A family favourite: meatballs in sauce

It’s never easy trying to decide what to make for our family meals. I eat pretty much everything – well, at least when I’m not pregnant – and am always willing to try my hand at making something new too. TP and TT (let’s start calling her Miss C now, as, at 4 and a half years of age, she’s definitely no longer a toddler), in contrast, are pickier, and I have to take this into account when planning lunch or dinner. Ever since I made the mistake of making spaghetti alla carbonara when inviting him over for dinner early on in our courtship, I’ve learnt that TP detests eggs. So no absolutely no frittatas or fried, boiled or poached eggs for him. As for the offending carbonara, I haven’t made that canonical Roman pasta dish since. Miss C, on the other hand, is very conservative when it comes to the condimento or sauce of her pasta. These days, she’ll only eat it in bianco (see this hilarious article from The Florentine about the uniquely Italian obsession with ‘eating in white’) or al sugo di pomodoro (with tomato sauce). In fact, sometimes I take the precaution of heating up an extra pan on the stove, containing the more palatable butter, olive oil or tomato sauce for my little one’s portion of pasta. It really can be hit or miss with Miss C at dinnertime when it comes to other favourite pasta sauces of mine and TP’s, such as broccoli ripassati or anchovies and breadcrumbs.

I’m now in the second trimester of my pregnancy. The nausea I experienced in the earlier weeks has faded away. My appetite, too, for the richer, stronger-tasting fare I found repellent just a few weeks ago is returning as well. Last weekend, after almost two months of swearing that I wanted to become vegetarian (meat in all its forms was one of the things I couldn’t stand to cook and eat during my queasier moments), I suddenly found myself suggesting that we have polpette al sugo or meatballs in sauce for Sunday lunch. The looks of delight I got from hubby and daughter I got at the mere mention of polpette  just warmed my heart. For once, at mealtime, I was onto a winner, for all parties involved!

Like the aforementioned broccoli ripassati I wrote about for Italy Magazine earlier this year, meatballs was one of the first things I taught myself to cook. And, I’ve said this before but I came relatively late to cooking, in my early twenties. Fresh from finishing university back home, I suddenly found myself in a small town in France’s northwest teaching English one cold late September day over thirteen years ago. Despite my relative ignorance in all cooking related matters, I soon realised that microwaving frozen ready meals and pizzas and subsisting on those was not for me. I would just have to learn to cook if I had any chance of replicating the southern Italian flavours I associated with my mum and my nonne back home.

When my modest budget permitted, one of the things I made on my tiny two-burner stove that year was the comforting meatballs I loved as a child from minced meat, a lightly-beaten egg to bind, garlic, parsley, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and breadcrumbs I painstakingly ground from the leftover bread I accumulated (see this post for details on the lengths I used to go to!). After searing the walnut-sized meatballs I’d made in the best olive oil I could afford, I would then transfer these to a pot bubbling away with a sauce made from a soffritto of finely chopped onion and crushed tinned tomatoes, just like I’d seen my mother and nonne do back home.

I still make my polpette more or less the same way and with the same aromatics. The only things that have changed over the years are the minced meat I use (before I used exclusively beef, now I prefer a mix of beef and pork, ideally in equal amounts) and the type of leftover bread I use. Before I used pangrattato or fine breadcrumbs, which is added to absorb excess moisture in the meatball mixture. These days, instead of grinding pieces of leftover pane raffermo or day-old bread to a fine meal in my food processor, I simply soak one or two crustless slices of it in water or milk. After the bread has softened, I drain it thoroughly (squeezing, if necessary) of the excess liquid, break it up into little pieces and then add it to my mixing bowl with all the other ingredients. I feel the resulting texture is softer and more tender this way.

A few notes on making this recipe, especially if you’d like to make it your own, something I encourage all home cooks to do once they get to know how to make something well. As I mentioned above, I still add bread in its softened form to my meatballs, but unless your mixture is really wet (something which is highly unlikely), there’s no need to add bread in any form if you’d prefer not to. Your meatballs, though they may not be as many, will turn out just fine without it. Also, if your family members are like mine and hold their noses at the addition of minced garlic (my hubby) or those odd specks of green parsley (my daughter), you’re more than welcome to omit or replace these with flavours more to your liking.

