This is quite a long post. If you, dear reader, can’t be bothered with all the chit chat, do by all means go straight to the recipe, where the dotted line is. What you might like to know in advance is that these meatballs are made using beef only and no other meat. Also that this is actually ‘two’ recipes: one for the meatballs and one for a sauce that will grace any egg pasta. This post could also fit into the ‘Loving the Leftovers’ category … Frascati, my mother’s home town, and the town that was always ‘home’ to me, even when I lived abroad as I was growing up, was famous for its rich recourse to nicknames. My grandfather Riccardo Tranquilli, for instance, who was well endowed with a good sized nose, received the nickname ‘nasone’ (big nose). Maybe the meting out of nicknames was a common practice in other Italian villages and small towns, who knows, and indicative of ‘the way we were’. But the habit has not petered out to full extinction, at least not within my generation. My friend Massimo Ciani, known to everyone in Frascati for his news kiosk in the main piazza, is a great lover of fireworks (noisy ones at that) and is fully aware of being referred to by the moniker ‘u bottu’ … meaning The Bang! in Frascatan dialect.
He organised a wonderful display of fireworks on the occasion of his brother’s wedding on a beach in Tuscany, I remember it well.
And one of my favourite butchers in Frascati will always be, to me, the son of ‘Labbrone’ (meaning Big Lip) even though his name is Signor Cavassini. Mr Cavassini is very fond of me, as a customer, because I don’t ask for lean meat and because I like to play around with cuts of meat that other people tend to look askance at. I like his shop because the meat is truly excellent and he cares a lot about its source. I’ve never been disappointed, not once, and that is worth the higher prices of the meat he sells. There is an Italian saying that goes something like this: When you spend more, you actually spend less (Chi più spende, meno spende). I have engaged in not a few attempts to make my husband see the wisdom of this adage and he usually agrees with me …. usually. As a third generation family butcher, Mr Cavassini has a certain air of authority about him and he knows a lot about the meat industry in Italy. I like to ask his advice on most occasions but there are times when I know exactly what I want and let him know in no uncertain fashion. And thus it was with my latest ‘polpette’ (meat balls) recipe. Polpette are one of my husband’s most favoured midweek dishes and he once remarked that the ones prepared by my cousin Teresa were truly delicious. I asked her what meat she used and she told me the cut: ‘la pezza’. This is Roman for ‘scamone’ which in English translates into rump steak. I have been using minced rump steak ever since and the only people to raise their eyebrows are the butchers because most people would not usually use such a ‘noble’ cut of beef for plain ol’ polpette. What can I tell you? Mr Cavassini, son of Labbrone, thinks I am a wizard for doing so and will praise my choice to any other client waiting to be served in his store. He likes to brandish the rump steak for admiring approval just before he minces it. His wife, signora Alberta, sits at the till and basks in her husband’s glory and reputation. She is a little shy and retiring by nature and when, the last time I was there, I ventured to ask her how she made her polpette … she just shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, ‘just like everybody else’. I had to push her quite hard to come out with it, not to mention take a photo of her!, and the result is behind today’s post. ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… Yet another polpette recipe ! And what a good one! Do be sure to make lots of tomato sauce to accompany them because that way … the added bonus is that you will also make yourself a beautiful ragù with which to garnish a glorious dish of tagliatelle or fettuccine. Definitely worth the effort. Thank you Mrs Alberta Cavassini ! This is a soffritto. Three parts onion, two parts celery, and one part carrot is the rule set by the trained chef. The trained home cook is quite happy to make do with: 1 large onion, 1 celery stick, 1 carrot. Chop the three ingredients separately and then add to the pot. Cook gently over a low heat in plenty of olive oil. The soffritto must not ‘brown’, it must braise and this can take 10 minutes. There is no need to add salt. Not at this stage. When the soffritto is ready, add plenty of plum tomatoes or passata … and let this turn into a sauce by simmering for at least 20 