The New Convivialist

Category: italian

Meatballs with Rosemary White Wine Sauce or Frankie’s Polpette

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This is a recipe I’ve wanted to share for a long time. It is about a meatball, but not the kind with tomato sauce or spaghetti or anything having to do with a slow-cooker. It is a somewhat more refined meatball, but still one that can be made en masse, lending itself easily to large events or holiday gatherings.

The preparation is Italian in origin, but with a little practice, you will find that you don’t need Nonna herself in the kitchen to make a stellar batch. For our monthly Dritte Mitte aperitivo, a heaping bowl of polpette has become a mainstay, one of a handful of dishes that feeds up to 100 people. The bite-sized meatballs satisfy, with a savory yet citrusy and herbaceous undertone. They also look impressive, but do not pose an enormous burden in the kitchen. One of our quintet, Frank, has mastered the art of polpette. Though he is no more versed in Italian cuisine than your average German guy, Frank has with practice become the primary responsible party for the preparation of the polpette each month.

A good ground meat is the first order of business– either all beef or, as is more common in Italy, a combination of beef and pork. Next comes a loaf of plain white sliced bread, with the crusts cut off, soaked in milk and hand-mixed into the meat. A few eggs, a good dose of grated parmesan and lots of salt (plus strong hands) is all it takes to finish the basic recipe. The balls should be rolled on the small size, so that they can be cooked through rather quickly, and tossed in a dish lightly dusted with flour. A frying pan is warmed to medium heat with a slick of olive oil, filled (not crammed!) with meatballs and fried to a light brown. Pour a glass or so of white wine into the pan (with practice you will know when), along with a sprig of rosemary. Let it all cook, the crisp flavors of the wine and the rosemary infusing the meatballs. Once the liquid has reduced, squeeze in a bit of lemon juice into the pan, stir, and turn out into a bowl. Repeat and repeat and repeat, depending on how many or how hungry the group is.

Since I think intentionality is always important when someone does something well, I asked Frank what he thinks about while he lovingly rolls his perfect balls of meat. He responded, not missing a beat, “I think about the fact that I’ve never eaten one.” You see, Frankie is gluten-intolerant, thus both the bread and the flour in the recipe unfortunately prohibit him from testing the results. That’s right, I thought. He’d never even tried them. After two years of rolling polpette every month, you would think that once, just once, he would succumb to meaty, citrusy temptation and stuff one into his mouth, in a moment of blind insanity. But no, never. Maybe it’s actually the mystery of the polpette, the unrequited anticipation of the taste, that makes Frank so excel at their preparation. When you can’t actually eat that thing you have taken so long to cook, the end result is abstracted, and no longer food, but something higher– art?

 

Frankie’s Polpette : Recipe

1.5 kilo ground meat, combination of beef and pork

4 eggs

one loaf of sliced white sandwich bread, crusts removed

milk, enough to soak the bread

100 grams parmesan, finely grated

4 teaspoons of salt, or to taste

a few large sprigs of rosemary

olive oil

approx. 1 bottle of white wine (just cheap table wine)

juice from two lemons

 

Process:

1. Soak the bread in a small bowl of milk until it softens. It may be easier to do this in stages so that it really soaks through, taking small stacks of bread and pouring the milk over them into the bowl.

2. Crumble bread between your fingers and begin to incorporate into the ground meat. Add the four eggs and mix everything with your hands.

3. Add the grated parmesan and then the salt (don’t be shy with the salt), mixing well so that everything is evenly combined.

4. Roll the raw meat mixture into small balls in your palms (bite-sized). Place balls into a lightly-floured dish and toss to coat. Set aside prepared meat balls.

5. Heat a frying pan to medium and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Fry together as many meatballs as the pan can hold, without crowding them. Shake or stir gently with a spoon until the meatballs are lightly, evenly browned and almost cooked through.

6. Add a cup or so of the white wine, as well as one large sprig of rosemary (whole). Shake the pan occasionally and cook until the wine has reduced and the sauce appears to have thickened.

7. Squeeze some lemon juice into the pan, stir and pour out into a large serving bowl.

8. Wipe out the pan and repeat the cooking process with the rest of the raw meatballs.

italian meatballs recipe

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Vacations, Feasts and the Restaurant Industry

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I have always thought the restaurants of Italy in France did it right. A couple weeks of closed doors in August comes at a time when precisely no one wants to be inside behind a hot oven. Allowing the full staff, from dishwasher to owner, to retreat from the stress and hustle of the restaurant industry for an entire two weeks seems not only generous, but … humane. In the US, people pride themselves for working hard, for only taking two weeks of vacation per year. In particularly in the food industry, which just never stops (or cannot stop, for purely economic reasons), vacation of more than two days is a rare luxury.

