2/22/2020
How pink should your meatballs be on the inside?

To make twenty large meatballs, start by slicing one whole red onion. I assume white works well, too, but they say red onions tend to be sweeter - and besides, that's what's more easily available (and more affordable) here. Slice off the top and the tail, split in half, and then slice against the rings. It doesn't really matter how it looks, but don't chop them into fine pieces. You want half rings, if that makes sense.

Add some oil - any oil will do, but you don't really want to put your fancy oil of choice at this point - in a large pan over low heat, and when that's ready, add the onions. Sprinkle some salt, and stir it around constantly for around, say, twenty minutes or so. You're caramelizing the onions. You want them to get dark and somewhat sweet to the taste. The salt helps bring out the moisture; when all that's cooked away, the sugars get in line and turn into, er, something sweet.

While you do that, soak a cup of bread crumbs in some milk. This would be ideal if you have dried bread crumbs, as I do. If you have fresh bread crumbs, maybe you don't need to do this, but then Alton Brown had some torn up white bread and he soaked that in milk. Anyway, you let that sit for a while. The bread crumbs should sip up the milk and expand a little.

Now, assembly time. In a large bowl, mix together a quarter kilo each of ground pork and ground beef, the bread crumbs and milk, the caramelized onions - make sure you cool that down before you start putting the meatballs together - and some salt and pepper to taste. Don't work the meat too hard; you don't want your meatballs to feel heavy and dense. Just mix them lightly - no punching, no squishing - until it looks like everything's combined, and then form meatballs by scooping up a handful and throwing it from one hand to the other, like you're making dough. Of course, if you have a scooper, you can do that, especially if you're squeamish with raw meat and have mixed the whole thing together with a spoon or spatula. But that isn't fun.

In a pan - in my case, the same pan I did the onions in - add some oil, and maybe some butter if you wish. Add the meatballs and fry them. If you want to deep fry, it's fine. I don't, but then, I don't have a deep enough pan, and I don't want to waste cooking oil. You can just shallow fry them. Just make sure to constantly turn the meatballs so they don't burn. You want to brown them on most sides, however; that helps with keeping the meatballs together, especially since, as you may have noticed, I didn't put any eggs on it.

Once done, drain the excess oil off the meatballs - pick them up with a tong and shake them off, and then place them on some paper towels. Then stop and smell what you've just done. That, my dear, is dinner.


Now, that is not my recipe. At least, I wouldn't call it that. Before doing that early this week I was scouring recipes online. I was initially planning to make sweet and sour meatballs, but then I wanted to use this packet of pineapple tidbits that I got for Christmas - you know those gift packs your employers give you? - and I wasn't sure how to strike a balance between that and the other recipes for sweet and sour sauce I found online.

So, instead, I decided to do Swedish meatballs. I've never had them my whole life, and yet I've been very much fascinated with it. Perhaps it's those days when I'd read an Ikea catalogue from a relative who's gone abroad. The back pages would always talk about how you can take a break from all the shopping by tucking into some Swedish meatballs. They just looked good on the photos. That, and I was a kid, perhaps seven or eight years old - meatballs are ideal. I have visited some Ikea branches since, and yet I still haven't tried them.

Taipei has a big store in the middle of the city, just across the Taipei Arena. On my first trip there, our hosts decided to bring us there for breakfast; something about that's where he has breakfast often, or something. The meatballs weren't served until later in the day, so that's one opportunity missed. We did return to the store a couple more times - my travel companions are old and were not interested in touring the city, instead choosing to spend three hours or so seated at the Ikea restaurant, surfing Facebook on the store's spotty wifi, which was better than the wifi we could not set up at our host's spare home. Even then I could not have the meatballs, as they've run out.

I've been to the Ikea at Hong Kong's Causeway Bay more times - I think once every time I've been there for work, which is once for five of the last six years. But that's a more compact branch (although not any less overwhelming to navigate) and so there's always a lot of people eating at the bistro, as they call it. I've only had, in one of those visits, a box of lingonberry juice, which I drank as my former boss and I were caught in a surprise downpour.

