When all is dark, try meatballs


    It’s dark.

    An oppressive present is frequented by failure, plague, despair, strife. The immediate future is vague, at best.

    It shouldn’t be this way. After all, it is springtime.

    In Madrid.

    The weather is nice, if a bit warm. Warm enough for tens of thousands of public school instructors, all clad in green T-shirts bearing bright red slogans, to clog the avenues with a protest march that takes most of the morning. Sirens blare, helicopters hover in the sky above the angry, college-educated mob.

    Kathy and I finished a mundane a breakfast at a squalid neighborhood joint on Avenue Anton Martin.

    We woke following a restless night in a marginal hostal room, absent air conditioning. We slept fitfully following a too-long day of metro travel colored by Kathy’s fear of frotteurs and pickpockets of North African heritage, zipping underground from one disappointing destination to another, crammed in aging subway cars with damp Spaniards, wandering the halls of the Palacio Real looking at riches hoarded by folks who believed God ordained them to brutalize a good bit of the planet.

    Then, the café con leche starts to kick in, and my attitude begins to improve. We wait for the crowd of tense teachers to melt away and we head out.

    I like Madrid.

    Kathy does not.

    I am thinking something, anything, might come along to disperse the ugly vapors.

    Kathy, on the other hand, is ready to call it quits.

    At ten in the morning.

    “No,” I say, mustering a note of caffeine-induced cheer. “Something is going to make today better than yesterday. Something (the coffee is hitting me like a locomotive, and I do love my stimulants) is going to come out of the blue and magic is going to happen. Things will be brighter.”

    Yeah, sure.

    Not for Kathy. Not at first, anyway.

    The Prado is but a block or two away. I figure since Kathy and I would be fitting subjects for one of Goya’s Black Paintings, we might as well go look at the darned things.

    Some of the greatest paintings, ever.

    The Black Paintings occupy their own wing at the end of a grand hallway in the Prado.

    Goya began the paintings when he was 74 — an old man, and deaf. The paintings were produced al secco, with oil paints applied to the plaster walls in rooms at a country house. I believe Goya was one of the most important, transitional figures in Western art history and, with the Pinturas negras, he introduced an intense and expressive reflection of isolation and alienation that would come to dominate much of Western intellectual and artistic life nearly a century later.

    Conservators took the images on plaster, adhered them to canvas backings and there they are, in their own space at the Prado: Saturn Devouring his Son, The Witches’ Sabbath, Atropos, Two Old Men Eating Soup, Leocadia, Judith and Holofernes — all of them, the paintings the old, cynical genius stared at in his dining and sitting rooms, in his bedroom at night. In a house called Quinta del Sordo, the Deaf Man’s Villa.

    I’ve loved these painting since I first saw reproductions of them as a teenager. Prints hung in my hovels when I was an art student. I have books of reproductions of Goya’s works, the bindings cracked at pages bearing images of the Black Paintings.

    At the Prado, groups of obnoxious Spanish school children crowd in front of me as I stare at the works. I try to trip some of the kiddies, but they are too quick for me. Goya and I have many things in common, the most obvious, our crabbiness.

    Kathy soon tires of the weight of the experience and repairs to a bench outside the wing. Finally, I am ready to go. Not because I have had enough; I could stay the day in that one space. But, Kathy is hungry and, as her blood sugar plummets, her anxiety about swarthy criminals and less-than-tidy means of transport escalates.

    She needs food.

    Lunch at Plaza Major doesn’t improve matters; it is awful. The waiter talks us into ordering fish. Kathy finds what looks like a worm. The waiter swears it is the egg sack ——“muy delicioso.”

    When Kathy says she would gladly part with the long, flat, this-is-what-death-looks-like piece of gray crud so the waiter can savor it, the “egg sack” quickly becomes much less delicioso, and we get a break on the check.

    The sun is beating down on the old city,; the temperature soars.

    Walking becomes a chore; the metro tunnels are like steam baths.

    Things are not getting brighter. I feel like one of the characters in the Pinturas negras.

    I suggest a jaunt to the Reina Sophia.

    Kathy groans.

    “Dear lord, not another museum.”

