This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 31st October 2014.
It wasn’t exactly a tut, more a click of the tongue. I heard it after I asked my Roman butcher if he would put a sausage through the mincer with the beef as I was making meatballs. I know the sound well. It means no. My Sicilian partner Vincenzo makes it so often it has been demoted from irritating to ordinary. As the mincer growled like a dog with indigestion, I turned to see where the tut had come from, and found a signora in her late sixties wearing a purple cardigan, now looking at me shaking her head. ‘Non si mette la salsiccia nelle polpette cara’ ‘You don’t put sausage in meatballs, dear.’
A few years earlier this would have made me upset, or cross and then frustrated as I searched for the words in Italian to defend myself and my sausage. These days I am used to impertinent opinions about food, I even like them, and was just about to voice my own opinion when another, much older woman, did it for me. ‘Certo, puoi mettere le salsicce nelle polpette cara’.’ ‘Of course you can put sausage in meatballs, dear’ She said this turning to the butcher who was wrapping the meat in red and white paper, and then to the couple behind her, herding people into the discussion at just after nine on a Tuesday morning in front of a butcher’s stall on Testaccio market.
When you ask an Italian about meatballs, or they are simply offering you an opinion, one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother, their aunt or their great aunt made the best polpette. Beyond that, there will be some idiosyncratic opinion as to how exactly they should be made, or cooked, or eaten. In Vincenzo’s family it was Nonna Sara who made the best polpette in tomato sauce in the village, a fact no doubt helped by the fact she was the wife of a tomato farmer. The whole family knows the recipe well; ground beef, bread soaked in milk, grated pecorino, chopped parsley and an egg, moulded, rested, fried and then poached in lots of tomato sauce,
Nobody though, even uncle Liborio who is a chef, is able to make them like taste quite like the polpette Sara made when they were growing up. Which makes sense! Can we ever truly replicate the tastes of our childhood? Making Nonna’s meatballs is just like me trying to re-create my grandma’s Lancashire tattie hash. I come extremely close, but can never truly recreate it, because I can never re-create the comforting, steamy atmosphere of my grandparents living room on a Tuesday night eating tea while watching Johns Craven’s news round.
Back to the meatballs. Having settled upon your ingredients, which in my case are ground beef, the controversial sausage or ground pork, bread soaked in milk (essential addition I think, a giving a nice bready plumpness) parsley, mint (if I have it), a flick of nutmeg, parmesan or pecorino, salt (steady if you have added a seasoned sausage), pepper and a whole egg. Resting the just moulded meatballs is advisable, because, as my friend Carla puts it, it lets the flavours settle down and balls firm up.
Now, how to cook. Traditionally meatballs are fried before uniting them with the sauce. This creates rich, slightly caramelised juices. However some of the best, most tender meatballs I have eaten have been poached directly in the sauce. After taking and trying out plenty of advice, I now generally bake my meatballs briefly in the oven, which I find a comfortable halfway house between frying and poaching. I am sure the signora in the purple cardigan would have something to say about this. Once baked, I tip them and any juices collected at the bottom of the tin, into a generous quantity of tomato sauce. Once in the sauce, I poach the meatballs for 20 minutes or so.
Finally, how to serve them? The answer is, however you want. I’ve adopted the Roman habit of serving the sauce with pasta, and then meatballs separately as a second course or, in keeping with my cook once eat twice philosophy, a separate meal. In Rome you will notice that many braised meat dishes; ox tail stew, beef rolls, pork ribs and meatballs are all served this way. So on first day we eat some of the plentiful sauce, by now deep rusty red and richly flavored, with spaghetti or penne pasta. I sometimes find – as do several Italians I know – that a single meatball finds its way onto my plate waiting to be mashed into the pasta and sauce. The next day I serve the meatballs themselves – even tastier having had a good nights rest in the remaining sauce – just so, or with bread, rice, cous cous or best of all, buttery mashed potato.
Week 2 – meatballs in tomato sauce to serve two ways
These really are guidelines as how to make, cook and eat meatballs. Feel free to adapt, experiment and take liberties, after all this is your supper.
- 60 g decent bread without crusts, ideally a day old, better still, two
- 60 ml whole milk
- 400 g minced beef
- 200 g minced pork or a fat sausage
- 1 egg
- 30 g grated Parmesan
- a grating of nutmeg
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and (optional) mint
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small onion
- 1 garlic clove
- a pinch of dried chilli
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 750 g fresh tomatoes
- 3 x 400-g tins plum tomatoes, chopped
- salt and pepper
Put the bread in a small bowl with the milk and leave it for 10 minutes, or until the bread absorbs the milk and break easily into plump crumbs. Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mould them into roughly 35-g balls. Put the balls on a baking tray and let them rest while you make the sauce.
Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the fresh tomatoes, Warm the olive oil a large deep frying pan and then gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli for about 15 minutes or until they soft and fragrant, but not coloured. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, bring to a lively simmer and then reduce to a gentle one for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and press the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.
Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8 and once hot bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, turning them once, until they are just starting to brown.
After 45 minutes, by which point the sauce should be thickish and rich. You can at this point pass the sauce through a food mill or blast it with an immersion blender for a smoother consistency. Or you can simply add the meatballs and poach them in the sauce for a further 15 minutes. Allow the meatballs and sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.
Cook 400 g of pasta in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a warm serving bowl, add the drained pasta, some more sauce and stir. Divide between four bowls and top with a single meatball (if you wish) and pass a bowl of grated parmesan around.
Boil and mash a kilo of potatoes with plenty of butter and a little warm milk, season well with salt and plenty of black pepper. Gently re-heat the meatballs in their remaining sauce and serve with a good dollop of mash. Rice and cous cous also work well.
Link to the Guardian article