Thursday, April 17, 2008

Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 25 - That's a Spicy Polpette

Ok, I know it's kinda cheating following up my meatloaf recipe with polpettes the very next day; but hey, they ARE different. Besides, after mentioning them at the end of the meatloaf post, I've had a couple folks ask me... well, first of all, what the hell polpettes are; but also for the recipe.

OK, first things first, polpettes are meatballs.... Though probably not like the meatballs most of you are used to, given the fact that most of my readers don't live in Italy, New York, Chicago, or Boston.

It seems that in most of America, a meatball is a little round piece of ground meat, stewed in a thin and sweet tomato sauce... or worse, a mixture of canned beef gravy and grape jelly.

To my mind, that's not a meatball... that's an abomination... but apparently I am in the minority; so I use the term polpette to differentiate from that midwestern meat based nightmare.

So, what makes it different? Well, how about "it has flavor"...

Ok, seriously, the biggest difference is size. Polpettes are intended to be served either as an appetizer with one split between two people; or as a main dish, at most four to a plate in an entree for two. These aren't little bite sized globules; they're serious hunks of meat and seasoning.

Oh, but there is a little version (mostly used in soups and stews) usually called a polpettini; and it's typically a ball about an inch across, and not as crusty as a standard polpette. Be careful ordering it in a restaurant if you see it though; because in some areas of Italy, polpettini is what they call individual sized meatloafs.

Now I just mentioned the second difference in the preceeding paragraph, and that is the texture and mouthfeel.

While the standard American meatball is generally pretty uniform, and often a little spongy in texture; a proper polpette should have a contrast between a crunchy exterior, and a smoothly chewy interior, with an unctuous mouth feel.

Now, I've already mentioned meatloaf a couple times, and I'm going to a few more. That's because, although they are in detail quite different; meatloaf and polpette are grossly similar. They are both made from a mixture of ground meat, seasonings, and binding agents; and the first half of the prep work for each is virtually identical.

The cooking though, that is VERY different; and in the end, a good polpette only resembles a meatloaf in taste, as much as any two ground meat based dishes should.

Speaking of cooking technique, a proper polpette is never stewed in "marinara" sauce (we'll talk about how bad most so called marinara is across America another day). It is served either on top of the sauce, with no sauce at all, or in some cases with the sauce baked on over the top of it.

After all, you wouldn't want to lose the meaty, savory flavor of the meatball; or the lovely texture...

...Unless of course your meatballs were small, flavorless, spongy, and greasy; in which case stewing it in tomato and corn syrup flavored water makes perfect sense... At least it's not from a can right?

Ok, I think I've insulted moms across America from the 50's til today enough now; and certainly I've clearly expressed my distaste for bad meatballs. Time to put up or shut up, and show you how to make good ones.

2 pounds, 85% lean ground beef
1 pound extra lean ground pork
1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground veal
5 eggs
4 oz unsweetened tomato paste
2 oz balsamic vinegar
2oz extra virgin olive oil
10 cloves fresh garlic, crushed and minced

Fresh6 tblsp fresh basil, minced
6 tblsp fresh oregano, minced
2 tblsp fresh parsley, minced
2 tblsp fresh sage, minced
1 tblsp toasted fennel seed (buy it and toast it fresh)

Fresh (optional)
1 extra large sweet onion, chopped fine
1 green bell pepper, chopped fine
1 red bell pepper, chopped fine

Dry5 cups breadcrumbs or cracker meal (make your own, or buy decent, not tubed)
8 oz aged parmagiana cheese
8 oz aged Pecorino Romano cheese
6 tblsp black pepper
4 tblsp ground fennel seed
4 tblsp cayenne pepper
2 tblsp ground hot mustard
2 tblsp smoked paprika
2 tblsp onion powder
You're going to need a large skillet; preferably a very thick and heavy one, because you're going to need to have a medium high, controlled heat here.

It's very important to have as large a skillet as you can maintain consistent heat in with your burner; because each meatball needs room to cook, and there's going to be a LOT of them.

Now, assemble your "wet" ingredients, along with the fresh seasoning (and veggies if you're adding them), excepting four cloves of garlic (which well use in the pan later).