As it turns out, there's not much of a difference between Swedish meatballs and other meatballs. (To be frank, I got that concept when I saw a pack of frozen meatballs at the Ikea in Causeway Bay, and read that the contents were made in Hong Kong. There goes my childhood vision of crates of meat being flown from Sweden.) The meatball recipe I wrote down is, pretty much, Swedish meatballs, an amalgamation of several recipes I found online, and the stuff I already know. Alton Brown used torn white bread. Gino D'Acampo caramelized his onions instead of just sweating them - all right, that was a recipe for Italian meatballs rather than Swedish one, and I thought it was such a nice trick the first time I did that recipe to the letter. Every recipe I saw, though, called for allspice, which I didn't have. But PewDiePie - yes, him - didn't put any in his recipe, and if that's how a Swedish man does it, then it's good enough for me.

The difference, apparently, is in the sauce. Well, even that seems basic if you know your way somewhat around the kitchen. Most of the recipes call for a mix of heavy cream and beef or veal stock, but I only have a box of all-purpose cream and some soy sauce - PweDiePie has that, too - and I have the tasty bits left in the pan I fried my meatballs in. So, here's your recipe for the sauce. On that same pan you fried your meatballs in, in low heat, add some soy sauce and scrape off those bits. (This is what they call deglazing, although usually you do that with wine. But then, I am making this thing up as I go along.) Then add the cream, turn the stove to the lowest heat possible, and stir until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. You can add other stuff to this if you wish - perhaps some parsley or some pepper. It's all up to you. Me, I am completely eyeballing this thing - although you don't want it to be too salty, but rather, just the right side of light - because while I made twenty meatballs, I'm only cooking eight, and putting the rest in the freezer.


"Hindi ako mahilig sa meatballs," Shalla told me when I did those Italian meatballs. "I mean, okay lang siya."

I must admit I felt some disappointment, but then, I didn't really consult her about dinner. I just made it because I thought I could do it. The meatballs - just ground pork, ground beef and caramelized onions - were fine, but the recipe called for canned tomatoes, and the nearest supermarket to me only had a can with herbs mixed in. The sauce ended up having too strong a taste and I wasn't sure how to water it down. Some vinegar, perhaps, now that I've thought of it.

She didn't say no when I told her what I had planned to do, but then even here I dodged a bullet. I only told her I wanted to do meatballs, so I could use some of the mince I have stored in the freezer. I didn't tell her I initially planned to do a sweet and sour alongside it. It was going to be her lunch at work, and she told me that wouldn't be a good idea since the sauce would sog up the rice and make the thing taste a little less enticing. Sounds picky, but I get her, because I'd say the same thing. I only told her that when I was smearing the cream sauce on top of what are now Swedish meatballs, or at least Swedish-style meatballs, because I didn't have the allspice, and Emma Bengtsson said that even if it isn't really native to Sweden, they have it at home and ended up using it anyway. I must say, smearing that sauce on top of the meatballs is actually satisfying.

That night - she works the night shift, so night is day and you get the drill - she sent me a text message. An emoji, actually; that hand gesture that looks like the number three that says it's okay. No, it's good. She liked it. She really, it seems, liked it.

I had some more in the freezer, so a couple of days later I decided to make them for breakfast. Afraid I'd burn the thing, I fried the meatballs in a lower heat, but let it sit longer so I could sear them and be sure that it's cooked. (I poke a meatball with one chopstick and check if the juices are clear.) When she opened them up, she told me they were pink.

"Hindi siya ganito nung isang araw," she told me.

"Ganun? Eh sa akin, ganyan nu'ng niluto ko."

"Hindi ba 'to hilaw?"

"Uh, medium 'yan."

Still, it scared her a bit. She doesn't eat much chicken, but one time had some drumsticks for lunch, and was horrified to learn that she was eating them undercooked. I get that. I honestly thought the first time that I'd cook them through, but if I'm being honest, the induction cooker I have at the flat is a bit unpredictable, and the pan could be better. It's hard to figure these things out, especially what you do when the recipe says "low heat" or "medium heat". I find that anything beyond 160 degrees burns whatever I'm cooking before I could even flip it.

