As we move into our first almost-normal holiday season in three years, I've been thinking about something the late Marcella Hazan once said of her American cooking students. Whenever she taught a dish that was new, at least one of them was sure to say that he or she was going to make it for a dinner party the following weekend.
She admired that adventurous spirit because such a notion would never even occur to most Italians. A meal offered to guests outside the family would be one they'd made hundreds of times—even if that was how often it had been served to those same guests in the past.
Well, admirable it may be, but there's a fine line between being adventurous and foolhardy. That Italian tendency to play it safe with a party menu has a lot to recommend it, especially in these times when a lot of us may be a little out of practice with entertaining.
Remember: We call it "giving" a party for a reason. A party is (or should be) an occasion for being generous, not for showing off. Our focus ought to be on making our company feel welcomed and loved, not on how clever we can be.
Especially this year, instead of trying to dazzle with something new and different, maybe the thing to do is rediscover something comfortable and beloved, like this lovely old standby.
Cocktail Meatballs Bourguignon
A warm chafing dish full of cocktail meatballs is always welcome on a cocktail buffet, especially on a blustery winter's evening. Meatballs in Bourguignonne sauce may be a bit retro and go in and out of fashion, but as long as they taste good, what does that matter?
These can also be offered as a main dish with buttered noodles or boiled potatoes, and will serve at least 6 to 8 guests.
Makes about 48-50 small meatballs, serving 12-16 as a cocktail appetizer
For the meatballs:
2 thick slices firm, home-style bread
1½ pounds ground beef chuck
¼ cup finely minced yellow onion
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley, optional
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
Olive or vegetable oil
For the sauce:
2 slices extra-thick-cut bacon, diced
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, mashed, peeled, and minced
2 ounces brown (crimini or baby bella) mushrooms, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
¼ cup flour
3 cups French Burgundy or Pinot Noir
2 cups beef broth
1 rounded tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon fresh or 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat it to 400° F. Put the bread in a large mixing bowl and drizzle enough milk over it to saturate it. Let it soak for 1 minute, or until the bread is well-saturated, then squeeze it dry, discarding the milk. Crumble the bread back into the bowl, then crumble in the beef. Add the onion, garlic, a large pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper and mix well.
2. Generously rub a large rimmed sheet pan with oil. Moisten your hands with water and shape the mixture into 1-inch balls, laying them on the prepared pan as you go with about ½-inch between. When all the meatballs have been shaped and placed on the pan, bake them in the center of the oven until they're nicely browned, about 20 minutes. Remove them from the oven and let them cool enough to handle.
3. Meanwhile, make the sauce: put the bacon in a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until it's browned and its fat is rendered. Add the onion and sauté until softened but not coloring, about 2 minutes. Add the carrot and sauté 2 minutes longer. Add the mushrooms and sauté until beginning to color, about 2 minutes, then add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about half a minute more.
4. Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables and stir until smooth and bubbly, then slowly stir in the wine and bring it to a boil, stirring constantly. Gradually stir in the broth, bring it back to a simmer, and cook, still stirring, until thickened, about 3-4 minutes. Add the tomato paste, thyme, and bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let it come back to a simmer and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to the sauce, allowing the excess fat to drain away while they're still over the baking pan. Let it come back to a boil, and lower the heat to a slow, steady simmer. Loosely cover and simmer until the sauce is thick and the meatballs are infused with its flavor, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the bay leaf. This can be made up to four days ahead: cool, cover, and refrigerate until needed, then gently reheat in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat or in a slow cooker set on high. Serve them from a chafing dish or the slow-cooker set to "keep warm."