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
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
approx. 1 bottle of white wine (just cheap table wine)
juice from two lemons
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.