Friday, 26 August 2011

Meatballs - a recipe for life?

It’s very wet and miserable in this part of West Yorkshire today. We’ve been to the cinema (Cars 2)and played pick-up sticks, and now we’re trying to do some more work on the holiday scrapbooks that the children were sent home with. In fairness, it’s blue who has been asked to do the scrapbook, but pink is doing one too so she doesn’t feel left out. As the holiday has progressed, the enthusiasm to update the scrapbook has waned, to the point where we’ve been at mum’s since Monday and haven’t done anything on the scrapbook since last week – and all we did last week was to put in the photos from the holiday with a few captions. Suffice to say that it’s like pulling teeth so I am sitting next to the poor boy trying not to sound exasperated as he laboriously writes about trying to push the trolley through to Platform 9 3/4 , and am thinking about all I want to write about meatballs.

Allotment Junkie made these for supper last night – made in advance they are a great freezer meal  - but after a day of revisiting old haunts in York from my Law Student days, these meatballs took me back to a more recent, and certainly more sober, period.
Picture if you will, a fairly hectic household – 2 working parents, 2 yr old and a baby on the way. Blue was in nursery 4 days a week as husband and I rushed around earning money. Definitely time poor, and suffering massively from maternal guilt I spent a lot of time trying to fill the freezer with wholesome food so that at least on one level I could feel like I was doing something right by my son. These meatballs were a huge hit, and I felt very smug that blue would eat them in huge quantities. Pride inevitably comes before a fall, especially when feeding small children, but I could never have anticipated how these meatballs (from a Good Food magazine – Moroccan Lamb meatballs, I think they were called) would come to haunt me.  

February 2006, and one morning, blue had a fall down the step into the kitchen and began to have problems walking. Then there was a strange day when nursery called me to say that something was obviously distressing him but they couldn’t work out what it was. He began to show reluctance walking to the point where he refused altogether, although when off his feet he seemed fine. He was having some extremely long nosebleeds.  3 visits to a GP and we were referred to an orthopaedic surgeon. Fortunately, at the time, we were in a position to go privately and were fitted in very conveniently the next evening. The consultant was about our age. As all consultants should, he exuded confidence. His manner told us that he would, without a doubt, be able to tell us what was ailing our small son. 90 minutes later, he could not tell us what was ailing our small son and he referred us to the paediatric department of the local hospital. His secretary completed the referral letter that night and phoned me the next day to say that she had faxed it off. It was a Wednesday. By Thursday morning I was ringing the hospital every 30 minutes until they had given us an appointment for the next Monday.
That Monday came, and unusually, blue was not awake when our alarm went off. I had planned to go to work as usual and pick him up from nursery at lunchtime  – in himself he still seemed fine – but by 7.30 he was still in bed so I went into him. Blood everywhere – he was having a catastrophic nosebleed. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might have taken place in his bed. It took an hour to stop the bleeding and it was clear that he was, all of a sudden, very, very poorly. If I hadn’t had the appointment already arranged I would probably have gone to A&E then and there, but I didn’t. I’ll spare you the details of the hospital appointment. In fact we were there all afternoon. However, at about 7 p.m. we were the only people in the department, and the consultant took us into another room and told us that he had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia and our world exploded.

 After a nightmare 2 weeks in hospital, we were home and subject to an exhausting schedule of chemotherapy and blood tests. When we weren’t in hospital for treatment we were waiting for the community nurses to come out to do blood tests, or worrying about whether his immune system was down and whether the temperature that appears to be coming on would mean another 48 hours in hospital on intravenous antibiotics while they worked out if it was just a virus or a bacterial infection causing the temp. As if the treatment itself wasn’t bad enough, there were the side-effects to cope with too. In particular, the steroids that accompanied the chemotherapy made him constantly ravenous, and craving in a way that made my pregnancy desire for goats cheese (I was 6 months pregnant when he was diagnosed) look silly. He would wake hungry at 6 a.m. and eat until about 2.30 in the afternoon, when he would have a little break, and then start again around 4 in the afternoon until bedtime. Kilos of Shreddies, cheddar cheese (extra mature), cherry tomatoes, cocktail sausages – and these meatballs. His first words in the morning would often be “I’m feeling like meatballs today”, and he meant it. As cooking was practically one of the only things I could do for him in those first dreadful months of the disease, I cooked them.
The ingredients are straightforward:  500g lamb mince, 1 finely chopped onion, 1 clove of garlic, 1tsp each ground cumin, coriander and paprika, 400g chopped tomatoes, 300 ml veg stock, Lemon zest, Fresh coriander

There are many better things to be doing at 6.30 on a Sunday morning than frying onions with the  garlic, cumin paprika and coriander. But fry I did.  Once fried and cooled, half the onions are mixed with the mince and then formed into balls. The meatballs are then browned and set aside, then in the same pan, add the remaining onion mix, the chopped tomatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, return the meatballs to the pan and simmer for 30 minutes.  The original recipe required the meatballs to be served with couscous, garnished with lemon zest and chopped fresh coriander, but the cravings for pasta proved too strong, so they were served with spaghetti.
I must have made thousands of these over the course of his treatment. The local butcher got used to seeing me loitering as he opened up and started to keep a stash of lamb mince aside for me. When he was in the deepest grip of the steroids, I once used up 3lbs of mince in a weekend – all for him.

Blue has been off treatment and in remission for over 2 years and should get a qualified 'all clear' next June. I don’t make these so often these days – I have discovered other meatball recipes, and thankfully, despite my worries that the limited diet he had tolerated during his treatment would leave him fussy and picky about his food, once he was off chemo his diet broadened out considerably. It was as if after 3 years of most things tasting awful, a whole new world of food had opened up to him. But these meatballs served a huge purpose and I will always be grateful to them. After having them again yesterday, maybe I will cook them a bit more...

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