Sunday Dinner: Move over spaghetti — these meatballs come with polenta

Eric Akis

I was flipping through my collection of Italian cookbooks the other day and realized none had a recipe for that classic Italian dish “spaghetti and meatballs.”

Why? Well, according to several sources, if you go to Italy, you’ll discover the dish is virtually nonexistent there, perhaps only served at eateries catering to tourists.

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You will certainly find various types of meatballs, called polpette, being served, sometimes as a starter or second course. You’ll also see folks eating spaghetti. But the idea of combining the two is actually a made-in-America one tossed to life after Italian immigrants settled in places such as New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Those immigrants did make and eat meatballs at home, even enjoying them as a main dish, but not with pasta.

According to an article on the Smithsonian website, smithsonianmag.com, one theory suggests serving meatballs with spaghetti first occurred in American restaurants, and eventually Canadian ones that served Italian food, too.

Some of the patrons in those restaurants were Anglo-Americans accustomed to having a starch, such as potatoes, with meat dishes. To satisfy that desire, those early American Italian restaurants began serving main-course meat dishes such as meatballs with pasta, such as spaghetti — the most widely known type of pasta for Americans at that time.

I’m sharing this story to let you know that just because many North Americans eat saucier types of Italian-style meatballs with spaghetti or other pasta, you don’t always have to.

For example, I served my polpette with steamed broccolini and polenta, with the latter creating an almost pillowy spot to nestle the meatballs and sauce.

To create a richer taste for the polpette and their sauce, I topped the skillet filled with them with bits of burrata, a mozzarella-style cheese that has a soft, creamy, stringy curd centre. I then let that cheese melt on and around the polpette — very tasty!

Polpette with Tomato, Burrata and Basil

These tender, succulent Italian-style meatballs are coated in breadcrumbs, seared in olive oil, baked in a saucy tomato mixture, then richly adorned with melted bits of burrata.

Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cooking time: About 50 minutes

Makes: Four to six servings

2 slices white bread, crusts removed

1/3 cup milk

2 large eggs, beaten

1 large garlic clove, minced

• pinch or two crushed red pepper flakes

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp freshly and coarsely ground black pepper

1/2 lb. (225g) lean ground beef

1/2 lb. (225g) ground veal (see Eric’s options)

1/2 lb. (225g) ground pork

1/2 cup dried unseasoned breadcrumbs

• olive oil for the pan

1/2 cup red wine (see Eric’s options)

1 (660 mL) jar strained tomatoes (see Note)

1/2 cup water

1 (250g) tub burrata, pulled into 16 roughly equal pieces (see Eric’s options)

8 to 12 fresh basil leaves, torn into smaller pieces

Tear bread into tiny pieces and set in a medium-to-large bowl. Add the milk and mix well. Let stand five minutes to allow the bread to absorb the milk. Now mix in the eggs, garlic, chili flakes, salt and pepper.

Add the ground meats to the bowl and gently mix until well combined. The meat mixture will be fairly moist, as that will ensure very tender polpette when cooked.

Moisten your hands lightly with cold water. Roll the meat into 1 1/2-inch balls (they don’t have to be tight and perfectly round, as you will roll them again in breadcrumbs). You should have about 28 to 30 polpette.

Place the bread crumbs in a shallow bowl. Now roll and lightly coat each polpette in those bread crumbs, setting the coated ones on a baking sheet as you go along.

Pour1/8-inch of olive oil in a large ovenproof skillet (mine was 12-inches wide) or wide shallow pot set over medium to medium-heat. When oil is hot, brown the polpette, in two or three batches, on all sides, setting them on a clean baking sheet as you go along.

When all polpette are browned, drain the excess oil from the skillet. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Pour the red wine and strained tomatoes into the skillet. Pour the 1/2 cup water into the bottle the strained tomatoes came in and shake well to remove any strained tomatoes clinging to the sides of the bottle. Pour that mixture into the skillet too, then bring to a simmer.

Set the polpette back in the skillet, cover and bake in the oven 30 minutes.

Remove polpette from the oven and uncover. Set pieces of burrata on top and alongside the meatballs. Now bake the polpette, uncovered, five minutes more, or until the cheese is melted. Sprinkle the polpette with the basil and serve.

Note: Smooth and saucy strained tomatoes, also called passata di pomodoro, are sold in bottles at many supermarkets and Italian delis.

Eric’s options:

• Ground veal is sold at some supermarkets and butcher shops. If you can’t find it, you could use 3/4 lb. ground beef and 3/4 lb. ground pork in this recipe.

• If you don’t wish to use wine, replace it with 1/2 cup beef stock.

• Burrata is sold in tubs at some supermarkets and Italian delis. If you can’t find it, you could replace it with eight bocconcini cheese balls, each pulled into two or three pieces.

Polenta

When plated, this soft, warm polenta makes a nice bed for saucy polpette.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: About 20 minutes

Makes: Four to six servings

3 3/4 cups water

3/4 tsp salt

3/4 cup medium-grind cornmeal (see Note)

1 Tbsp butter

Pour the water into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, add the salt, then reduce heat to medium. While whisking steadily, slowly pour in the cornmeal.

Lower heat to medium-low and cook the cornmeal five minutes, whisking it frequently. Cook 10 minutes more, but now that it is starting to thicken, use a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula to stir it frequently. When cooked a total of 15 minutes, the polenta should be thickened, but still fairly loose. Stir in the butter, then take it off the heat and cover. Let sit a minute or two, then scoop onto plates and serve with the polpette.

Note: I used Purity brand cornmeal for this recipe. It’s not marked medium grind, but it is.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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