Miracle of the Twelve Meatballs

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Gentofte, Denmark. November 2017.

I was in the kitchen of my boyfriend’s mother Jeanette’s home, stirring a splash of vodka into caramelized tomato paste with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of rosé in the other. Her jolly Swedish “companion”-slash-”boyfriend” Hans turned up the volume of their radio and started humming along to the jazz trumpet flowing from it. He held his glass under the spigot of the boxed wine on the counter and refilled it.

“I think you should add more,” he frowned, looking over my shoulder.

“I’ve already added two more tablespoons than I should’ve,” I told him, stirring vigorously, “Are you sure?”

“It’s a vodka sauce! More!” he urged, handing over the bottle of vodka.

There was no sense in arguing. I poured in a couple of good glugs with abandon and adjusted the heat. The tomato paste began to loosen. Hans lifted his glass and continued humming along with the music.

Sure, it was gray and positively miserable outside but, by George, life–yes, life!– was happening on the inside. We were determined to make sure of it!

I was woken up that morning by the steady and ruthless rumbling of rain pelting the window of our guest room. The barren trees were succumbing to every whim of the winds. I’d never felt more grateful to have shelter over my head. It was while observing this dreary scene that the vision of creating a red-sauced Italian supper came to me–the kind of meal fit for a mafia boss! With pasta! And meatballs! And a crisp green salad with shaved carrots and a vinegary dressing! And a rustic loaf of country bread! After weeks of subsisting on a practically monastic diet of dark rye bread, pickled herring, and boiled potatoes, I was craving extravagance–and, well, color.

When I came downstairs, Hans had just returned from his morning walk with their two Swedish lapphund dogs at the church cemetery and brought back a bag of various Danish pastries. Jeanette was perched on her usual corner of the sofa, under a knitted wool blanket and thoroughly engrossed in a morning talk show. I told Hans of my menu ideas over a cup of Nescafé. It would be a dinner party, I said, for the four of us! He began to get excited and suggested we check out a recently opened grocery store the next town over for ingredients. Suddenly, a little afternoon adventure was on the books.

Although the house belonged to my boyfriend’s mother, his sister Pia and her own two grown children, Veronica and Marcus, also lived there, along with the daughter’s then-boyfriend and their dog. So, it was a full house. But everyone led their own lives, as though they lived on separate properties, like a small village under one roof. They rarely sat down for dinner together, so when I shopped I was shopping for four–my boyfriend, me, his mother and Hans.

I figured a package of pasta and enough ground meat for a dozen meatballs would suffice. It would adequately accommodate a round of second helpings, which was certain to happen. I picked up a small head of lettuce, tomato, red onion and carrot and placed them in our cart. Salad, after all, was really just a gesture towards having vegetables on the table, as it was not a common occurrence on their dinner table. Meanwhile, Hans went to the bakery section and chose a nice boule with a crackly golden-brown crust.

Once we got back home, the cooking commenced. Hans did all the chopping as I prepared the pasta sauce and meatballs. He told me that he once owned a small French restaurant in Sweden when he was young and showed off his knife skills on an onion. It fell open, magnificently diced. When the clock struck four, he mischievously poured wine for us. “For some reason, the food always turns out better when chef drinks while cooking,” he chuckled. “Are you sure it’s not only when the guests are plastered?” I laughed.

As the meal was starting to come together, we opened the glass china cabinet and pulled out the special serveware that Jeannette normally reserved for the holidays. As I set the table, I thought about how life can easily become an endless stream of monotony if you’re not vigilantly present. Sometimes we get so accustomed to how things are that we end up going through the motions instead of really living. My thoughts were interrupted when my boyfriend popped his head in to say: “Since you guys are preparing such a feast, I hope you don’t mind if I invited the others to join us.”

Hans and I looked at each other, sending all sorts of signals to each other with our eyes. There was too much to process in that moment. Who was rightfully entitled to extend invitations? We looked at the food we’d spent all afternoon preparing and, instead of a feast, it appeared to be a piddly arrangement of provisions.

“I don’t like this,” he sighed, “It’s quite rude.”

“Yes,” I concurred, “On so many levels.”

After a moment, I said, “It’s not that I don’t want them to join us. I just like to be prepared.”

“Exactly,” he said, shaking his head, “I always like to make sure there is enough food for everyone.”

It was time to re-assess and reset our attitudes. I knew that my boyfriend’s sister Pia was on a vegetarian diet at the moment, so she wasn’t going to have any meatballs. But would a bit of pasta and salad be enough?

