Heirloom Recipes

Chef Barbara Lynch Still Makes Her Mom's Thrifty Meatballs

May 17, 2017

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.

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.

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

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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.

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

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.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Deedledum
  • Winness
James Beard Award winner and Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef


Deedledum May 22, 2017
Winness May 21, 2017
Growing up in an off-the-boat Italian family, I was rarely exposed to things like SOS. When I married my North Dakota-born Norwegian husband, an Air Force vet, he asked me to make it. Well, it couldn't be just a mix of cream sauce and dried beef. I had to add things like slivered roasted peppers, mushrooms, and other tidbits hiding in the fridge. I'm curious about your mom's recipe; would you be willing to share it? Thanks!