First light, first pantry, first soup, part two
In my previous post, you met Arlo, a reader from Canada who wrote to me about her pantry box. In subsequent emails she related to me the wonderful New Year's Day traditions of her Cree and Metis family heritage. When she told me about "bullets", I asked her for the recipe.
And here it is, a recipe unlike any I've ever received; at its base is water, the most universal pantry ingredient. I couldn't think of a better way to start the year than to share this with you. With Arlo's kind permission, here is her recipe.
Boullets (New Year's Meatball Soup)
Fresh ground beef
Onions (fresh and dried)
Salt (added at end)
The origins and variations of this traditional New Year's soup are as old and diverse as the communities and families who make it. My family heritage is Cree Indian, with our home reserve in Saskatchewan being a mix of prairie tribes and French Catholic Metis descendants. Every New Year's Eve, a midnight feast would be held in almost every home, rich and poor, and it was the custom to start visiting each home starting at 12:00 a.m. and continue throughout New Year's day. Each visitor would be greeted and fed, anything ranging from wild meat, roast fowl, pies, cakes, cookies, boiled potatoes, bannock, frybread, strong tea and without fail, bullets (boullets).
Preparation of the baked and roasted goods could be done ahead of time but what had to be hot and ready at the stroke of midnight were the boullets. If your midnight table was popular, you could count on the whole community to eventually stop by. My great-grandfather on my mother's side was a medicine man and elder, so it was up to his wife (my great-cocum) to make sure she had enough food to serve and make sure everyone was well fed. This meant many of the daughters, grand-daughters and great-grandaughters also had to be on hand to help cook and serve. Over the years, the families took turns helping with the New Year's table but bullet-making was still the least-liked duty next to dish washing -- no paper or styrofoam in those days -- because who wanted to spend New Year's Eve chopping onions and up to your elbows in raw meat when others were out round-dancing or jigging?
Each family's version was different. For example, my great-grandparents' bullets were smaller and more brothy while my dad's mother's (a Metis) were large and floury, served in practically a white gravy. When I married my Metis husband, his mother had even another bullet style, medium-size and very flavourful in a slightly-thickened soup base. Despite my attempts to find the True Boullet recipe, I've come to learn that every family and cook had their own signature bullets and half the fun of visiting was to try one of each.
This midnight custom has faded somewhat with many of our peoples migrating to the cities and to other cultures and provinces with much different or extravagant options for New Year's Eve. On the reserves, there is usually a more central event with maybe a potluck or catered buffet served. My great-grandparents lived for 20 years in Winnipeg but still had a New Year's table complete with boullets even if it was just for their extended family and whichever community members were in the city at the time. Back then, no one was turned away on the New Year, that was what new years was all about -- forgiveness, new leafs and resolutions. Maybe I've romanticized it as there were always ancient clan feuds, but nowhere near the gang wars and ideological differences that exist in these modern times.
So, in our house to this day, no matter where we are living, we still make a pot of meatballs for midnight and New Year's day and whoever visits has to have some. I have given up trying to replicate a vegetarian version because you really have to be a carnivore to partake in boullets.
Many people over the years have asked for the recipe and I usually have to explain there is not just one. I usually say, whatever kind of ground meat, flour and onions. Do not add salt until just before serving because it tends to cure the meat and leaves it a mild pink and people think it is not cooked through. Although pepper is a foreign spice, I add it because it's pretty bland otherwise. I remember one time my friend used my recipe but added so many extra fillers, eggs, seasonings and flavourings, it tasted like a cross between Swedish meatballs and puritan beef gravy. Delicious yes, but not really boullets as I know them.
I typically make two pots of what we call Metis Bullets. The first pot is for our immediate family at midnight and the meatballs are the size of tennis balls, easily a third pound or more each. This year, I will cook maybe 10, one for every family member and whoever is going to be around at midnight. The second pot, which I make in the morning, will be walnut and golf-ball size, for whoever stops by and wants a sample. I keep them on warm all day and whatever is left over gets frozen in one-cup containers for lunches or to give to friends who couldn't visit on January 1st.
I use fresh ground beef purchased when the butcher shop opens, right out of the grinder, early on December 31. If possible and affordable, we buy organic, but make sure it is not lean ground. Lean ground will be too dry; medium-ground is best as regular-ground means scooping off lots of expensive fat at the end. It's hard to be exact with the measurements as it depends how much you are making, how moist the meat and how juicy the onions. What I do is dice up 2 mild onions for 10 pounds of ground beef. The size of the chopped onion should not be so large they fall out of the meat ball, nor grated too fine. The size of peas works for us. I usually throw in a handful of crushed dried onions, more if the mixture is quite wet. At this point I divide into 2 batches as working with 10 or more pounds of cold hamburger is too much.
I mix about 2 teaspoons of ground black pepper in 2 cups of white flour, reserving some of the pepper flour in a bowl. I gradually add some of the flour to the meat mixture, working it through with my hands (no rings! another story) until it gets to a pasty stage but not too sticky or too dry. When it is perfect to mold into balls, you will know. You may have to add more flour if you need to, but hold back on the pepper. Shape the balls to desired size, roll in reserved flour and place in a stock pot. Chill at least 1/2 hour, then place on stove and carefully cover with cold water at least 2 inches above the meatballs. Bring to a boil and then turn down to medium low and gently boil until cooked through. This time will vary according to size, but I usually cook mine for over an hour regardless. There will be a foamy layer which you may skim off, but I leave mine in and it returns to the broth for more flavour.
The last step I do is to make a watery flour mixture with the flour from the reserve bowl and more flour if necessary, and pour into the simmering pot in small amounts. If they form little dough balls, this adds to the character and the rest will thicken the soup. Stir carefully, but do not break up the bullets. Add some salt to flavour but leave the rest to the person eating it.
When the soup has simmered to reach the thickness I like (not too thick, not too thin), I turn off the heat and let stand until any fat rises to the top. This I scoop off, although back in the days of living in a harsh prairie winter, this would be considered sacrilege as fat was a precious source of food energy. These days we can do without beef fat as we get enough of it elsewhere. I then turn the heat to the lowest setting to keep hot to serve, or transfer carefully to a crock pot set on warm. If the soup becomes too thick, I add hot water to return to desired consistency and to make sure there is enough broth for dunking.
Serve with fresh bannock, bread or rolls. Boiled potatoes can also be added when serving. Happy New Year!
Happy New Year, Arlo. Happy New Year, Pantry readers. Your friendship, encouragement, support and participation are the most important ingredients in my pantry, and I send you and your families all best wishes for a wonderful year.