Every time I come across a recipe from our beloved Aunt Ida, I know it is a good one. She has yet to let us down, even though many folks have forgotten of her, bless her heart. So when I came across this recipe a while back found in Aunt Ida’s notes, I knew that if she loved it, we would adore it too.
Now unfortunately, I do not know anyone in our family referred to as Big Mama although there is something familiar about the name in association with my Grandmother Zeigler’s side of the family. As I recall, many times we passed a beautiful, white house out in the country on the way to Sherling’s Lake and it seems that was ‘Big Mama’s house’ or where it once stood, or something another. But Aunt Ida did not know my Grandmother and she was not from my hometown so I know this is not a recipe from rural Alabama and because of the Creole, Italian along with the Southern ingredients, it must be from the Gulf Coast area or from a port city in the south. That would make much more sense in knowing Big Mama was either family or a friend of Aunt Ida.
The recipe dapples far enough into Italian influences to be considered Italian but like so many of my favorite offerings, this recipe has just enough charm of Creole and southern flavorings to make it a classic standard in our house. In fact, this is one I am adopting and will repeat many times. Thank your Aunt Ida and Big Mama who ever you are.
Aunt Ida kept splendid notes and when it came to recipes, she many times offered suggestions as if it was a work in progress, comparing one technique with another in seeing which worked out the best. In the meatball recipe below, she mentions ‘while mixing the meats with the seasonings (and here I know she includes vegetables too) use a cold metal spoon, dipped in ice water and gently fold mixture together.’ She forgos of using her hands as the temperature and pressure will pack down the meat and will make it tough after cooking. Only at the very last of shaping does she roll the meatballs into orbs using her hands and then the hands ‘should be ice cold.’ She also mentions in making the sauce a variation for a brown Creole sauce using a dark roux.
I dunno about you, but I am glad I found this recipe. I appreciate Aunt Ida for doing most of the legwork in developing the original recipe from Big Mama, whomever family she reigned.
Big Mama’s Creole Meatballs in Red Gravy
1 medium piece day-old French bread (about a 3-inch slice)
1/3 cup sweet cream (half-and-half)
5 or 6 fresh pork hot sausage (like DiMaggio’s Spicy Cajun Sausage)
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
1/2 teaspoon crushed oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed basil
1/2 teaspoon crushed thyme
3 toes of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 pound fresh ground beef hind-end roast (I used a 85/15 ratio ground round)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a small bowl, break the bread into small pieces and add the cream. Let set for an hour.
Remove casing from each of the sausage and cut each into half. Place sausage in the bottom of a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the parsley, onion, bell pepper and seasonings over the sausage.
Break the ground beef and cover the vegetables. Take the bread, squeezing out just a little of the cream, and place evenly on top of the beef. Top with the Parmesan cheese.
With a heavy metal spoon, gently fold the layers together dipping the spoon from time to time in ice water in keeping the mixture cold. Do not pack mixture down or tighten it up, Aunt Ida states that ‘Big Mama’s balls are loose.’ When fully incorporated, dip your hands in the ice water, dry them off and place a large spoonful (about 1 1/2-inch diameter) in one palm. Tenderly roll into a ball and place on a baking sheet. Repeat keeping hands cold until finished.
Big Mama fried her meatballs, but I chose to bake mine in a preheated 400 degree F. oven for 10 minutes. Remove, and turn meatballs over. Bake another 10 to 15 minutes or until center is done. Remove to drain on paper lined plate.
Add meatballs to the sauce if desired before serving.
Creole Red Gravy:
2 tablespoons lard (Ida used vegetable oil but I use olive oil)
3 or 4 toes of garlic, sliced in half lengthwise
3 bay leaves, divided
1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped bell pepper
4 large Creole tomatoes, diced (or about 7 ripe Roma tomatoes diced or 1 -14.5 oz can petite diced)
2 cups chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
Dark Roux or 1 -6 ounce can tomato paste
Hot pepper sauce to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
3 springs spring onions, minced
Heat a stockpot or large oven over medium heat, add olive oil and when hot add the sliced garlic and 2 of the bay leaves. Cook until garlic in brown on both sides stirring all while. Remove garlic and bay leaves from the pot with a slotted spoon. Add the trinity (onion, celery, bell pepper) and sauté over medium-low heat until onion edges start to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently to caramelize. Add the tomatoes cooking another 2 minutes.
Add the chicken stock or enough to cover tomato mixture by 1/2-inch. Add the remaining bay leaf and the seasonings stirring while bringing mixture to a low boil. Reduce heat to low simmer. Add a dark roux thickener for a brown Creole sauce or the tomato paste for the red sauce pictured here. Cook for about an hour stirring often. Adjust seasonings if needed and add the hot pepper sauce to taste. Bring sauce back to a low simmer. Remove bay leaf and stir in the fresh minced garlic and green onions right before serving.
Serve with pasta, rice and meat dishes.