Secret Savory Meatball Stew Recipe

Fall is in full swing in the Pacific Northwest, and few meals warm the heart and body like a fresh, steaming bowl of Savory Meatball Stew. Find my recipe below.

Three elements are required for a recipe to fall into my gold standard category of favorites, and my Savory Meatball Stew has all of them. First, it must be consistently delicious every single time. Second, it must be easy to make, because let’s face it, a fabulous recipe on a piece of paper is never going to bring joy to anyone’s mouth or body. And third, it must be shared – the dish and the recipe – and here’s why: The reason we consume food, at its basic level, is for nourishment. I’d love to be able to cook for all my friends and family, but since practical resources do not allow for that, the next best thing is to share photos and recipes and feel amazing knowing that my recipes are simple for others to replicate and enjoy.

Every recipe has secrets. Secrets are basically those awesome ingredients or set of steps that were discovered by accident, or lessons learned that make the next batch better. Listing a set of ingredients, without the “secrets” just sets the next person up to possibly get it right and possibly not. I love this recipe and I want you to, so since I’ve made it six times this year already, and I finally hit an absolutely perfect home run, I’m going to share what I learned so your first time is perfection.

Part of an easy recipe for me is something that is simple – that most people could make – possibly with a kitchen shared with little hands. The first secret to this dish is that “less is more.” For vegetables, I only use one small onion (or half a large onion), celery, carrots, potatoes, one small section of garlic, and I like to add one zucchini at the end for color.

You could certainly make this vegan by leaving out the meatballs and using a vegan broth, but my version includes one pound of beef meatballs and beef bone broth.

Now for the true secrets that make this dish to die for! My first secret to perfect Savory Meatball Stew is using beef bone broth for the base. You can buy chicken bone broth, beef bone broth and yes, even vegan bone broth (although, I’m not sure how exactly that’s made). You can make your own, and I have friends who do, but I actually just buy it in a box. It’s a little over $2 a quart at Wal-Mart or about $17 for six quart boxes at Costco. If you don’t feel like fighting the crowds, most grocery stores carry it for about $5 a quart.

My second secret is high quality extra virgin olive oil. This is not about snobbery, but the sad reality is that a lot of olive oil is a mixture of random oils or even rancid. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, but look for a brand you have tasted and trust, or at least comes in a dark bottle, which keeps it fresh longer. For special flavor, I buy artisan oil, but for basic cooking, I buy the big bottle at Costco, and put it in smaller jars with herbs from my own garden. The secret is to add no more than two flavors – lemon peel and rosemary or just garlic. You can Google artisan olive oil for ideas of what to add.

And my third secret for Savory Meatball Stew is truffle zest seasoning. A small amount turns a dish from average to wow! This is especially true when you keep the ingredient list simple enough to use your vegetables for texture and your meat, broth, garlic and truffle zest as the flavor foundation for the stew. You won’t need salt, pepper and whatever random dried herbs are stored in your kitchen cupboard. Now that you have my secrets, here’s the recipe.

Ingredients and directions: (gluten-free and can be modified to be vegan)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

½ large onion, chopped

  • Sauté onion in olive oil to caramelize.

2 cups celery, chopped

1 clove garlic

1 pound of beef meatballs

1 quart of beef bone broth

  • Add celery and minced, peeled clove / section to pan with onions. Continue to sauté.
  • Add one pound beef meatballs. (You can use basic hamburger crumbles but meatballs look and taste better). Brown along with onions, celery, and garlic. Use high heat and turn constantly to get a nice brown without cooking the vegetables to death. This step is all about infusing flavor.
  • Add one box (32 ounces) or one quart of beef bone broth. You can make it or buy it, but try to use bone broth as it’s much more flavorful than regular broth – and it’s healthier. Bonus!
  • Turn down to simmer for about 45 minutes. You want the pot barely bubbling the whole time.

½ teaspoon truffle zest seasoning

  • After 45 minutes add about 2 cups of potatoes. It looks nice to use baby red potatoes but chopped up russets will do the same. I like to add large pieces of potato so they don’t fall apart. This is when you add ½ teaspoon of truffle zest seasoning. There are five flavors our taste buds distinguish: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savory). The best way to think about umami or savory is in the terms of richness. Essentially, the truffle zest adds a savory complexity (which is why you want to keep the other ingredients simple.)

1 zucchini, sliced

  • Five minutes before I ladle up my stew, I like to add thin slices of fresh zucchini. This is as much for color as anything else but also adds a delightful texture to glide your tongue over.

