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AnnaRosa’s polpette – Italian meatballs with tomato sauce and peas

Posted in Food, and Food & Entertaining

Italian meatballsDuring the 18 years I was a vegetarian, when asked the reason why, I would often tell the story of how my pet rabbit became Easter lunch. In fact, my re-telling of that story was rather disingenuous. As a child I was very cognizant of where food came from and how that particular wheel spun. 

After spending most summers in the countryside, next to a working farm, I knew that cherries and figs were to be found on trees – which I climbed with impunity to steal – and that if my mother wanted a chicken for dinner, all she had to do was ask the farmer who would go in the yard and ring a bird’s neck. Maybe the same bird under whose butt I had personally retrieved the eggs from. I was nonplussed by the whole thing.

It is true the farmer let me look after a rabbit for a few days, probably already knowing that rabbit would end up in a pot with black olives and, if I was upset, I was not traumatized. While still battling with the ethics of eating meat to this day – I have gone back to eating it partly because it makes it easier to stay healthy, although I  consume it infrequently – I never craved meat to begin with.

As a toddler, I tested my mother’s patience and creativity by refusing meat but she persevered and, for years, it had to be disguised in the form of chicken soup, mashed potatoes blended with beef and meatballs with marinara sauce and peas. I always liked those. To this day, my mom’s version of them is still my favorite and a comfort staple when I need one.

Her meatballs often contain mortadella, in addition to beef, veal and pork (or as a substitute for pork) but, because it’s hard to find good mortadella in LA and veal is horribly expensive, my version only features beef and pork. Often, she also adds bechamel sauce – instead of milk – to keep them moist but that is a bit of an over achieving step, especially if I am making just a weekday meal (although the interior of the meatballs will be deliciously creamy).

When my step-son came for dinner a few nights a go, that’s what I decided I would make for him.  He might be all of 24 and an adventurous eater but I know some childhood dishes always make for some of the best dinners.

RECIPE – yields 12/14 rather large meatballs

3/4 pound  ground beef

1/4 pound ground pork

3/4 C Parmesan cheese, grated

1/2 C fine bread crumbs

1/2 C milk

1 Egg

Salt and pepper to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

Your favorite marinara sauce

1 C Frozen peas

Raw meatballs
Still raw and ready to be cooked
  1.  In a large bowl, mix the ground meats with your hands. Add the egg, parmesan, salt and pepper and mix until well amalgamated.
  2.  Add the bread crumbs. Mix lightly and start pouring the milk into the mixture, a bit at a time. You might not need all of the milk. You want to end up with a moist mixture that holds its shape.
  3.  Form the meatballs into 3 cm (1/1/2 to 2”) in diameter.
  4. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and, when hot, cook the meatballs on medium heat, turning them every few minutes, so that all sides get browned and they are cooked through. Don’t crowd the pan and fry in batches if necessary.
  5. Place the meatballs on a paper lined plate and set aside.
  6. Heat the marinara in a saucepan and add the peas. Cook for a few minutes until tender. Add the meatballs and cook for a few more minutes until heated through. Serve immediately.

Strictly speaking, Italians don’t eat their polpette with pasta and I would advise you don’t suggest it when  ordering food in Italy – they will think you are mad. But wherever else you are – go ahead, I won’t tell.








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  1. silvia

    Gnammi!!!! One of my fave. My mom never uses besciamella, so next time I make them I’ll give it a try.
    I bet your step-son is still licking his lips.

    January 30, 2014
    • Bless his little heart….he has come such a long way from the days he used to apologize to his friends that his weird stepmom made mac and cheese from scratch. He has always been willing to try whatever “foreign” food I would put in front of him and now we talk about food like old pros!

      January 30, 2014

    And I hope the step son pressed his finger to his cheek and twisted it like a screwdriver in appreciation.

    January 30, 2014
  3. Now, this really hits home! I love polpette and could never replicate by myself the utter perfection of those I buy at the butcher’s in Rome! ( he of course gave me the recipe, probably omitting that very ingredient that would make mine taste like his:-D).
    I will try yours now adding mortadella though ( and veal? How much veal) and bechamel sauce, I am intrigued! Shall I replace the milk with the same amount of bechamel? And, last: can you describe marinara sauce in detail for non-Americans? Tomatoes and then? Oregano?
    I cant wait to get at work on those!

    January 30, 2014
    • I confess I never made with bechamel and, like all my mother’s recipes quantities are left to a cook’s intuition. As much as the milk might be a bit too much: just start adding until,they are moist but don’t fall apart. For the meat, use half beef and half veal and mortadella. Finally, marinara is a quickly cooked tomato sauce made with either fresh or canned tomatoes, olive oil, some garlic (smashed, not chopped) and basil. Or oregano but I prefer fresh basil. It cooks in 20 minutes and I make big batches and repurpose with pasta, shrimp, meatballs etc

      January 30, 2014
  4. I sooo want them… WITH the pasta, most definitely 🙂

    January 30, 2014
  5. Umm … I can see how the bechemal must be ambrosial, but the milk will do me – a brilliant way to moisten the little meat balls.

    January 30, 2014
    • Milk and Parmesan are my mother’s answer to everything culinary!

      January 30, 2014
      • I must remember your mother’s wisdom! My mother wasn’t much of a cook – in fact Papa said he taught her how to cook, and he taught himself – a bachelor in a strange land – to ward off starvation 🙂

        January 30, 2014
  6. The Editors of Garden Variety
    The Editors of Garden Variety

    I would skip the pasta. It looks so decadent I don’t think I would need it

    January 29, 2014

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