    “But, sweetie: Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ is there. I haven’t seen it since it was at MoMA in New York City. And there are Dalis and Miros, and …”

    She groans again. She wants to get out of Madrid and head south, where people know how to have fun and the subway trains smell better.

    So, it’s off to Reina Sophia.

    Of course, I get lost on the way and my confusion costs another hour or so on the streets, in the now blistering heat.

    After a spell with “Guernica” (it could use some color, really it could) and a ride in a cramped metro train, we are back at the hostal. All that is left in a dark day is dinner. Neither of us is thrilled by the idea of taking our swollen feet back to the pavement but, alas, there is no alternative.

    We head for Plaza Santa Angel and, suddenly, prospects improve; chance and fortune begin to smile on us, to lighten our load, to ease the darkness. Kathy spots a garden shop on one corner of the plaza. Since I forced her to endure museums, I agree to visit the garden shop. It sits behind a tall, ivied wall with the shop building at the back of the plot, behind a treed garden. There is a small stage at the far side of the garden, surrounded by lush foliage. Once inside the shop, we hear thumping and music.

    “Sounds like flamenco,” says Kathy. She asks the proprietress about the music and the woman says that, indeed, we hear a guitarist and the sound of dancers. They are rehearsing, she says. The owner is a flamenco fanatic and later in the evening she is hosting a special flamenco performance. At a garden shop.

    Kathy asks about the price of a ticket. Five euros. Compared to 50 euros at the flamenco joints that lure gullible touristas.

    We decide to return after dinner.

    We move further yet from Pinturas negras, to a soothing environment: Vinoteca, a small bar and tapas joint on a corner of the plaza. Albondigas in tomato sauce go a long way as a balm, coupled with a good pour of tempranillo. Oh, and look, there, in a pitcher on the back counter: sangria!

    By all means, and a couple piquillos, roasted and stuffed with salt cod puree to coat the tongue. Oh, and while we’re at it, another sangria and how about the pulpo with potato and a bit of that curried chicken with dried fruit?

    Things are picking up.

    We hear music, singing, the sound of heels on a wooden stage.

    The courtyard at the shop is packed with spectators. On the stage against the wall sits a guitarist. Next to him, a woman, a singer. At the front of the stage, two women, dancers.

    Magic happens.

    Blackness evaporates.

    The music has Moorish roots, the singer’s voice is perfect, clear, the guitarist masterful. The dancers (we learn later) are two of the best in Madrid and, singly and together, they perform for more than an hour. When the performance concludes, we make the long trip back to Anton Martin, energized by what chance brought us, by the combination of food, drink, beautiful music and dance —on a spring night in Madrid.

    What could have been a new rendition of Judith and Holfernes, has morphed into bliss. Albondigas and flamenco — a special tonic.

    I am not going to perform flamenco any time soon (and everyone should be thankful for that), but I will make albondigas.

    When things get dark, these little beauties will serve as a reminder that a very long and bleak day can be transformed into something special … and bright.

    I’ll make lamb meatballs, in a spicy tomato sauce.

    The albondigas: ground lamb, a bit of bread soaked in milk, salt, pepper, minced shallot, ground cumin and coriander, mushed garlic, chopped parsley, a bit of hot paprika or, perhaps better, some Espanola red.

    No measurements?

    No problem.

    Mix everything together, take a small wad, fry it and taste it. Who needs measurements? If the mix needs adjustments, make them, then roll up meatballs an inch and a half in diameter and sauté them over medium high heat in olive oil. Work in batches until the meatballs are done. Remove them from the pan and add some minced white onion, some minced garlic and cook until soft (don’t brown). Add crushed San Marzano tomatoes and cook the daylights out of them until they are reduced and sweet. Add salt, pepper, some ground cumin, a touch of ground coriander, a bit of sugar, some chopped parsley and the meatballs. Simmer for a while then serve with small potatoes, halved, parboiled until fork tender, then sautéed with a bit of onion and garlic until golden and toasty. Season the spuds, throw on some chopped parsley, pour a glass of Spanish red, and enjoy.

    Eat, drink and the darkness will disappear. And make sure to tip one back for Goya.