It all started with one recipe.
The Italian Meat Roll.
It was 1995.
“This is either divine or we’re going to spew it out of our mouths the first bite we take,” I said to Kelley, my sister-in-law, who was joining me on this grand cooking adventure. We were carefully perusing the pages of our new Cooking-Once-a-Month book. And dude, if we were not excited about it! This was going to revolutionize our lives. This would feed our families (three people, total) for a month and would require no thought from us beyond that first day of cooking. This was awesomeness, Missy-style.
Then I started reading my menu choices. Split pea soup. Lentil stew. Corrugated Cow Tummies. Spit in a bucket. Why would you split peas anyway? They are already so tiny. And I still do not know what a lentil is. I just know they shouldn’t be eaten. In stew or elsewise. But we jumped in and started making our month’s menu plan and accompanying grocery list. We had committed. There was no turning back.
I have no memory of what would have to have been a massive trip to Publix. I suspect that the part of my brain that protects me has suppressed this memory forever. As much as I hate the grocery store, I can only imagine how painful it must have been for me to shop for a month’s worth of ingredients for recipes that I was already questioning. Beyond acquiring groceries, the next step was to plan a Saturday when Kelley and I could both be available to cook all day. Doesn’t that sound fun? Stand up all day on your only day off work and do the thing that you absolutely hate to do for even 15 minutes at a time. But in theory, this was going to save me from doing it every night when I was brain dead and unmotivated. In theory.
I have only a few sketchy memories from that day of cooking 16 years ago. One is that my feet hurt really, really bad at the end of it. I had recently injured my ankle and I think it was swollen up like an old lady’s in pantyhose by the end of it. I also have a flash of memory about the split pea soup and lentil stew. I remember cooking it…stirring…smelling…squinting…trying to cook with my head and nose at a complete right angle. This is the color of the Incredible Hulk. And I bet this is what he smelled like when he was mad and beating people up. I’m never going to eat this. And I didn’t. Ever. I threw out a frozen block of Hulk Stew 6 months later. It landed like a brick in the bottom of my trash can. I think I heard it crack on impact.
And, of course, I remember the Italian Meat Roll.
I remember that meat roll like it was last night and my name is Giovanni. The recipe was spread out in front of us in a kitchen the size and shape of a tie box. The ingredients were also spread out in front of us, occupying what teensy amount of counter space we could afford. Thaw dough. OK, Publix took care of that one. Now what? Spread into a 14 x 24 inch rectangle. 14 x 24 inches. That’s 2 feet by a legal sheet a paper. Yowza. That is one big ole dough rectangle. Well, okay. We started rolling that out. It was supposed to be a quarter inch thick and the aforementioned hugeness of rectangularity. Done. Next…
Brown ground beef; stir in remaining ingredients. Get the beef, I said to Kelley. 2.5 pounds. We started browning. And stirring. It smelled a whooooole lot better than split peas or lentils, I can tell you. On this one point, my memory does not betray me. Spoon filling evenly onto dough, slightly pressing filling into dough. Hmm, now we are definitely getting more complicated. We’ve gone from objective math to subjective adjectives. And we are spooning evenly ONTO and pressing slightly INTO. We started spooning some cute little dollops onto the dough…very evenly, of course…and pressing those into the filling. And we spooned and filled and pressed and shaped and pressed and filled and spooned, slightly and evenly. And then we wiped our furrowed brows to observe our dough and filling creation.
That is a lot of beef.
But mostly beef.
Roll dough lengthwise like a jelly roll and cut into 24 1-inch slices. There’s that math again. It was time to roll. The oven was preheating. We were ready. So we started rolling. We rolled that 24 inch x 14 inch slab of dough up over that warm ground beef. Except that we really didn’t roll it. Because it wouldn’t go. There was no room to roll anything. That was like trying to wrap a giant zucchini with a miniature banana peel. Well, okay. We won’t roll it, per se. We’ll fold it up, ever so gingerly, over the beef. So I tried that for about 3 seconds. That obviously wasn’t happening either. We had ourselves a big fat 3T Beef Baby trying to squeeze into a 12-month dough onesie.
So, let’s both get on either side of this thing, I said to Kelley. You fold that side, I’ll fold this one. Ready, heave.
Nope. Now the dough was starting to disintegrate completely. It look liked some poor kid’s minnow net. We had caught some beef. And it ruined our net.
What in the Abraham Lincoln is going on here? Shouldn’t this be easier that this? I don’t think it was supposed to take 20 minutes and a forklift. Kelley was perplexed, looking over the recipe for the 7th time.
Wait a sec. How much ground beef did we brown? she asked.
2.5 pounds, I answered automatically. She started laughing. Really, really hard. I was kind of aggravated at the entire process, since as I’ve stated, I already hate cooking. But she was laughing really, really hard and could no longer speak English to share with me what was so very funny. But her finger was lodged on the page in a very purposeful manner and so followed with my eyes. And then I started laughing too. I was also crying, mostly because of the laughing, but also because I hate cooking and split peas and having to make second trips to the grocery store. I plopped down on the ugly tile floor of the tie-box kitchen so that I could laugh properly without further swelling my old lady pantyhose leg.
The recipe called, rather plainly, I might add, for 2.5 CUPS of browned ground beef. That’s quite different from 2.5 pounds. Especially when you start jellyrolling it into mushy pizza dough. When we were all done laughing and crying over the beef that ate the pizza roll, we stood back up, straightened our aprons, and made a new plan. We tossed the abused and evaporated dough into the trash can, went back to Publix for a new one, reduced the beef by more than half, and rolled that meaty deliciousness up into the bread dough like a hand in a glove.
Well, that only took a half day. Cooking once a month was quickly becoming cooking FOR a month. Sweet mother of the Incredible Hulk.
Ah, the meat roll. I never did cut it into 24 1-inch slices. I just couldn’t further press my luck. So we cooked it as a solid roll and cut it as we ate it, in any size slices that we wanted. And though it had exposed the losers in us, we loved that meat roll. With this little dose of honestly, I announce to you some Recipes for the Unskilled and Lazy. I’m 3 parts unskilled and 1 part lazy. But I’m all parts “can’t cook”, so these recipes have been tried and true by a person who truly isn’t intuitive in the kitchen.
And though I royally messed up this first attempt at the Italian Meat Roll, you will not make the same mistake and I feel it is safe to put this recipe into this category as the first meal on the list. More easy meals and leftover creations are coming soon in this category. Also, this is Doll Week. Let the good times roll.