Meatballs are dangerous ground to tread upon in Italian kitchen conversation … insofar as each family will hold very firm views as to the specifics of the ingredients and cooking method.
What consitutes the perfect polpetta?
No one can answer that. Some will include garlic or onion, or minced parsley or other fresh herb … others will be very puritanically austere and eschew any addition, over and above the meat, as superfluous. Others still will argue in favour of cooking the polpette in plain olive oil and think of a tomato sauce as sheer barbarism. Others still will resort to cooking them in the oven as the easiest and tastiest way of dealing with them. To each his own …
Meatballs are pretty much meatballs wherever one eats them in the world. So what does differentiate the Italian meatball, whatever its guise and cooking method, from its cousins in other parts of the globe? I would say it’s a question of consistency. Italian meatballs are supposed to be … soft. Not undercooked as such but definitely nowhere near rubbery or, worse, stand-to-attention stiff. And they are not interested in the idea of being browned on the outside and pink within … not unless they are cooked in the oven. They are otherwise meant to be pale-and-interesting and soft all over. Think of a polpetta as you would a pillow, and you’ll get the idea. When you rest your head on a pillow, you head will sink, won’t it? Well … your teeth are supposed to ‘sink’ into the polpetta without encountering any resistence.
I brought a huge tray of meatballs to a school potluck supper years ago, before I ‘mastered’ the art of making pillow-soft polpette, and though no one would have had grounds to criticise the taste, I definitely got a few comments about their being overcooked! “Did you buy these from IKEA” someone ventured to ask. “Are these mini hamburgers?” was another one. “What oil did you fry them in?” was the most discrete dig at the fact that they simply weren’t soft enough! Just as well I was and continue to be inured to this kind of tactlessness and know that the commentary was well meant. And it did prompt me, after all, to go about getting it right.
Ingredients: minced meat (I prefer all beef), 1 beaten egg on average per 500g of meat, dry bread that needs to be softened in milk or vegetable broth or, lacking either, water; grated parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. Minced parsley optional. Bread crumbs to coat the polpette before cooking them are also optional.
Please note that the meat and the rest of the ingredients should not be ‘worked’ too much, otherwise you will end up with a rubbery consistency. When I am not in hurry, I mix everything using only my hands. When I am rushing a bit, however, I will use the blender but will only press Pulse a few times.
The bread serves to soften the meat … and some people will use mashed potatoes instead. This is a most important ingredient, it’s what confers the yield factor to the polpetta texture. Now, while I bang on quite a lot about all things organic and wholesome, I have to admit that plastic bread is what works best for me when it comes to softening polpette. By ‘plastic’ I mean the kind of white bread I never even look at normally. My mother swears by soda water or sparkling mineral water to soften the meat.
Once everything is properly mixed, it needs to be shaped into meatballs. Polpette range in size from large, to small, to very small and the latter are then called ‘polpettine’ and constitute a finger food at parties.
Small is beautiful. I find large polpette aesthetically offensive … I hate to say this but they somehow remind me of animal poo. But everyone should decide for himself or herself. Small polpette are indeed beautiful but also take more time to shape … so it’s always a good idea to find some poor sucker who wants to help with this task. If you can’t find an obliging soul, then don’t panic. Sit in front of a TV, have a bowl of cold water handy to dip your hands into between each polpetta, and enjoy your programme. It can be seen as a very zen way of using one’s hands.