It's summer. We're supposed to be eating salad and ice cream and grilling hot dogs and burgers. So who makes meatballs in the middle of July, anyway?
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a picture of some cherries Kingston and I were buying at a roadside farm stand. Such glorious fruit! In my post I asked if anyone had ideas for what we should do with them. I was expecting suggestions on the sweet side, like some kind of ice cream, sorbet, or that summer classic, cherry pie.
My sister, Margie, responded almost immediately with, "Flemish meatballs with cherry sauce!"
Margie was in college when she traveled to Belgium one summer and met Patrick of Flanders who lived on a boat. After she came home, a period of feverish correspondence ensued before she soon returned to marry him.
They have three children: Brett, Macy and Matt who grew up just outside of Antwerp in the northern, Flemish-speaking part of the country. My sister was so far from all of us here in the U.S. as she and Patrick raised their kids. But these young people! So beautiful. Sensitive and kind.
Soon after her suggestion on Instagram, Margie sent me a recipe for the meatballs. Reading through it, I suddenly missed her more than anything. It might seem a little silly to get teary over reading about meatballs and not even while actually eating them (which would be more sensible, or at the very least might make more sense), but that's what happened.
It surprised me that a recipe, this recipe, could do that. I had never eaten this dish before, never shared it with Margie, neither cooked it nor even heard of it until she mentioned it from thousands of miles away.
But food will do that, won't it? Remind us of people we love and miss, bridge vast distances and encompass the complexity of all sorts of emotions.
Really, it's miraculous.
In 2013, when Kingston was about to turn two, we traveled to see Margie and her family on a two-week visit. It had been a long, long time since we'd seen each other. Here she is in beautiful Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with Kingston. What he recalled for a long time after that trip was hearing the "klop klop" sound of the horses hooves as they took tourists around town.
I remember gobbling down hot, fried potatoes at the frites stand (or, fritkot) in the center of town. Feeling befuddled as I stood downstairs at The Chocolate Museum, where I could not understand even a word of the heavily-accented English of the chocolatier who was giving a demonstration. Throwing a look at my sister, who was not trying to laugh in that moment.
But what I remember most about our journey is slipping back into a feeling of comfort with my sister, one that even after such a long period of separation remained intact. That feeling was like having a warm blanket wrapped around my shoulders, old and familiar.
Traveling as a family is a luxury for us, so we do it less often than we would like. Even as far apart as we are in distance, I think of our Belgian family often, wonder what they are up to, imagine them walking down streets that smell of warm bread or cooking waffles.
People we love can come alive for us through a photo, a call and of course, even a dish. This one ties me to my sister.
My Friekedellen, Flemish Meatballs with Cherry Sauce
This recipe steps a little bit away from the traditional version of this dish. I know, I know. I did my best to stick with the original recipe, but there were a few things I couldn't help changing. First, in the traditional recipe, you are asked to make huge, fairly plain meatballs that you then boil (I think this is because they are so huge). I pan fried mine instead.
Second, there are very few additions to the original version other than meat, salt, pepper and some nutmeg. I wanted more tenderness and flavor, so I made some additions, as you'll see below.
Third, taking a cue from the Scandinavian versions of this homey dish, I decided to add a gravy. It seems silly not to when you are pan frying, since all the flavor ends up in the bits that collect in the bottom of the pan. Scrape it up, add some liquid, flour and in this case, a bit of tangy buttermilk and you've got yourself a really tasty sauce. Serve it all up with a rich cherry sauce and you have a worthy tribute to long-distance sisterhood.
Makes about 36 meatballs.
Adapted from Fans of Flanders.
For the meatballs:
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. ground beef
1 large egg
2 slices of white bread
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 a large onion (or 1 small onion), finely minced
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, preferably freshly grated
pinch of fennel seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more if needed
1/2 cup buttermilk
For the cherry sauce:
2 lbs. red cherries, halved and pitted
1-2 tablespoons of honey
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
For the meatballs:
Soak bread in milk for about 30 minutes. When it is very soft and has soaked up all of the milk, add pork, beef, onion, allspice, nutmeg, fennel, salt and a grind or two of fresh pepper. Use hands to combine together and knead gently. Form into balls slightly larger than a walnut, rolling between your hands so that their shape holds and they are fairly compact.
Heat 1 1/2 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet. Fry meatballs over medium to medium-high heat until they are well browned. It's best to leave them for about 6 minutes before turning them the first time, then cooking an additional 4 or 5 minutes. Cook in batches or use two pans. If cooking in batches, wipe out skillet, then add more butter and oil before frying additional meatballs. Transfer meat to a platter, along with any onion bits from the bottom of the pan.
Sprinkle flour into the pan and stir with a wooden spoon. Add a tablespoon of butter and let it melt, stirring the flour and butter together until smooth and scraping up any additional bits at the bottom of the skillet. Remove pan from heat and slowly add 1 1/2 cups of hot water, mixing it in quickly. Return to heat and stir in the buttermilk until a smooth sauce forms. Adjust for salt and pepper. Add the meatballs (and onion bits) to the sauce in the skillet, cover, and cook for an additional 10 minutes until the sauce has thickened slightly and the meatballs are soft and tender.
For the cherry sauce:
Place cherries in a large saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until the fruit softens and give up some of its juices. Stir in honey. Use more or less depending on how tangy you like the sauce. Combine flour and water in a small bowl. Stir into the cherries and allow to cook until it thickens. Once the sauce has thickened, add the butter then give it another stir. Your sauce should have a soft, glossy appearance.
Serve meatballs with cherry sauce on the side. Friekedellen!