But this is not an advocacy post for more vacation in the United States (maybe later). It is rather to tell you about the dining possibilities that can ensue when restaurants DO decide to just go ahead and hang that ‘gone swimming’ sign for a couple weeks.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a casual Italian feast in the countryside about an hour outside of Berlin, at Wehrmühle Biesenthal, a renovated landmark property dating back more than 750 years, which in recent times has been home of ART Biesenthal, a privately organized exhibition for contemporary art. Friends Federico, Wibke and Francesco of restaurant Da Baffi organized the dinner for a group of about 40 in collaboration with musicians The Group. Da Baffi is a cozy restaurant in Berlin Wedding and one of my favorites in the city, specializing in traditional and seasonal dishes from Emilia Romagna. The sourcing of their ingredients is an example of perfection-bordering-on-obsession, so I was anxiously starving myself all day in anticipation of what the trio would prepare in an outdoor environment. One far away from the safety of their own kitchen.

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When our five-person posse from Berlin arrived, hair still wet from a quick stop at a nearby lake (and run-in with a rain shower), we walked into the half-renovated barn to find the band and a makeshift bar, hip-looking people lounging about on sofas with Aperol spritz in hand, the brook of the mill babbling out the windows. Paul commented that this is the kind of thing you usually only read about in the New York Times Style section. I had to agree: the laid-back air, melodic music and smell of the grill just beginning to be fired up, all in superb countryside surroundings renovated with an urban taste for minimalist architecture.

After a short walk around the property, we headed over to the buffet and grill area, where Federico and Francesco (“Cisco”), along with a couple of assistants, were busy with last minute preparations. Superb cold dishes included a salad of buckwheat groats and oven vegetables, light dorade-stuffed bell peppers, panzanella salad from self-baked bread, and the restaurant’s signature, ultra-rich burrata over rucola. Cisco was manning a teepee-shaped barbecue, whose grill swung gently over top of the coals. He said he hadn’t used such a barbecue before, but the improvisation proved successful when we tasted the second course of grilled crayfish. I passed on the mango sauce, opting instead for a bit of olive oil and black sea salt as seasoning. At that point in the dinner I was already more than satiated, but I had spied a few steaks, as well as a large stash of octopus marinating beside the grill. Thus, I set off for another walk through the landscape to digest, the weather having cleared enough to see an oil-painted sunset in the distance.

The kilo-sized octopuses greeted me back at the grill with a smell that was at once repulsive and enticing. It half reminded me of a city sewer, and having smelled such a thing in an urban environment, I would have run the other way. But knowing the origins were emanating from fresh sea creatures, fire-grilling, I swallowed the slight gag reflex and stuck around for a first taste. Really my only experience with octopus prior to this one had been in salads at restaurants, or ‘pulpo’ dishes in Spain, and always with that distinct gummy-worm texture. Grilled octopus was somewhat of a revelation since, if prepared well as it was here by Da Baffi, it has a soft, gentle texture, crisping at the ends of the tentacles where the grilling does its real magic. The flavor was definitely of the sea, but mild and more tenderly meaty and substantial in texture. Similar to, dare I say, chicken?

I won’t even attempt to give you an expert recipe here, since I need to first experiment myself with grilling octopus. But there are a few tricks to the preparation that seem to be universal. The octopus is made up mostly of water, so the key to tenderness is to drive as much water out of the creature as possible before placing it on the grill. In Greece, this consists of the fisherman actually beating the freshly-caught beast against a rock, as many as 100 times. If you buy one from a fishmonger or grocery store, you can defrost it in the refrigerator for about a day, then braise it in some vegetable broth (you probably won’t need much broth as the octopus’s own liquid will be released in the process) and a wine cork. Many chefs say that the enzymes present in the cork aid in the release of water from the octopus. You will need to simmer it for about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on its size (check for done-ness with the tip of a sharp knife). Once this is finished, you can pull them out of the water and leave in the fridge overnight either alone or in a marinade of wine and some spices (recipes vary). Then, when you are ready to grill, just pull them out and set them over the flame until seared on both sides, the ends of the tentacles brown and crispy. Remove the head and cut the pieces of meat roughly, serving with a drizzle of olive oil and salt.

As far as I know, grilled octopus never appeared on the daily menu at Da Baffi. Though they weekly feature new dishes, there is a certain degree of experimentation and fun with cooking that can only happen outside the confines of the daily restaurant grind. Had they not opted for a few weeks’ summer closure, Federico, Wibke and Cisco most likely wouldn’t have endeavored to host such a decadent meal for their friends and fans. The constraints of time and schedule could not have allowed for the days of preparation that such a meal involves. The three owners of Da Baffi are among the best examples of good restaurant owners because they are truly generous, holding the pleasure of their customers –many of whom also happen to be their friends– in the highest regard. But there is one other essential ingredient that enables this generosity: the satisfaction of the cook as a creative individual, with the ability to function as an artist outside of the confines of the day-to-day. The occupation of the restaurateur and chef can be a thankless and grueling one, but giving it a little air and time can allow the big goblet of creativity to be re-filled.

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