Back Up on the Bike

(photo credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

Mulling over my first subject after causing a major controversy, my brain kept yelling at me, “Write a FOOD blog. Write about FOOD.”

But shell-shocked and shy I wondered: what if PETA or my vegan friends find me and yell at me for writing about meat? What if my anti-margarine friends sniff at me with disdain, touting the number of years their households have refrained from abusing this dangerous kitchen substance?

I thought: Should I write a healthful vegan blog post??

I thought: Should I write a healthful vegan blog post??

And then I interrupted myself. “JUST STOP IT,” I said to myself, “JUST STOP! Be true to yourself. You aren’t a vegan. You aren’t into writing about foods that are good for you. You write about food YOU LIKE TO EAT.

Don’t let these people cow you. Just get back in there and write. You write about whatever moves you and do not worry about these people who call you ‘moron’ and so forth.”

I finished upbraiding myself and chastened, took a deep breath and prepared to begin. I reminded myself, “The main thing is to get back up on the bike.”

Enough with the self-examination—let’s talk food.

Whispering Allspice

Growing up, I enjoyed a dish my mother made fairly often, an all-in-one dish of meat balls and potatoes with the alluring scent of allspice. The allspice came at you with a whisper. It wasn’t enough of a presence to make your brain scream: “WEIRD FOOD!” but only teased and provoked your palate into wanting some more.

When I got married some 33 years ago, I asked my mom if she could type up the recipes for all my favorite childhood foods and send them to me. I provided her with a list. This dish was at the top of that list as much for its savor as for the odd spelling of its name: Balles of Italie.

My mother, like all foodies worth their salt, has an ample library of cookbooks. Like me, she cannot resist buying interesting cookbooks. The recipe for Balles of Italie was contained in a slim volume of what were purported to be Italian Jewish recipes.

Former synagogue in Trani, Italy (photo credit: Ruth Ellen Gruber/JTA)

The cookbook was acquired by my mother long before Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden were writing about Sephardic Jewish cuisine, so that it–the cookbook–represented a lone voice in the wilderness. But my mom loves all things Italian (Sinatra, Pucci, and pasta are some of her favorite things). So she just had to buy that book.

Perusing the book on a trip back home to the Alte Heim* it occurred to me that just as there is a difference between Italian and Italian American cuisine, so there is a difference between authentic Sephardic dishes and those which have undoubtedly been marked by American influences. Take Balles of Italie: what self-respecting Italian would put KETCHUP or Worcestershire sauce in their meatballs let alone MARGARINE? Yet the combination of potatoes and meatballs with whole allspice berries has Italian written all over it for its uniqueness.

According to the cookbook (name of book and author long forgotten, sorry), Balles of Italie is an “ancient” Italian Jewish recipe. The cutesy spelling of the name is meant to point to the recipe’s elderly provenance, even without the prefatory words. However, it is plain that the dish has undergone many changes through the years.

The concept of moving and adapting resonates with me every bit as much as the flavors in this tasty dish. Here, a simple stew highlights the manner in which my people have adapted as they moved from place to place, picking up newfangled ingredients as a result of sojourning to different lands. This dish reveals a Jewish journey from Italy to America.

(photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Perhaps more importantly, this stew is beloved by every last one of my 12 children and my husband. That in itself speaks reams about the qualities of this humble dish.

I have adapted this recipe for my own purposes, exchanging soy sauce for the Worcestershire Sauce in the original, due to reasons of Kashrut. I also use celery seed instead of celery salt, since the latter is unobtainable in Israel.

While I often make this with water, I recently used Miriam Kresh’s recipe for Bone Broth. The dish had greater depth of flavor and this is an experiment I would repeat.

(photo credit: Varda Epstein)

Balles of Italie

Serves 6

Combine 700 grams ( around 1 ½ pounds) ground beef, 2 tablespoons cold water, dashed over the beef and mixed into it and 1 medium onion, grated.

Add 1 tablespoon catsup plus a dash of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon melted margarine, ½ teaspoon celery seed, salt and pepper to taste and 1 beaten egg. Blend well and add: 2 tablespoons dried bread crumbs, or enough to bind mixture.

Grease bottom of Dutch oven. Shape the meat into balls slightly larger than a walnut. Alternate them with chunky pieces of raw potatoes. Sprinkle paprika generously over all. Toss in 1 teaspoon whole allspice berries. Add ¾ cup bouillon or water, cover tightly and let simmer 1 hour, or until potatoes are well cooked. Do not stir.

*Yiddish for “homeland.”

About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for