Back in 2006, when E and I toured Italy’s Chianti region, I really wanted to go to a cooking class. Eating being one of the reasons why I wanted to go to Italy, I figured I should get a return on my investment and be able to cook genuine Italian food (as opposed to Italian-American) when I got back home.
I researched the numerous cooking school options – there’s a huge food and wine tourism industry over there – but in the end, we didn’t want to pay a fortune and didn’t need anything fancy. We just wanted to spend some time with an Italian cook and learn a few basic and traditional recipes. I finally chose a class at the Koinè Center, which also offers language classes. I think their offering might have changed a bit, but back then I was able to register for one single class held at night in the heart of beautiful Lucca.
Our teacher was the dynamic and friendly Alessandra, a thirty-something mother working in an office by day, teaching cooking classes by night. Very passionate about cooking and disappointed by the youth’s lack of interest in Italy’s cooking heritage, she said she was trying to do her part to get her grandmother’s recipes passed on, whether it was to fellow Italians or to foodies like us.
Together with Alessandra, we cooked a complete dinner composed of an appetizer, a pasta course, a meat and a dessert. We had a great time with our teacher who wasn’t shy to talk about her culture, country or favorite recipes. Suffice to say our bellies had never been fuller than at the end of that night. All the recipes we did were absolute classics (I still dream about the silky Strawberry Panna Cotta) and when I miss Italy, I take Alessandra’s recipe out and make them again.
One easy but very flavorful dish was the Lemon and Thyme Meatballs. Alessandra served these with a red bell pepper sauce as an appetizer, but they are so delicious that I’ve found myself making them again and again, most of the time mixing them with pasta and veggies for an easy and complete meal.
I’m sharing my favorite accompaniment, simple broccoli, parmesan and olive oil pasta. Shape up your meatballs, cook them while your pasta’s boiling and dinner will be on the table in less than 30 minutes.
Lemon and Thyme Meatballs
Simple Broccoli, Parmesan and Olive Oil Pasta
Serves 4 – 36 meatballs
For the meatballs:
500 g ground veal
Small bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
4 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaved picked and roughly chopped
2-3 slices of stale white bread (5-6 slices if using baguette bread)
¼ cup milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Regular white flour
Freshly squeezed juice of 2 lemons
For the pasta:
About 350 g dried linguine or spaghettini pasta
3 cups broccoli florets
Generous ½ cup of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (don’t skimp on this fine cheese – the real thing isn’t cheap but it goes a long way)
Small bunch of fresh basil, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper and fleur de sel
Prepare the meatballs:
Put the slices of bread in a food processor and pour the milk over it. Finely reduce the bread to damp crumbs. This is the secret to the meatballs’ incredible moist and tender texture – DON’T substitute dry bread crumbs.
Mix the veal with next 5 ingredients (up to black pepper). Make sure the flavorings are well blended without overworking the meat, which could lend to a tougher texture. Shape about 36 meatballs.
Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan on medium heat. Roll the meatballs in flour before putting them in the frying pan.
Cook the meatballs 2-3 minutes per side, turning them until they’ve cooked for about 10 minutes (I put a lid over my pan for the first half of the cooking to make sure the meatballs are cooked through).
When they look golden and crispy, pour the lemon juice into the pan. Shake it to coat the meatballs with the juice and caramelize their exterior. Cook for 2 minutes more, take off the heat and keep warm until your pasta’s ready.
Prepare the pasta:
Before you start cooking the meatballs, get your pasta water boiling. While your meatballs are cooking, cook your pasta according to the package’s instructions. 2 ½ minutes before the end of the cooking time, plunge the broccoli florets in the boiling water with the pasta.
Reserve ¼ cup pasta water in a small bowl. Drain the pasta and broccoli mixture in a colander. While your pasta’s draining, pour a generous splash of olive oil into your casserole. Pour your pasta back into the casserole. Pour another splash of olive oil, the pasta water and the parmigiano-reggiano. Mix well and add the chopped basil, freshly ground black pepper and a good pinch of fleur de sel.
Before serving, add the meatballs to the pasta, mix everything together and divide equal portions of pasta, broccoli and meatballs on each plate. Serve with more grated parmigiano-reggiano.
Wine pairing: Alessandra served us a delicious Vernaccia si San Gimignano with our meal. It’s a white wine, fruity and floral with a very slightly bitter aftertaste (which I understand is this wine’s trademark). The lively character of the Vernaccia pairs perfectly with the delicate flavor of the veal and the zesty lemon.