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blog swirl & savor

Meatballs, Mezzogiorno Style

Beth Ribblett


I am a huge fan of the wine and food from Southern Italy, hence my love of a Mano in the warehouse district, and am always searching for new wines, cookbooks and recipes from the region.  One of the most complete books I have come upon that takes an in depth look at both the cucina povera (humble cooking) style of food and the wacky indigenous grape varieties is the A16 Food + Wine from one of San Francisco's most popular restaurants.  Former chef Nate Appleman and wine director Shelly Lindgren have put together a wonderful resource that is part cookbook and part textbook, beautifully written and with stunning photographs of Italy, the restaurant and some of the cooking methods.  I did a quick post on it last year when I first got the book, but this week I made one of the recipes that I've been eying since I bought it.

Meatballs anyone? How can you not love a meatball, the traditional start to the Sunday dinner in most Italian families?  However in Italy, meatballs are rarely served as we do atop a heaping pile of spaghetti covered in a rich tomato sauce.  Throughout most of Italy meatballs (polpette) are usually served as a second course without toppings or sauce, with the exception of southern Italy where a variation is prepared in tomato sauce but is a main course without pasta as in the recipe below.

 What intrigued me about the A16 description of their meatballs was the light texture due to the higher bread content that is prevalent in recipes from the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy).  More bread means less meat and less expense, hence cucina povera, and it the case of this recipes a deliciously light, airy meatball.  With the added bread they are a meal in themselves, but I have to say I deviated from the recipe in that I did serve them over a little angel hair pasta...

Besides the fact that my mouth watered every time I looked at the recipe, I also wanted to try out the meat grinder attachment for my Kitchen Aide mixer that I have to say performed beautifully.  But if you use a meat grinder be sure to read the instructions for your equipment on grinding meat and bread, as they will tell you the proper methods and speeds to get the best results.

I only deviated from the recipe once (besides the addition of pasta...) and that was in the amount of salt I used.  The pork fat I got was from Whole Foods and the label on the package saild "salt pork"  so I decreased the amount of salt to 2 tsp instead of a tablespoon and only added 1 tsp to the tomato mixture.  I'll note this in the ingredient list to remind you.  There will be a point in the recipe where you can adjust if you feel you need more salt.

The result was nothing short of fabulous! The texture was incredible and nothing like any meatballs I've ever had.  It does take some time though to grind every thing if you do as I did, but it was SO worth the effort!

I so wanted to drink the recommend wine, and Aglianico from Campagnia, but was too lazy to go to the shop and get a bottle.  So we settled for the most amazing bottle of the Conterno Fantino Mon Pra, a super Piemontese blend of Cabernet, Nebbiolo and Barbera that blew us away.  Not cheap, but definitely one of those bottles I'd like to have again and again...But we do have a wonderful Aglianico from Bisceglia in stock that would pair beautifully at $16.99.

Ok, so on to the recipe.  Take your time and have fun with this, you will thoroughly enjoy what comes out of the oven.  But don't cut corners with ingredients and sub low fat milk for whole milk or leave out the pork fat as one blogger did with not so good results!  It's a meatball!

A16's Monday Meatballs
Makes 28 to 30
-10 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor.
-10 ounces beef chuck, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor.
-6 ounces day-old country bread, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor.
-2 ounces pork fat, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor.
-2 ounces prosciutto, chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes, cut into 1" cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food processor.
-1 cup loosely packed, fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
-**1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided **(I used 2 teaspoons plus 1 teaspoon)
-2 teaspoons dried oregano
-1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
-1 teaspoon dried chile flakes
-2/3 cup fresh whole milk ricotta, drained if necessary (if sitting in whey, drain overnight in cheesecloth)
-3 eggs, lightly beaten
-1/4 cup whole milk
-1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes with juice
-Handful of fresh basil leaves
-Block of grana padana for grating
-Best-quality olive oil for finishing

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat 2 rimmed baking sheets with olive oil. In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, oregano, fennel seeds and chile flakes and mix with your hands just until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small piece, flatten it into a disk, and cook it in a small sauté pan. Taste and adjust the mixture’s seasoning with salt, if needed. Do this, it will help you determine the correct amount of salt

3. Form the mixture into 1 1/2 -inch balls, each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.

4. Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the meatballs are lightly browned. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300 degrees. (At this point you can continue with the recipe or after they've cooled, refrigerate meatballs for up to 2 days or freeze and thaw completely before starting the next step)

5. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plate. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes and salt in a large bowl, don an apron and squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.

6. Pack the meatballs into 1 large roasting pan or 2 smaller roasting pans. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and braise for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.

7. Remove the pans from the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.

8. For each serving, ladle the meatballs with some of the sauce into a warmed bowl. Grate the grana over the top, drizzle with olive oil to finish and serve immediately.

Buon Appetito!