So, I took her meatballs and put them again in the pan. A little more oil, a split between the middle, and some rough shakes, maybe a minute, before I'd serve it to her again. She ate some of it, and left the ones that were still slightly pink to me. And before you say the best way to eat meat is when it's cooked rare, let me remind you that those standards apply best to steaks, and not to meatballs. I mean, it's moist, and at least it isn't cold, but now, I'm not so sure.

I cooked the last batch this morning, and they were still a bit too pink for both our liking. I think I should make forty small meatballs next time.


Apparently, it's a book, the source of all those posts we've seen about our so-called "love language". It's called The Five Love Languages, written by Gary Chapman, a church pastor and radio show host. He believes that each person has one primary and one secondary love language: gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.

When Shalla and I just started dating, she showed me one of those posts on her phone. She said her love language is giving gifts. She wondered what mine is. I wondered the same. I mean, this is my first relationship, so I never really had the chance to know.

Seven years later, I may have my answer.

"I think my love language is cooking," I told her.

"Oo nga," she answered.

I don't consider myself a good cook. I just watch a lot of cooking shows. I watched them from my childhood - if Sandy Daza dies, it'll feel like I've lost an uncle - and I watch them to this day, although of course there's also YouTube for the instructional stuff and Netflix for the food porn. I've just gone through another phase of watching Julia Child clips online; someone uploaded her cooking shows from the 1960s and 1970s, and it's her (and those clips) that I credit with the omelettes my mother loves so much and always makes me do. (Here's the episode. It's honestly opened my mind.)

Now that I spend a bit more time here at the flat, and especially now that there's a fridge where we can store meat, vegetables and leftovers, I've been feeling a little more adventurous. Shalla hasn't been feeling well the past few days or so - complete with two emergency room visits in the middle of the night - so I've been cooking her those homey dishes I've always wanted my mother to teach me. Nilagang baboy was the first, at her request - and while I've always had it with beef, my mother advised me against it because it'll take three hours and it'll make a dent on our electric bill. That lasted for four days. Right now there's some leftover sinigang na baboy in the fridge, also at Shalla's request, and it tastes fine, even if I forgot to put some siling pansigang in, because I couldn't find them at my preferred Marketplace.

I mean, she cooks - we both agree her egg drop soup is much better than Panda Express', and we've been there twice in one week - but then she's always tired at work, and I don't want her to just rely on stuff from cans. She does buy food on her way back from home, but I thought it'd be better if she can just reheat some leftovers from the fridge, especially when I'm not there. Say, corned beef hash, which I'm close to perfecting, or chicken curry, although I use Japanese curry blocks, which is good enough, if you ask me. That keeps well if you've got a fridge and you have the patience to reheat things, and maybe adjust them as you go.

Is it tedious? Sure, it can be, but I find that it's relaxing to be able to go to the grocery yourself and do some shopping. That, and in the past few days it feels like I'm losing control of my life, and that's been kept at bay by me requesting the butchers to fillet the chicken breast and to give me both the meat and the bones. You know, for chicken broth, for her really good egg drop soup. I mean, the butchers are good at what they do, and you ask them to do something you can't do, and you mean well, and they do it, and they mean well, and it's a win-win for both. Or I'm overthinking that.

What I didn't get to do the last time is to ask the butcher to split my half kilo each of ground beef and ground pork in half. Portioning my meat upon purchase, my mother taught me, makes things easier when you do have to cook, and especially when you haven't decided on what to cook, like the morning I decided to make meatballs, and then changed my plans halfway through.

But then, cooking - most cooking, because baking is chemistry and you can't mess with it - is really about you making do with what you have and adjusting as you go. You have a recipe in our head, and you tweak it a bit to suit what's in your pantry and what the people you're feeding will like. Shalla's generally a picky eater, and has a lot of allergies to boot, so, it's chicken breasts on most things (although I have some thigh fillets in the freezer for karaage) and an arsenal of soups and soupy viands. And also, cook your meatballs through. But that depends on how temperamental my pan and induction cooker is.

One of these days, I'll get us a proper electric range, and maybe a microwave oven, so she can easily reheat leftovers. For now, though, I bought allspice. We're definitely doing those Swedish meatballs again soon.

And your responses...

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