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Chef Barbara Lynch Still Makes Her Mom's Thrifty Meatballs

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I still remember the day in kindergarten we put heavy cream in a mason jar and shook the hell out of it until it curdled. It turned into butter, which we ate on Saltines—a miracle! Even that young, I had an interest in food, sparked by my mother’s cooking.

Barbara and her mom, 1988.
Barbara and her mom, 1988.

Though she made plain, down-to-earth meals, with heavy reliance on convenience products, she had particular tastes and added her own special creative touches. When I got home from school, I’d often find her in the kitchen, smoking a Benson & Hedges while reading the Herald or touching up her mauve-brown nails. “What’s for dinner?” I’d ask.

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“Shit on a shingle,” she’d say. “You’re gonna love it.”

And I would. It might be her fantastic flank steak, or spaghetti with her delicious meatballs made of ground beef, garlic powder, dried onion flakes, herbs, Parmesan cheese, and—the magic touch—Saltines soaked in milk. Either way, I'd love it.

Mom's Meatballs
Mom's Meatballs

Her meatballs have inspired me to dream up new dishes, like pheasant polpette (Italian for meatballs)—the recipe's in my cookbook, Stir.

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Pheasant Meatball Lasagnette, inspired by Mom.
Pheasant Meatball Lasagnette, inspired by Mom. Photo by Deborah Jones

I use these tiny polpette in a lasagnette I serve in the restaurants. These elegant individual lasagnas are made from layers of paper thin pasta, bechamel, and of course, pheasant polpette. I once made these tiny individual servings of lasagna for Julia Child. Julia loved it. It’s one of my favorites, too, in part because they're so cute: little rounds of pasta stacked and separated by marble-sized polpette.

You can see the parallels in the two recipes: ground beef translates into pheasant meat, dried herbs and spices become fresh, and saltines are replaced with panko. While my recipe is built on a similar framework, they're refined enough to serve in the restaurant or to entertain with.

That said, I still make my mom's meatballs.

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Mom's Meatballs

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Serves 6
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground beef
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 egg
  • 12 saltines, well crushed
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
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Passage adapted and excerpted from Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire. Barbara Lynch is our first guest chef in residence—catch up on her other entries here.

Tags: chef in residence