As with meatloaf, the most important part of a polpette, is obviously the meat. As I said above, most American meatballs are just little hunks of indifferent quality ground beef. For a good polpette though, you have to think bigger, and better.

Now, I said in my meatloaf recipe that "I like the three meat loaf; lamb, pork, and beef. Turkey just doesn't have the right texture, and the loaf ends up dry with it; and I personally don't like veal that much (the traditional 4th meat for making Italian meatballs)"

It's true, for meatloaf, I don't like veal; but for polpette, I think it's necessary. Or rather what veal brings to the table is necessary.Veal has a very high proportion of gelatin, and tender fatty tissues; and that gives meatballs made with it a smoother, and more filling and "creamy" mouth feel. So you need to boost the fat content, and the gelatin content. You can do that with your choice of pork and beef cuts, or by boosting the fat and gelatin directly (by adding soft fat and gelatin).

That's what is meant by unctuous by the way; it's the feeling that your mouth is being caressed by silky and tasty fat

With the beef itself though, it's important that don't go too lean; or you'll end up with a dry, grainy meatball, that will just crumble. On the other hand, don't go too fatty, or you'll end up with a greasy, loose, and "runny" piece of unpleasantness. 85% lean is just about right for meatballs.

The hardest part of doing this whole thing, is mixing the rather large amount of meat, thoroughly, with the wet and dry ingredients.

For a good meatball, you really want to have a very fine structure to the ground meat. I find that working the meat thoroughly with your hands as you mix is the best method for this; but don't work it too much, or you end up with little hockey pucks when you cook.

You should still be able to see a structure to the grind, it should just be in very small pieces; and remember don't mix it all the way down to that fineness right now, because you still have the dry ingredients to incorporate.

Whatever you do, don't use a blender (yes, my mother used to use a blender, and quaker oats, in her meatballs. I've told you before, she's an awful cook), or a food processor; or once again, hockey pucks.

Oh and If you're going to add the onions and peppers, sweat them a bit just to take the crunch down and convert a little of the sugar; then mix them (and their pan runoff) in with the wet ingredients

Mix the remaining fresh and dry ingredients together, reserve 2 cups of the mixture; and then combine thoroughly with the wet ingredients, bringing the texture down to the level of fineness previously discussed.

Now, the wetter you mix your meat, the dryer the balls will be when cooked; and the dryer you mix it, the juicier.

This is because fat and moisture will tend to cook out of very wet balls very quickly, leaving the meat underdone. By the time the meat is fully cooked, the polpette would be both dry, and greasy, at the same time. You also want the ball to be dry enough to form a nice crust when cooked.

All of this is why you include the breadcrumbs and cheese. While cooking, the breadcrumbs will capture moisture and flavor, before they run out into the pan; and the cheese will melt a bit and spread it's fat, moisture, and flavor, where some of the meats fat and juices ran out.

The end consistency you want, is a slightly sticky dough ball. You want a very little bit of a moist surface feel; enough that breadcrumbs would stick to it, but not so much that the crumbs would feel wet.

If the mix is too wet, you need to add more bread crumbs and remix, until it achieves the right consistency. If it's too dry, I wouldn't worry about it too much; unless the mix won't mold properly or breadcrumbs wont stick to it; in which case you should add another egg, and a bit of olive oil to the mix.

Now here's where the similarities to meatloaf end.

Time to start rolling.

Personally, I like to make my polpettes about the size of a tennis ball; which generally works out to about 4 oz. You can weight the if you like, but I prefer to go by instinct. Just ake the all the same size, so they'll cook consistently.

Take the tennis ball sized wad of eat, and roll it between your palms into a rough ball shape. You aren't trying to make it smooth, just relatively even. Roll all your balls out, and put them off to the side where they aren't going to get crushed.

Now, heat up your extra large extra thick skillet, with about 1/8" of extra light olive oil in the bottom; over a medium-high heat.

To the side of your pan, set up a work area with a wide bowl, filled with the rest of the breadcrumb and seasoning mixture; and your tray of meatballs.

We're going to start here by throwing the remaining garlic into the hot oil, and start to brown them. You know you've got your heat control right, when you can keep the garlic cooking, but not burning.

