Rustic Meatball Stew and “On Top of Spaghetti” as Sung By Lillian in the ICU

Pot of stew boiling on the stove

Years ago, my mom had to go into the hospital for emergency surgery. Definitely not a fun morning and in her late 80s it was a high-risk event. But she was a fairly healthy woman, walked a couple miles a day, and was always up for an adventure. So given the life or death situation, into surgery she went. We sat in the waiting area and prayed.

I’ve spent far more time in waiting rooms than I care to remember. Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

All went well for Lillian

A few hours later we got the word that she would be fine, surgery had gone well, and we could head up to the ICU to visit in another couple of hours. We were auditioning a new baritone or tenor at the time, so ran to our rehearsal and sang through a song a few times, making a recording to listen to later, then headed back to the hospital to let Lillian know we were around and that she was doing fine. I still remember going into the family area and then the ICU room, seeing my mother lying there, in and out of consciousness, but definitely knowing who we were. The nurse said she’d be fine and let us visit for just a few minutes. Lillian wanted to know what we’d been doing so we told her, and then offered to play the recording we’d made at rehearsal. Understand that my mother had also sung with a chorus with me for a few years, and she knew the song we had recorded, “How We Sang Today.”  Click on the link to hear a group of Sweet Adelines and guests singing it in 2019 at the end of a conference. And on that day in the ICU, as it played quietly in my mother’s ear (since the room was open to other ICU units), we watched as my mother sang along,

“I’m glad we laughed

 I’m glad we loved

I’m glad we sang

oh how we sang


how we sang today.”

written by Vickie Uhr

It’s the song Sweet Adelines sing at the end of so many performances and events. And even today I can hear my mother’s whispering voice singing along to that recording. It gave us no inkling of what kind of song we’d be hearing the next day!

closeup of meatballs on pasta
All covered with cheese! Photo by Ali Nafezarefi on

On Top of Spaghetti (or I Lost My Poor Meatball)

So the next morning, we returned to the ICU to visit my mother and see how she was doing. With a good night’s sleep and plenty of pain meds on board, she greeted us with a smile when we walked into the room. A smile made all the bigger because she’d discovered a small tube of toothpaste on the little table next to her bed, and feeling that her lips were a bit chapped, she’d squirted out a gob of the stuff and wiped it all over her mouth thinking it was lip balm. Of course, the peppermint flavoring made her mouth sting.

A quick call to the nurse, who was shocked and wondered out loud about how long my mother had been wearing toothpaste as lipstick, and Lillian was back to her smiling self and ready to sing with us. We explained that singing too loud in an ICU was probably not a good idea, but she was determined. She started with She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, then segued into On Top of Old Smokey but added a few X-rated lines that we quickly had to stop because she got louder and louder. No sooner did we switch her tack then she started singing:

“On top of spaghetti

All covered with cheese

I lost my poor meatball

When somebody sneezed”

by Tom Glazer

It went on from there. Rolling off the table and across the floor and on and on, louder and louder. We couldn’t stop laughing, and the nurses quickly came over and slid the door shut on her solo. I actually found a video of kids singing this one for anyone not familiar. But my recipe today made me think of that long-ago day with my mother. And I know she would have LOVED this recipe!

Pot of stew boiling on the stove
A satisfying stew for a cold day!

Rustic Meatball Stew with Mixed Vegetables

Ingredients for meatballs:

  • 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 3 TB warm water
  • 10 – 12 oz ground beef (80% lean)
  • 1 egg
  • ½ cup finely chopped mushrooms (I used rehydrated dry ones)
  • 1 stalk celery finely chopped
  • 1 TB smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp parsley
  • ½ tsp oregano
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 – 4 TB flour to dust meatballs
  • 2 TB olive oil

Ingredients for soup:

  • 1 14.5-oz can diced tomatos
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • ½ cup chopped broccoli
  • 2 – 3 carrots roughly chopped
  • 2 russet potatos, peeled and chopped
  • 3 TB flour for thickener
  • Salt and Pepper to taste


  • To make the meatballs, soften the breadcrumbs in 3 tablespoons of water in a medium sized bowl.
  • Add remaining ingredients, except the flour and oil, and mix well by hand until well incorporated.
  • Form 18 – 22 meatballs, setting them on a plate or tray lined with parchment paper. Once all are shaped, sprinkle them with 3 – 4 TB of flour, rolling the meatballs until they are coated on all sides.
Meatballs on a plate pre-flour
Ready for the flour dusting
  • Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat, adding 2 TB oil. Then drop meatballs in gently, leaving a small amount of space between.
  • Cook on one side for 2 – 3 minutes until well browned, then with a spatula or spoon, flip them to the uncooked side and allow to cook again for 2 – 3 minutes. Do the same on sides until the meatballs are browned all over. Transfer to a plate.
Browned meatballs in the pan
Browned meatballs – It’s worth the time.
  • Pour broth, carrots, broccoli, potatoes and tomatoes into a large pan and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer, add the meatballs, and cook until potatoes and carrots are tender (another 20 – 30 minute).
  • Add salt and pepper to taste
  • Mix 3 TB of flour into about 1/4 cup of the hot broth to make a paste then whisk into the stew and simmer a few more minutes (5-10 minutes) until thickened.
  • Serve!

While it does take some time to prepare the meatballs, and you can certainly make this soup with plain meatballs, or even frozen turkey meatballs or beef meatballs, but isn’t it nice to have a killer meatball recipe?

I do remember once my mother making a recipe of meatballs with gravy. The phone rang when she was almost done, so she told my father and I to help ourselves and she left the room to take her call. We spooned out our share of meatballs and gravy over the mashed potatoes she’d made. Those meatballs were like little rocks! We sucked the gravy off and threw the meatballs in the trash, then enjoyed our potatoes but didn’t say a thing. When she came back and served herself we watched closely. She chewed once, twice, and then looked at us puzzled. It was a light lunch that day! The meatballs in my recipe above are NOTHING like that!

I hope you enjoyed this recipe with the added flavor of a story. If you did, perhaps you’d like to subscribe to my blog? You’ll get an email whenever a new post is up!

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