then, and there’s nary a slice of challah left on the table before the candles burn down.
The meatballs are wonderful served over rice or noodles, but I tend to have them in a bowl, as an appetizer or for Shabbat lunch, always accompanied by fresh challah for sopping up the sauce.
Ella Sax’s Sweet and Sour Meatballs
(Recipe Adapted by Julia Sax)
2 pound minced beef, turkey or veal
matzo meal/bread crumbs
salt and pepper
garlic salt or powder
Water to fill pan ¼ (varies by pan)
1 onion, chopped
1 ¾ oz can condensed tomato soup
19 ounces tin tomato juice
28 ounces, can peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
2 tablespoons salt, or to taste
pepper, to taste
1 cup sugar, or to taste
1) Combine all ingredients.
2) Form into balls approximately 1 –1 ½ inches
1) Fill large pot (Dutch oven or soup pot) ¼ full of water.
2) Boil onion in water until softened.
3) Add tomato soup, tomato juice, canned tomatoes, salt, sugar and pepper to taste.
4) As this mixture boils, add meatballs and cook for approximately 1 hour –1 ½ hours. To thicken sauce, add matzoh meal. Adjust seasoning if necessary.