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of sugar and sprinkle a little bit of salt. It’s a very self-reliant preparation and doesn’t need much supervision. You don’t even have to stir it, unless you enjoy stirring occasionally. Stirring can indeed be very zen inducing … hypnotic even, or relaxing. Stirring is a ‘gesture’ of cooking. Rather like a caress … While the tomato sauce is simmering away, get hold of any stale bread you might have and moisten it … either with warm milk or with warm water … warm stock (broth) if you have any works too. The stale bread must turn into soggy bread that is likely to ‘disintegrate’ into the meat itself … squeeze the soggy bread crumbs very hard, eventually, to get rid of any excess liquid. And then let them rest in a sieve/strainer until required. Other Ingredients: (1) Get hold of 2 egg yolks for 1 kg of meat. (2) Grate some parmesan cheese (2 teaspoons for each 100g of meat will do nicely, add more if you think it will enhance what you are preparing). (3) Have some nutmeg to grate at the ready. (4) Get hold of some double-concentrated tomato paste. This last ingredient was not mentioned by signora Alberta but was suggested to me by my friend Liz Macrì Zangrilli … who is one of the most accomplished home cooks I know. Her family hails originally from Calabria and I fell in love with her mother’s polpette and the tomato paste was an essential ‘secret’ ingredient. Okay then … time to make and shape the polpette. What you see in this mixing bowl are: the minced rump steak, a couple of egg yolks, one large squirt of the tomato paste, plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese and a good grating of nutmeg. Also … plenty of good quality salt (i.e. the kind of salt that is dried naturally and is healthy and NOT like table salt which is chemically dried and probably contains traces of aluminium to keep it dry). Sel de Guérande is what I use most of the time but if you prefer Himalayan Pink salt or sale di Cervia or sale di Mottya … by all means use that. The point I wish to make is that if you do not add the appropriate amount of salt to your dishes, your food will taste of next to nothing. Ask any trained chef if you don’t believe me. Look up this issue on the internet to gain a better understanding. Start by mixing all the ingredients with a fork. Then add the soggy bread crumbs. And then use your fingers to combine all the ingredients. It’s like playing with playdoh when we were little … And here are the polpette, waiting to be cooked.It is very important, said signora Alberta, that the tomato sauce be very hot and bubbling away when you are about to add the polpette. The heat will ‘seal’ the meat and prevent them from falling apart. Add the polpette, carefully, to the bubbling tomato sauce. Because I was making a good amount of meatballs, I used a very large saucepan, one I usually use to boil water for pasta or to cook large amounts of spinach or cicoria. There were some parsley stems lurking about in the fridge so I added those too. Unfortunately I can’t remember how long I let them cook over quite a lively heat (not too strong, however). I took great care in separating the polpette so that they wouldn’t stick together. I expect it would take about 15 minutes to get them cooked. All you have to do is keep an eye on what’s going on, check, taste, and make sure. All cooks … be they professionally trained or home cooks … need to always taste, taste, taste. More salt might be required, for instance. Some pepper might be nice too. Here they are, as soft as pillows and full of taste, ready to be served with some of the sauce slathered over them. A close-up. A good indication of what can take place once the polpette get eaten. Someone at the table will want to mop up the sauce with some bread (‘fare la scarpetta’ it’s called in Italian). Table etiquette says it’s not allowed but we all do it … And that is the end of the first recipe. Here (see below) is recipe number two: a hearty pasta sauce. We used it the next day for our lunch. It was a Sunday and an egg pasta with ragù is as traditional as it gets. I had put the water onto boil to cook the egg pasta. In the meantime, I added some of the cooking water to ‘loosen’ up the ragù. When the pasta was cooked, I put it directly into the saucepan with the sauce, over a high heat. This is a line of ceramics designed by Cassandra Wainhouse and sold by Giardini di Sole which I absolutely love and adore. It is so versatile as well as useful and beautiful. Shower plenty of parmesan cheese over the pasta and Buon Appetito ! And … guess what? There were some polpette left over too … Loving these leftovers !