You’re probably wondering about the red wine. It’s completely optional. You can change this recipe to taste more like a beef burgundy by adding red wine – and that too is delicious. Instead of trying it with the entire pot, just add some to one bowl and see what you think. It’s a nice twist. But honestly, I prefer to enjoy my red wine by the glass alongside my Savory Meatball Stew recipe shared above.img_5600img_5599img_5596img_5612img_5602

The Results Are In: Air Fried Chicken vs Pan Fried Chicken

Sundays are my food prep days where I prepare easy meals for the week ahead. It saves time and prevents me from having to figure out what’s for dinner or lunch. Like most foodies I have multiple kitchen appliances and I’ve always wondered if air fryer chicken breast would taste as indulgent as traditional pan-fried chicken. It turns out the results are unexpected.

In round one, I prepared and cooked two separate chicken breasts exactly the same; one was cooked in the air fryer, only with sprayed olive oil, and the other in a pan with a moderate amount of extra virgin olive oil. Both were dipped in beaten egg, rolled in gluten-free bread crumbs, and topped with salt cooked exactly the same amount of time, seven minutes on each side.

Here’s the surprising part: the pan fried chicken breast was less tender and while it tasted better for flavor, the oil felt rather heavy in my mouth. (I regularly prepare my food on a lower fat spectrum.) The air fryer chicken was moist (significantly more so than the pan-fried version) and perfectly done. Unfortunately, the healthier, air fryer version was bland and tasteless.

So I combined the two cooking methods and once the air fried chicken was done, I browned it in a tiny amount of extra virgin olive oil in the pan, and then re-tested (tasted) all three methods.

No surprise: fat tastes good.

Debra’s take-away: This combined method would be perfect for date night, or a really small family, if you have the time to spare and you don’t mind doing the dishes.  It is quite delicious and overall very healthy. But I wouldn’t waste it on ungrateful teenagers, or anyone else who won’t appreciate the time and effort it takes to truly create perfection!

Lucky me… Now I have perfect chicken breasts prepped and ready to enjoy in the week ahead.

Peach Pie & Growing Pains

Have you ever struggled with something that comes easily to others? Years ago, a neighbor of mine in Kirkland, Wash., shared with me that she was learning to receive. Learning to receive? The qualifications to receive something seem pretty simple on the surface. You embrace the gift and the gift-giver with graciousness and you say thank you.

It was easy for me to dispense this advice, because as a gift-giver, that’s exactly how I want the recipient of my gifts to react. I’m not a random gift-giver or a serial re-gifter. I know each receiver of my gifts, and I invest my resources in crafting a meaningful package – sometimes bought and sometimes homemade. And what do I want in return? I simply want to know they loved it. That’s all. I never give gifts to get something in return. Gift giving is one of my love languages, so to thoroughly experience maximum pleasure, I want to hear the joy, surprise, appreciation in their voice. I want to see their eyes light up or, if they are at a distance, I want to actually imagine them opening, loving and using the gift I sent. Knowing I brightened their day is the best reward!

So imagine my confusion about a week ago when my mom revealed, “You give but you do not know how to receive.” Did I forget to say thank you for something, I wondered. What brought this on? I didn’t need to ask. Without pausing, mom shared what was on her mind.

“You cook for me. I eat it. You bring me gifts. I use them. You offer to take me to appointments. I say yes. But every time I ask what I can bring, you say you don’t need anything. When I cook, you tell me you’ve already eaten. When I try to give you something, you tell me you have everything you need. The only explanation that makes sense is that you aren’t very good at receiving,” mom said.

It’s weird to admit but mom is right. I do prefer to give than receive, mostly because I am embarrassed when I operate from a position of need. I’m terrified my friends and family will pity me or feel sorry for me. It’s less vulnerable for me to simply manage my own needs.

I’m having surgery next week, and many of my friends have offered to help me when I get home, take me to appointments, make meals or visit. It shocked me how difficult it was to accept help. Mom was right, and upon realizing this, I’ve had to give this entire conversation a lot of thought. It made me think back to my neighbor so many years ago. Had someone pointed this out to her? How did she know she needed to learn to receive better?

Just then, the phone rang. It was my friend Liberty calling to say my peach pie was in her oven baking. Every year, she donates a homemade peach pie to the school foundation auction and she makes a second gluten-free peach pie for me. Her pies are perfection and I’ve never struggled to accept this gift. But it’s one of the few gifts that I accept so cheerfully. I love that she makes this for me each year (despite the fact I have to freeze half right away so I’m not tempted to “counter nibble it” until it’s gone.)

Liberty is like family. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to excitedly and graciously receive this gift. It feels good to receive this gift – just as it does to cook, can and find gifts for her. While I don’t want to be that person who ever takes advantage of someone, I’m going to work on receiving. I liken it to growing pains.

Oh wow! Just received Lib’s response to my IG post about her pie. Confirms I’m on the right path!

I appreciate how great it feels to make something, do something or put together a special package for people who are important in my life. I guess it’s only right that I give them the same opportunity to surprise me with gifts of love and acts of service they imagined.