Another important thing. Like the title of one of Italian food historian Massimo Montanari’s books, Let the Meatballs Rest: And Other Stories About Food and Culture suggests, I’ve always found I make my best meatballs when I leave my just-formed meatballs to rest for an hour or two before cooking. In his introductory essay to this collection of informative and often very entertaining musings on Italian food culture, food lore, cooking methods, and eating habits throughout the ages, Montanari recalls his wife Marina reminding him one evening about the importance of this step before cooking the meatballs. Immediately after shaping their polpette, she says: ‘Now, before cooking them, we’ll let them rest for a couple of hours. This way they firm up and they come together more easily’. I suspect that the flavours have more time to settle too.

A final note, this time regarding serving. Polpette al sugo is generally served as a main course and culinary purists often hold their nose at the ‘absurd’ Italian-American practice of serving pasta and meatballs together. I’m personally of the opinion that it’s not such an absurd practice, given that it does exist in several forms in the motherland. The Abruzzesi, for example, often serve their signature spaghetti alla chitarra with pallottine or tiny meatballs. Though my nonna Maria never made it this way herself, many recipes for the Calabrian pasta chijna (a rich, baked pasta dish served on special occasions) include tiny meatballs. And, as my Tuscan blogging friend Giulia recalled in a recent post for a meatball pasta bake that – thanks to a family connection in Calabria’s neighbouring region of Basilicata – she has eaten plenty of pasta with meatballs since she was a child. So, by all means go for it, provided you make smaller meatballs to pair with your spaghetti or penne than the plumper, walnut-sized ones I’ve called for below. If you’d prefer bigger-sized specimens though, you’re best off using that plentiful quantity of rich, thick sauce for an initial starter of pasta and then serving the meatballs with the remaining sauce after as a main. Of course, if that’s too much food for you to eat at one sitting, you could always stretch these two courses to two separate meals as well…

Ingredients (makes about 20 meatballs)

For the meatballs

  • 2 slices hardened country bread (preferably sourdough)
  • 500 g mince meat (ideally, equal amounts of beef and pork)
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 50 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced (optional)
  • 1 large handful flat leaf parsley, minced (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • extra virgin olive oil, for forming the meatballs

For the tomato sauce

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • half an onion, minced
  • 800 g tinned peeled tomatoes
  • fine sea salt
  • boiling water, as needed

Method

Soak hardened country bread slices in just enough water. When the hardened bread has softened, drain of all excess water, break up into small pieces and add to a larger mixing bowl. Add the minced meats, the lightly-beaten egg, the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, the minced garlic and parsley (if using), a teaspoon of salt and a generous grating of pepper. Using you hands, bring all the ingredients together until evenly combined and you have a firm mixture.

Pour some olive oil onto a saucer. Dab your finger in it and run it along the palms of your hands so they are well-coated in oil. The meatball mixture will stick less to your hands that way. Shape into round balls about the size of unshelled walnuts. Lay out the balls on a large plate or tray, cover with cling film and place in the fridge for at least an hour, ideally two.

In the meantime, prepare the tomato sauce. Pass the tinned tomatoes through a food mill placed over a bowl until pureed. In a large, non-stick saucepan, heat enough olive oil to coat the surface on low to medium heat. Add the minced onion and saute until soft and translucent. Pour in the pureed tomatoes, a teaspoon of salt and a ladleful of boiling water. Bring to boil, then lower the heat to a gentler simmer and cover for at least 20 minutes.

Add just enough olive oil to coat the cooking surface of a frying pan. Heat gently and sear the meatballs in batches until they are browned evenly all over. Drain of excess oil if necessary. Remove lid from the saucepan with the tomato sauce and transfer the meatballs to it. If the meatballs aren’t completely submerged in the sauce, add a little bit more boiling water. Taste and adjust for salt and let the sauce cook uncovered for a further 15 to 20 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through and you have a thick and abundant sauce enveloping the meatballs. Serve right away, as a main dish, with lots of good country bread to mop up the sauce. Reserve any remaining sauce for dressing some pasta at your next meal.

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