Next, start rolling the meatballs in the breadcrumb mixture, one by one; and placing them in the hot oil, giving them a little pat to flatten them down just a bit so they sit stable and don't roll around. Fill the pan, but don't allow the meatballs to touch. You want AT LEAST a fingers width of space around all sides

Now, this is the part that takes some skill and patience. You need to cook these balls on all six sides; at about two minutes per side, until they crisp up; at the right heat to crisp up on the outside, without getting dry and overcooked on the inside.

Honestly, I can't give you any hints here, except that a full pan is easier to control the heat on;, and putting a lot more meat in the pan all at once drops the heat significantly (which can cause the balls to get sodden with oil). Really, what it takes is practice. If you want to do them two or four at a time until you get the hang of it, it's probably a good idea.

Now, there is another school of cooking the meatballs that holds you should flash cook them to crisp them up on the outside; then finish them up in a 350 degree oven, for about 20 minutes. It works, but personally I prefer to cook them fully in the pan.

THis recipe makes a bout 20 or so good sized polpette.

Now, once you're done with all the polpette, you've got a pan full of hot, meaty, garlicy, olive oil.

... maybe, if you had a little free time on your hands while the balls were cooking, you might have grabbed out something like the following...

Enough fresh plum tomatoes, crushed, to fill the bottom of the pan
Half a dozen or so Italian red chilis (a mild chili), chopped and crushed
2 shots of vodka, or another spirit of your choice
4 oz of a robust red wine (a chianti will do just fine)
4 oz heavy cream
2 oz aged parmagiana cheese
2 oz aged Pecorino Romano cheese
4 tblsp fresh basil, chiffonaded
4 tblsp fresh oregano, minced
4 tblsp black pepper
4 tblsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tblsp smoked paprika


1 large sweet onion, chopped fine
1 green bell pepper, chopped fine
1 red bell pepper, chopped fine
Turn your heat up as high as you can get it, and let the oil heat up to the point just before the pan scrapings will start to burn; then CAREFULLY deglaze and scrape the pan with the vodka. Wait till the boiling mostly stops, and add in your crushed tomatos, and chilis (and other peppers and onions if you so choose).

You're going to want to nearly sautee the tomatoes, until the moisture drops the temperature down enough so you're just stewing. At that point, you want to add the wine, and the dry seasonings (but not the dried cheese yet).

Now, heat the sauce on a very high simmer, until it starts to thicken appreciably. Then add the cheese in slowly; incorporating completely, and avoiding clumping. At this stage add the fresh herbs and any other seasonings you may want; and again let reduce.

After a few minutes, you may have some excess oil float to the top. You can either mix this back in, or skim it off; as you prefer. This sauce SHOULD be slightly oily.

You don't want to cook this too much; it should maintain a fresh, sweet, and savory flavor. The body is provided by the oil base, and the finishing touch. Just before service, add in the cream, and stir to an even color and consistency.

If you want to be really traditional here, you should add fresh muscles in their shells; but I think I'd just serve it over vermicelli, with a couple polpette.

See now, there's two for one. I didn't really cheat.

And be sure to check out:

Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 24 - It's Meat, in Loaf Form
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 23 - Some Like it Hot
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 22 - Full Fat, Full Dairy, All Killer, No Filler
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 21 - Forget About the Dough Boy
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 20 - QDCBS (Quick and Dirty Chili Bean Stew)
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 19 - Chicken Salmonella
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 18 - I'll give YOU a good stuffing turkey (1)
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 17 - REAL Coffee
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 16 - DTG (Damn That's Good) dip
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 15 - More Chocolate Than Cookie
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 14 - Millions of Peaches
Recipes for REAL Women, Volume 13 - Mels 10,000 Calorie Butter Cookies
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 12 - Lard Ass Wings
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 11 - Bacon Double Macaroni and Cheese
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 10 - It's the meat stupid
Recipes for REAL Men, Volume 9 - Labor Day Potatos
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 8 - It's a pork fat thing
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 7 - It may not be Kosher...
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 6 - Andouille Guiness Chili
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 5 - Eazza the Ultimate Pizza
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 4 - Two Pound Meat Sauce
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 3 - Highbrow Hash
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 2 - MuscleCarbonara
Recipes for REAL men, Volume 1 - More Beef than Stew