Peach pie

Fantastic Foodie Photo Fails

There are three kinds of people in this world. People who love food photos. People who have no desire to see another picture of breakfast, dinner or any snack in between. And people who can’t imagine why anyone would take a picture of their plate before offering a blessing or just digging in. I’ll never forget the time my uncle exclaimed in an utterly perplexed tone, “You’re taking a picture of a shrimp?” It was actually a set of Madagascar prawns, plated with precision.

Most foodies celebrate fresh, colorful, textured food that tastes even better than the finely tuned arrangement on the plate appears. Like singing, the art of considering oneself a foodie, progresses with time, experience and God-given talent, from someone who appreciates the fine food crafted by others to actually morphing into the creator of fine cuisine that others beg to taste and photograph.

As a freelance food stylist and photographer for a Dallas-based food brokerage, I never turn down an opportunity to style and capture exquisite food compositions. I might even love photographing food more than I love eating it. As the highest order of foodie, I relish any opportunity to take that exhilarating leap to creating the ultimate original masterpiece in my own kitchen for others (and myself) to enjoy.

What many self-proclaimed chef foodies, like myself, do not share, are the fantastic foodie photo fails that precede the social media perfection we all see posted with half a dozen hashtags.

The other night, I got what felt like a bright idea (divine inspiration) to create a gourmet snack that started with gluten-free fresh lasagna pasta and sharp white cheddar cheese. Once I perfected the base, I planned to add an interesting combination of fresh herbs, sun-dried tomatoes and perhaps a small crumbling of chunky sea salt. Doesn’t that sound yummy?

Well, it wasn’t. I burned the first batch in the air fryer. The next batch came out looking nice enough, but as it turns out, fresh lasagna pasta is not a gourmet alternative on which to build fancy tapas. I could have dressed it up to make it photo worthy, but why? It tasted terrible!

So I did the only decent thing, I tossed my experiment and made a slightly healthier version of traditional lasagna with the remaining fresh pasta, a ground turkey-and-beef mix, homemade marinara sauce and three kinds of cheese. And it was spectacular. Moist, flavorful, and just the right amount of richness to taste slightly decadent. I devoured the corner piece on my plate, before it dawned on me: I forgot to take a picture.

I grabbed my camera, took a few shots, and then quickly divided the rest into containers to share with family and friends. Truthfully, I could never trust myself with an entire batch of scrumptious lasagna within nibbling distance, unless I was willing to buy a larger wardrobe.

I was proud of myself for trying something new and creative, even if it did end up as a fantastic foodie photo fail.  As it turns out, even for a self-described foodie, sometimes a proven recipe really is the best way to cook.

lasagna

Sunday Afternoon Comfort Food

I grew up in a family that showed their love through food. My dad was an apple farmer, and mom was resourceful when it came to food. She used to pick out the bird-pecked fruit to cook with because she said the birds knew which apples were sweetest. (I don’t know if that was true but it seemed reasonable.) Mom cooked for everyone – our family, our friends, our apple customers, and the families who harvested the orchard.

Since I developed celiac, mom and I have discovered the secrets of gluten-free cooking together. One myth about a gluten-free diet is that there’s nothing we can eat. And I will admit that it seemed that way initially. The real treat of a gluten-free diet is that it includes almost every natural food on the planet, outside of some grains. While soy sauce contains gluten, that’s added in the processing; even soy beans are naturally gluten-free. Meats, dairy, vegetables, fruits, legumes, rice, fats and oils – they are all gluten-free. (Yes, when it comes to processed foods, things can get tricky.)

One of my favorite (super easy) gluten-free dishes to make on Sundays and eat throughout the week is Debra’s Gluten-free Chicken soup. Here’s what I include:

  • Chicken
  • Chicken broth (At least six cups – I make mine with water and bouillon but boxed is easier)
  • A half head of cabbage shredded
  • 2 onions chopped
  • 2 little clove sections of garlic minced
  • 1 Tablespoon of real butter (not necessary, but everything is better with a hint of butter)
  • Truffle salt (regular will work, but why?)
  • Fresh parsley, rosemary and oregano from my garden (feel free to add whatever you have)

Throughout the week, sometimes I’ll add carrots, potatoes or noodles, but I don’t add them to my base because they don’t hold up. Same with celery. I like food that doesn’t taste like leftovers (unless it’s leftovers from an amazing restaurant, usually involving a rich sauce, or coconut milk, in which case my mouth can water just thinking about that little box of yumminess waiting for me at home.)

The other reason I tend to keep my soup base basic is because life is hard – for a lot of people. And you wouldn’t imagine how much it can make someone’s day to deliver them a container of homemade soup (and sometimes they have allergies). Soup brings comfort, warmth, and as mom knew long before I did – love. Feeding someone something wonderful is like spooning love into their insides. And who doesn’t need an extra cup of love?

Debras chicken soup