Meatballs with Mom - My Earliest Kitchen Memory


When you think back on your childhood, what is the first memory you have of spending time in the kitchen?

The first thing that comes to my mind is making meatballs with my mom.

Getting my hands dirty

I can still remember the sweet smell of the raw meat and dried herbs, the texture of the mix between my fingers, and that thin coating of cold fat caked on the palms of my hands. It was a tactile and sensory experience

At first, my mom would be the one who would pull out all the ingredients and show me how to combine them right there in front of me so that I could see how everything came together. I don't remember her measuring anything at all; she was just showing me what everything looked like when she put it together. Eventually she’d start letting me pull it together on my own.

There came a time, after I had done it enough times for my mom, that it became my job whenever it was on the menu for dinner. It was expected that I would be the one to do that part of the process - of mixing the ingredients together and forming each of the individual meatballs and getting them ready to be browned and mixed with the sauce. I really loved rising to the occasion and feeling like my mom, my dad, and sister could count on me to be able to do that for our family.

My Earliest Kitchen Lessons

I also learned valuable techniques such as finding the balance of the different ingredients in the recipe and the process of browning the meatballs ahead of time in the microwave before simmering them in the sauce.

When I was growing up, my mom had this three-piece plastic contraption for browning the meatballs; it involved a clear dome lid, a solid plastic base with a raised rim on the edges (like a pie pan), and a plastic grate that would fit inside of the pie pan. I would form the meatballs and arrange them on top of the grate, and once all the meatballs were inside we put the lid over top of it and place them in the microwave for about four to five minutes. What this technique does is allow the fat from the meat to be rendered out, which then collects in the bottom of that pan, while keeping the meatballs raised out of the fat, which allowed them to brown from top to bottom.

Once they were placed into the sauce to simmer, the sauce didn't become greasy and the meatballs didn’t become soggy or mushy. It was an extra step in the process; you could just make the meatballs and thrown right in the sauce, but that extra step really did make a huge difference.

The meatball mixture taught me one of my first lessons in flavor combination. You had meat, salt, garlic, parmesan, herbs, breadcrumbs -, nothing fancy, but it was totally delicious. Each of those ingredients added something unique and special to the overall taste of the meatballs; if you left any one of those ingredients out, it may have tasted fine, but it certainly wouldn't taste the same.

The experience taught me consistency. The meatballs needed to be mixed properly and then portioned uniformly so that the finished meatballs would cook evenly and all taste the same.

Cardinal Rule #1

Start with the End in Mind

Not only are my mom's meatballs one of the earliest cooking memories, it's also a great example of an idea that I consider to be very important to successful cooking, and one that I'm always preaching. If you've been with me at all in the kitchen - whether I one of my demonstrations or my hands-on kitchen sessions - you'd hear me saying to start with the end in mind. It means that, before you start getting out the ingredients and heating things up or chopping or whatever it is, take a moment to think about the finished product. 

  • How do you want it to look?

  • How do you want it to taste?

  • How do you plan to eat it? 

  • When do you plan to eat it?

All these things need to be taken into consideration before you even start getting into the ingredients.  That way, every choice that you make from then on, in the act of preparing the meal, is framed by your end goal.

Some of the answers to those questions will have a significant impact on the way you prepare those ingredients. For example, if I’m having to chop onions, I'm going to cut the onions differently for making a meatloaf than I am for preparing a salad or for a stir fry. You can look at the recipe and it says “chopped onions,” but what exactly does that mean?

Getting yourself into the habit of thinking through the process first, before you start executing it, can actually help to save time.  It might seem a little bit counter-intuitive; you may be tempted to think that stopping and thinking and visualizing things from the beginning is taking away from time you could actually cooking, but iIf you come to a better understanding of the finished product and the steps you need to take to get there, you're going to end up saving time in the long run, and you're going to end up with a better finished product at the end.

I also mentioned that it got to the point where making the meatballs was my job, that whenever it was on the menu, it was something that I was expected to do (whenever I was available to do it, of course). That does something really special for a kid’s self esteem: to know that you have a part to play, an area of expertise that is all your own, and that you are contributing to not only a meal but to your family’s health and well being. It’s such a good feeling to know that your folks can count on you to handle something by yourself. Having my mom release me to do a job on my own was a big deal, and I think it's had a major impact on my life, even to this day.

Go make some memories

So, what are the dishes that you like to make on a regular basis, and is there a part of that meal - a particular dish or a task or step - that your kiddos can be taught to do on their own?

Think about that and be challenged to keep that in mind when you plan your kitchen time. Think back on your childhood memories of being in the kitchen and how much that meant to you. If you don't have those memories - if you can't look back and think about being involved in the kitchen - and you want to start creating those memories for your family, I want to be here to help you and to support you in creating those memories, because I know how much it meant to me. Let me know what you plan to do next and how I can be of help by leaving a comment or by sending my a Facebook message or email.

Jim KueblerComment