“The farmer has to be an optimist, or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” — Will Rodgers
It’s absolutely bucketing outside – the kind of rain that recalls the old ‘cats and dogs’ idiom; the sort that keeps you from attending a yoga class you’d virtuously scheduled into your day for fear of getting ‘soaked to the bone’ while racing from car to studio, and the type that commands warm socks and your favorite hoodie as the only acceptable attire.
For those of you that do not live in Southern California, and for me, previously, at various (well, most) points in my life, this kind of rain is usually a bummer. Maybe it’s just that you tend to remember these sort of negative things, but in my memories, heavy rain – or any bad weather, really – has an unfortunate tendency of picking up just as a plane carrying your best friend touches down for a weekend visit, or on the very weekend that you were planning a backyard fete. You know what I mean – inclement weather always seems to happen right at the wrong time.
But this time, that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re settled into our new house in Santa Barbara, the last of the scuffed-up and tape-heavy corrugated boxes have been broken down and hauled away, and we’re having our inaugural rainfall. Not just any old rainfall though – a rainfall that has been hoped, prayed, and danced for by anyone and everyone in the state of drier-than-bone-dry-California (and my Mother, way across the country on Cape Cod, who has been anxiously watching the storm crawl across the doppler for the better part of a week!)
Here in unusually hot and sunny California – and particularly in South – we’ve managed to get ourselves in a real predicament as far as the water supply is concerned….or complete lack thereof, I should say. Upon the first fat drops hitting the roof you could hear a collective squeal of joy, and when you live on an avocado farm – one that has become increasingly sunburnt and parched under this ultra-sunny Winter sky – a few days of much needed soaking feels like hitting the jackpot.
Of course a few days of rain will do anything but solve the drought – it’s a huge help, that’s no question – but we are doing everything in our power to conserve, conserve, conserve around here. That means a 5 gallon bucket in the shower to catch the first few chilly minutes (which in turn gets dumped on the roses), being aware of and reducing the flow when washing dishes and brushing teeth, setting dishwashers and washing machines to their express settings (read: faster and still totally adequate), and recalling the old hippie mantra, “If it’s yellow….”
Crunchy stuff, right?
The unintended consequence of a day this wet and soggy is that you’re forced to pump the breaks and take a little downtime. With the massive (cough…thirdinthreeyears….lest I let you forget!) move that we just made and the responsibilities that have come along with it, we haven’t exactly been taking lots of time to kick up our heels and eat bonbons.
Today, there’s a fire in the fireplace and the animals (and humans) are kicking back for a bit. The oversized drops are plinking down on the roof and we’re watching our rain gauge slowly and steadily inch higher and higher, letting us know that the avocados, lemons, satsumas, guavas, and other bits and bobs that grow on the ranch are enjoying a much needed drink. We heated up this leftover pasta for lunch – a riff on a traditional spaghetti and meatballs – and sank into the couch to enjoy a much needed quiet afternoon at home.
I made this a couple of weeks ago – on Valentine’s Day, to be exact – and froze half of it for ‘a rainy day;’ the absence of which at the time had us biting our nails. My camera was still packed away with the rest of my earthly possessions (hence the iPhone-ography), but lack of proper photography equipment notwithstanding, I managed to snap enough photos to give you the gist of the order of events.
These meatballs start with a base of organic and grass fed ground beef, and are flavored with minced fresno pepper, crumbles of good quality feta cheese, and a hefty dose of chopped cilantro leaves and stems – a nice and totally unexpected departure from the usual parsley and parmesan route. For the sauce, onion and garlic are sauteed in olive oil, and then crushed tomatoes and roasted red peppers are added, simmering away enthusiastically but quickly till the flavors are combined and your kitchen smells divine. The meatballs are then baked in the oven while you cook up some hearty conchiglie pasta and puree the sauce, and big pieces of torn chard are stirred in till they melt and wilt. The whole lot is served up piping hot in bowls, the pasta perfectly al dente, and garnished with an additional dusting of cilantro.
The flavor of these meatballs is sharp and savory from the feta and with a gentle background heat from the fresno, and the unusual addition of cilantro to a pasta dish lightens and brightens what could easily feel heavy and bogged down. It’s a quick, relatively simple meal, and when paired with a fresh green salad, it made the perfect nutritious supper. I split off half of the batch straight away for the aforementioned rainy day, and it froze and reheated perfectly this afternoon, making it a perfect meal for busy moms and working gals alike to help them get ahead.
Feta and Herb Meatballs with Roasted Red Pepper and Chard Conchiglie
Don’t buy the pre-crumbled feta – it is treated with anti-clumping agents and isn’t nearly as tasty as the stuff that comes in brick form. The fresno chilis will add a nice gentle heat to the meatballs – scale back accordingly if you are sensitive to spice.
1lb ground beef (organic & grass fed is preferred)
2 fresno peppers, diced
1 large handful cilantro leaves and stems, finely chopped
4 oz good quality feta cheese, crumbled
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper
sauce & pasta
1/2 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 16oz jar of roasted red peppers, drained
1 28oz can crushed tomatoes (I like San Marzano)
1lb conchiglie, or other hearty tube-like pasta (like rigatoni)
kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
1 bunch green chard, tough ribs removed and leaves torn into medium sized pieces
Prepare a large pot of salted water and begin to bring it to a boil (it should be as salty as seawater).
Preheat your oven to 400F. In a mixing bowl, add the ground beef, fresno peppers, cilantro, feta, and a good pinch of salt and few grinds of pepper. Gently mix the meatballs with your hands until the ingredients are evenly distributed; try to avoid overly smashing and mashing the mixture (it will make your meatballs tough), but rather gently and using open fingers fold and combine. Divide the mixture in half, and then divide each half in half again, so you have 4 portions. Divide those 4 portions into 3 meatballs each, and gently roll them into an evenly round shape. You will have 12 meatballs. Place the meatballs on a baking sheet, and bake them in the oven till they are just cooked through, 15-20 minutes, checking the meatballs after 12 minutes; when they are no longer pink inside, they are cooked. You do not want to overcook them; they will become tough and dry.
While the meatballs bake, make your sauce and cook your pasta. When the water is boiling, cook your pasta until it is just shy of al dente; firm pasta is really nice in this dish, and your pasta will have a chance to cook just a tiny bit more in the sauce, so I like to pull it when it has a good firm bite to it. Drain and set aside.
In a large saute pan, cook the red onion over medium-high heat in a bit of olive oil just till it is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add in the garlic, and saute for one minute. Add the crushed tomatoes and their juices and the drained roasted red peppers. Add a good pinch of salt and fresh cracked pepper, and cook for 3-4 minutes. Carefully puree the hot sauce in a food processor or blender, and return it to the pan. Taste and adjust salt and pepper levels, if needed. Stir in the torn chard, and cook the sauce over medium heat till the chard is wilted and tender, 5-6 minutes.
When the meatballs are cooked through, remove them from the oven and set them to the side. Spoon a little of the sauce over each meatball. When the chard is wilted into the sauce and you are happy with the seasoning level, add the drained pasta to the hot sauce, and stir it well, making sure to coat each and every noodle in sauce.
Ladle generous portions of pasta into bowls, and top each with a few meatballs. Add a dusting of cilantro to garnish, and serve immediately.