Okay, I’m probably not the nicest guy on earth.  I’m actually pretty vile, petty, and selfish.  You have caught me in a rare mood, however, and I am about to share with you the best stuff ever, and I mean ever.  I think you should start lighting candles and fingering beads in a show of gratitude–seriously.

I can’t (and don’t) take any immediate credit for any of what follows; I’ve stolen researched it all from various sources and cobbled things together in a pretty slap-dash (though successful) fashion.

First up:  shortbread.  I absolutely adore shortbread, and if you don’t, you’re off your rocker.  Proper shortbread is an exercise in culinary fundamentalism:  flour, butter and sugar graced with a touch of vanilla and salt–period.  What can life offer that’s more satisfying than flour, butter, and sugar?  The added blessing of vanilla and salt is, as they say, the icing on the cake.

To paraphrase what’s-his-name, anyone who has grown tired of shortbread has grown tired of life and is beyond hope.

You may have noticed that I made reference to “proper shortbread” earlier.  Yes, Virginia, the world is indeed full of improper shortbread.  People trick it up with rosemary, nuts, chocolate, and all sorts of abominations.  These sub-species are good for nothing.  They spit in the face of proper shortbread because they envy its excellence and spitefully wallow in their unavoidable inferiority.  I pity shortbread abominations.  You should too.

Proper shortbread is as complex as it is simple.  Flour’s not just flour:  There’s hard Canadian red winter wheat, soft Southern white wheat, Midwestern who-knows-what wheat–all of which are very different.   When you buy a sack of all-purpose flour, it’s generally (unless labelled otherwise) a mish-mosh blend of cheap, left-over flours from dubious sources.

Proper shortbread uses hard northern wheat (buy Manitoba wheat if you can find it)–it has a shorter, sturdier grain–but you can use all-purpose flour if you must.

The butter situation is similar:  it depends on where it comes from and on the season.  You can actually tell the difference, with your taste buds, between summer butter and winter butter, or hay-fed butter and fresh alfalfa butter.

Sadly, you can’t very well march up to the customer service counter at Wal-Mart and demand fresh alfalfa butter, so you’re pretty much stuck with whatever they’ve got (which has probably been lingering on a Chinese loading dock for God-knows-how-long).  Same goes for flour.

Luckily, we don’t have quite the same concerns with vanilla and sugar.  They pretty much are what they are, and that’s it.  Which is not to say that they are simple . . . .

Vanilla comes from the bean of a certain orchid (vanilla planifolia).  There are over 20,ooo varieties of orchids, and it is the only one that yields anything edible.  Vanilla planifolia is native to the tropical bits of America (although they also now grow it in parts of the Pacific), and the Aztecs used it to flavor xocolatl for the royals.  Harvesting it was too labor-intensive and expensive for anyone else.

Would you believe that sugar used to be in pretty much the same boat?  Yeah.  People used to call it “white gold.”  Only the hot-shots got to have it.  With time, we proletariats figured out how to squeeze sugar out of beets (most of your store-bought sugar is beet-derived), so it’s not as exclusive now as it once was.  Hell, it’s everywhere.

Proper shortbread

Set your beloved oven to 375ºF and round up the following ingredients:

1/2 lb. butter, cut up into little bits (keep it cold!)

2/3 c. confectioner’s sugar

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

2 c. flour

1/4 tsp. salt

Smoosh it all together with your hands.  Be thorough.

Ideally, you don’t make shortbread on a warm day or in a hot kitchen, because that makes the butter too soft–but one does what one must.

Roll or pat it out to about 1/4″ thickness, score it into little rectangles–picture dominoes–and poke the top of each rectangle with a fork once or twice (the idea behind the poking maneuver is that you increase the surface area of each individual cookie, yielding a crisper and more delicious product).  Bake it for about twenty minutes–the way your kitchen smells will give you a pretty good preview of heaven–and that’s it.

Nobody can ever make perfect shortbread, which is why I keep trying.  What are the odds of getting just the right flour and butter?  It’s different every time.  Proper shortbread is elusive, but the pursuit is immensely satisfying.

Albondigas

I don’t quite know what to say about albondigas.  To me, it’s the ultimate comfort food.  When I was a youngster, hospitalized with multiple bleeding ulcers, the orderly woman, on the day I could finally eat solid food, brought me broiled fish.  I begged her for something else, and she did some conniving and came back to give me albondigas.  I almost wept at the first bite.  I don’t know what sympathetic genius was running the hospital kitchen that day, but I would like give him or her a big fat kiss and a medal.

I’ve made albondigas a hundred times, and I never, ever tire of them–not just for sentimental reasons either; they’re simply damned *$%#ing good.

Please try this recipe.  I know it’s a bit of work, but I promise that you will not regret one second of effort.

Talking about albondigas is kind of like trying to tell someone how much you love them–it simultaneously evokes and defies powers of explanation.

With that, I’ll shut up and give you the recipe.

Set your oven at 450ºF and fetch:

3 slices of bacon, cut into pieces about 1″

3 cloves garlic

2 eggs

3/4 c. panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

salt

1 1/4 lb. ground beef (I happen to favor bison meat over beef–if you go that route, up the bacon to account for the leanness of bison)

1/2 c. mint leaves plus more for garnishing

28 oz. can roasted tomatoes (you must use roasted tomatoes)

2 chipotles, tidied up

2 Tbsp. adobo (from the chipotle can)

1 tsp. Mexican oregano

about 1 1/2 c. stock (beef and/or chicken)

Put the bacon and one clove of garlic into your food processor and zap it well.  Add the eggs, panko, and salt, and give it another good, long zap.  Now put in the meat and mint and give it a brief zap–just enough to get everything happy and combined.  Don’t overdo it, or you’ll wind up with tough balls.  We don’t want that, do we?  Heck no.

Make meatballs, like golf-ball size (personally, I really like to embed a chunk of hard-boiled egg into the center of each meatball.  I highly recommend it, but it is optional).  Put them into your oven for about fifteen minutes.

That being done, zap the roasted tomatoes, whatever juice came along with them, the chipotles and adobo, oregano, the rest of the garlic, and some salt.  Zap it until you look at it and think “Holy cow!  I made a purée!  Ain’t I fancy?”

Spoon as much of the grease off of the meatballs as you can.  You’ll never get all of it, so don’t freak out or get all OCDish.  Do your best, or until your patience runs out, and that’ll be fine.

Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs and stick them back in the oven.  Leave it all there until everything’s beautifully brown and very slightly bubbly.

Very nice served over plain white rice and garnished with a sprig of mint.

Having told you that, I’ve done the greatest favor I can ever do anyone.

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