Sunday, November 29, 2009

Polpette, with tomato sauce

Polpette - meatballs. Such a staple of American Italian food, and one which, for a variety of reasons, I am almost entirely unaccustomed to cooking.

At it's best, a succulent dish, with a deep and subtle umami tinted tomato sauce, sweetly boisterous, sloppy, back slapping....It's the kind of food that welcomes you into the heart of things. A big, motherly, tomatoey hug of a thing. It's what memory tastes like....

They remind me of my mothers kitchen, and the particular....sense she cooked with. That good and gentle care that speaks through food of love. The rituals of completion, the careful checking, the little nods and turns that are the unspoken language with which we season our food for the most important people in such particular ways. Rich with childhood memory, the very thought of the taste of them makes me feel good, secure and cared for.

The recipe is basic, endlessly adaptable, and provokes ridicule, laughter, or resentment in the regions of Italy associated with it. Made with veal, or venison, wild boar. Porked up happily with some ground up pig, or occasionally, minced pheasant, Giorgio Locatelli's tuna version.......Rosemary, chillies, thyme. Parsley......

The basic and honourable Irish meatball.....minced beef.

First,the meatballs, made in advance, to set and gather texture in the fridge.

350g of minced beef - good quality here is essential
1 sprig of rosemary, finely chopped (or a bunch of parley, or some thyme.....)
1 medium onion, finely finely diced.
1 clove of garlic, also finely diced.
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1 egg.
35g of breadcrumbs.
50g of cheese, grated, or finely diced. I used mozzarella, but the suggestions range from cheddar to gruyere, to parmesan.

Possible, and delicious additions here - diced chillies, which sweeten beautifully during the cooking. Thyme. Duxelles. Mushroom ketchup or Worcestershire, to bump up the umami.....

Mix everything together, fry off a little of the mix, and taste the seasoning - adjust as you want to - and form into small meatballs. Try not to tamp them together too hard.

Leave them in the fridge for thirty minutes or so. This, apparently, helps them set and bind - I'll check McGee for the details and post a ps - we got about 18 small meatballs from this

Meanwhile, put on your tomato sauce. Here's the one I used. But tomato sauces are as unique as fingerprints, as unique as the particular odour of mothers kitchens, each one distinct and separate. Some kitchens cinammoned, some perfumed with the rank sulphur of cabbage, some with umami warmth and generosity. This sauce works fine.
Tomato sauce
1 medium onion, finely diced.
2 cloves of garlic, finely diced.
2 tins of tomatoes (we're using Biona Organic tomatoes, which give a delicious depth and sweetness)
salt and pepper to taste
white wine vinegar (2 glugs, or so)
50 g of granulated sugar

The sugar and vinegar combination is to give a slight, slight agrodolce edge to the sauce - sweet and sourness. To boost it, add more of each. Or replace the vinegar with white wine.

Sweat the onions and garlic in oil until golden. On a low heat. If they brown, the garlic especially, the bitter notes can compromise the end sauce. Add the wine vinegar, and bring it up to the simmer, and allow most of it to evaporate, adding the sugar as it bubbles. Add your tomatoes, salt and pepper, and set on a slow cook on the hob top, stirring occasionally to loosen it up. Keep the heat low, allowing the sauce to concentrate itself.

After a generous hour or so, take your meatballs from the fridge. Heat a pan with oil - a deep pan, large enough to take the meat and the sauce. The meatballs need to have some space to roll around, and not be too crowded - they all need pan contact, in one layer.

Fry off your meatballs quickly, to brown them. The outsides will develop those lovely Maillard reaction flavours, while the insides, because of the fridge chilling - should remain cool, giving you the best of both worlds. The outside gets those yummy flavours, and the insides stay soft and untough.

Lower the heat after a couple of good shuggles - a minute or two is good here, and pour in your tomato sauce on top of the meatballs. Cover, and cook on a low heat for another 20 minutes or so.

The sauce takes on the delicious depth of the meat, allied to a tomatoey sweetness, that just bearhugs you happily. We served it with homemade tagliatelle (pasta recipe here, video here), giving acres of roughly edged pasta real estate for the sauce to gloopily cling to.

Meatballs, with tomato sauce. Glorious.

Recipe notes:

Oftentimes the addition of onions to meatballs can lead them to brown, carbonise and become bitter. I'm still divided on their inclusion. Because when they do turn bitter, the dish is compromised. Here, the fine dicing seemed to work well. As did very quick frying.

Tomato sauces. The addition of bacon and balsamic vinegar would make a fine Amatriciana style sauce, with enough guts and gusto to really enrich the dish - just add the bacon (or guanciale) at the same time as the onion, finely diced, and then the balsamic with no sugar. Adjust for the salt in the bacon though.....

Sage with pork meatballs...mmmm....must try


kitten kitchen said...

These sound delicious! Especially with the bacon addition to the sauce.

Keith said...

They were really fantastic. Like a big motherly hug of a taste.

Must make more of them.

Time to link your site, methinks.

Snag Breac said...

Don't foret to make sure someone balances the leftovers badly in the fridge so they can be smashed to death by unsuspecting fridge users.