Hans held up the remainder of the carrot and asked, “Shall I put this on her plate?”

We both laughed and harmony was restored. Hans reset the table and I began plating the food. Pia and her daughter ended up joining us for dinner. Not only was there plenty of food but there were even leftovers. Somehow the meal seemed to multiply as we were eating it. Marcus came home from work later and made himself a plate, wolfing down two meatballs that were miraculously still on the table.

The saying “little is much when God is in it” never rang truer.

Glerups

One of my favorite finds in Copenhagen were these felted wool clogs by a brand called Glerups. They're pretty much the epitome of hygge, pronounced /hyoo-gah/, which is a Danish concept closely resembling our idea of "cozy". These stylish indoor shoes were meant for coccooning in the winter months. Slip them on with bare feet and they'll keep your toes toasty and warm. Trust me, all you'll want to do is curl up on the sofa, throw a blanket on top of yourself, and sip on hot tea. (For extra hygge factor, light some nice candles.)

Monte Cristo Æbleskiver

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Æbleskiver (pronounced ebb-BLUH-skewer) are a Danish-style pancake that's shaped like a donut hole. They've become a breakfast favorite here at the ranch. We just use regular pancake batter and pour it into a cast iron æbleskiver pan, which has seven hemispherical pockets. Butter it well! You pour the batter in halfway, add whatever filling you like, then, when it starts to bubble, you use a skewer to turn them (traditionally, one would use a knitting needle). Lately, we've been doing a riff on the Monte Cristo sandwich: bits of chopped ham, a blob of Brie, and a dab of strawberry jam. These golden puffs are then dusted with powdered sugar. For something so quick and easy, they sure do make a morning feel special!

Rainbow Swiss Chard Salad with Almonds, Roquefort & Blueberries

I learned how to make this salad from our Danish intern Stefani. Not only are the colors gorgeous, the flavors are incredible. The fragrant sweetness of the blueberries tame the pungent nature of Roquefort cheese, and the almonds add a nutty bent and a good crunch. I've never thought to put blueberries into a salad before, but they do wonders. 


4 large leaves of rainbow swiss chard
A small handful of roasted almonds, chopped
2 tablespoons of Roquefort cheese, crumbled
A handful of blueberries

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1. Clean the rainbow swiss chard leaves and pat dry. Tear them up into smaller pieces. Place in a bowl.

2. Add the almonds, Roquefort cheese crumbles, and blueberries. Toss.

3. Drizzle with a simple balsamic vinaigrette.

Flæskesteg (Danish Roast Pork)

"Can you make a Danish roast pork for lunch by 1 p.m.?" asked my boss one morning.

Just so you know, flæskesteg is a glorious roast pork dish typically served on Christmas Eve in Denmark. It was VALENTINE'S DAY. But no matter. 1 p.m., you say?  It was rather busy in the studio that day, but the recipe looked so simple that I figured the deadline would certainly achievable.

Thankfully, I had ordered a 5-lb. slab of pork from Ottomanelli & Sons down in the West Village the week before. (Apparently, from the recipes I've seen, a five-pounder is the most popular serving size for this dish.) The key is that the fat and rind must be intact. After all, the crackling is the prize here!


1 5-lb. slab of pork loin, with rind and fat intact
Dried bay leaves
Whole cloves
Sea salt and pepper

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1. Preheat the oven to 450.

2. Pat the pork dry. With a sharp knife, cut 1/2-inch incisions into the rind and halfway down the fat.

3. In a small bowl, mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of good sea salt with a teaspoon of dried cloves so that the aroma infuses. Rub the mixture all over the pork. Finish it with a light shower of freshly cracked black pepper. 

4. Insert a few bay leaves here and there into the cuts. You can also stud the pork with a few more cloves, if you like.

5. Roast the pork at 450 for 30 minutes. Best part is seeing the crisping in process.

6. After 30 minutes, lower the heat to 350 degrees and add 3 cups of boiling water to the roasting pan. Cook for an additional hour or until done to your likeness.

7. Let the pork rest for 10 minutes inside the oven.

8. Serve with Dijon mustard, boiled and buttered potatoes, pickles, and beets.


My flæskesteg wasn't ready until about 2 p.m.

"It would've been so nice if it was ready by 1 p.m." said my boss with a sigh, dabbing a bite of roast pork with mustard.

"If I were hired as a private chef, it would have been!" I said, with my hands on my hips, laughing.