There are certain things you just don’t mess with. My mother Gilda’s sweet-and-sour meatball recipe is one of them. With a bottle of ginger ale and two jars of chili sauce — so not homemade — it’s a huge success every time. And because the meatballs are part of the family canon, holidays don’t happen without these little nuggets of deliciousness.
The same can be said for my chicken soup. Always use parsnips and sweet potatoes. Forget the onions (they make the broth sour). And remember a teaspoon of sugar. It’s no fault, tried and true, silky. And it simply begs for fluffy matzo balls.
But while some recipes are never to be tampered with, the majority of my best dishes have been tweaked and reformatted, deleted and reinstated. Often, they bear little resemblance to the original. Elaborate flights of culinary fancy yield now to pared-down dishes, stripped to their essence. More is often more. But more often, more is less.
Twenty years ago, the only thing missing from my homemade granola was the proverbial kitchen sink. Every manner of seed and nut, grain and dried fruits went into the bowl — sunflower seeds, flax seeds, almonds, wheat germ, oat bran, cornmeal, shredded coconut, apricots, raisins, cranberries, and figs. I added cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, coconut oil and walnut oil. The oats, themselves, were incidental. There was a lot going on in that granola.
It was a granola that mirrored the times, my times. Minivans and soccer practices, supermarket jaunts, school meetings, adolescent angst, softball games, and bowling parties. One day I had the whole gang in the car when my mind went blank. For a split second, I forgot who was supposed to go where. Luckily, by the time the light changed we were back on track. Just like that granola. There was a surprise in every bite, and not always the most pleasant surprise.
When those busy years became less busy, so, too, did the granola. The kids were leaving for college. Oat bran and flax seed lost their relevance. And my youngest, Eve, who was the only one left at home, wanted no part of any apricot in her cereal. So we gave it a rest. There were other culinary roads to travel.
Until one afternoon, alone in my kitchen, the sweet memories returned. And I knew that it was time to take out the big mixing bowl.
Nowadays, life is quieter. And there’s a granola for that, too. It’s uncluttered and more nuanced. You don’t have to pick seeds out of your teeth with every bite, and the oats are the star.
3/4 cup unsweetened coconut flakes or sweetened shredded coconut
5 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup sliced almonds or chopped pecans (or a combination of the two)
1/4 cup brown sugar
Pinch of salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 1/2 cups dried fruit (any combination of cherries, cranberries, raisins, chopped figs, and chopped apricots)
Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper. Spread coconut in one layer and bake three minutes until toasted, being careful not to burn. Remove from oven and set aside in a bowl to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, place oats, nuts, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Mix thoroughly. Set aside.
Spoon the honey (if it’s solid) and the coconut oil in a measuring cup and liquefy them in the microwave for one minute.
Add the melted honey and oil mixture to the oats and stir to coat.
Spread oat mixture onto cookie sheet, using fresh parchment paper if needed.
Bake for 25 minutes, stirring two or three times (the oats tend to brown more quickly along the outer edges).
While oats bake, place dried fruit and coconut flakes in the same large mixing bowl.
Remove oats from the oven and carefully fold the four corners of the parchment paper toward the center of the cookie sheet, creating an envelope. Lift the envelope and empty oat mixture into the bowl with the fruit and coconut. Stir everything together so that the fruit is distributed throughout.
Let the mixture cool in the bowl, stirring occasionally to break up the clumps that form.
Store in a closed container.
Gilda’s Sweet and Sour Meatballs
2 12-ounce jars chili sauce
1 liter bottle ginger ale (not diet)
2 pounds ground beef
1/2 cup rolled oats, matzo meal, or breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Pour chili sauce and ginger ale into a large pot. Bring to a boil.
Combine the rest of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, mix everything together. Form uniform-size meatballs (cook’s choice).
Drop meatballs into boiling sauce and let it return to a boil. Then reduce heat. Cook uncovered on low to medium for an hour or more until sauce thickens and coats the meatballs.
For optimal results, cool and then refrigerate. Before reheating to serve, skim off the solid fat from the top.