I'm always a little nervous when offering an Italian recipe on this blog...
Because Italians take the culinary part of their cultural heritage very seriously, and they don't like it being messed with, as the occasional 'scandal' about one dish or another being 'interpreted' by one celebrity chef or another reminds us. It's only a few weeks since the most recent one.
Meatballs, polpette in Italian, seem to be especially prone to arouse discussion. There are pages and pages on the internet devoted to the question of whether the American-Italian standard, spaghetti with meatballs, is an authentic Italian dish. The standard answer appears to be that each of the three main components - namely meatballs/polpette, red sauce and pasta - is so, but that the combination may not be. Let's come back to this question a little further below.
Another discussion that much play has been made of is about the origin of meatballs per se. They are a widespread thing, after all, found in all Mediterranean cuisines, but also in those of Central and Northern Europe. In recent years, a claim has been made that all of them are derived from Turkish köfte, making the humble meatball a Turkish achievement! I'm a bit wary of that claim, in general because the idea of using chopped-up leftover meat in various ways surely must go back a long time and to more than one place, and more specifically because the Roman cookbook ascribed to Apicius already includes recipes resembling modern meatballs (and called isicia), suggesting a much more ancient origin. But who knows, maybe Western contact with the Ottoman Empire re-invigorated culinary traditions also in this regard, as it did in many others. It is striking that many (but not all) versions of meatballs, from the now global Swedish one, via the German ones I grew up with, to some of the Italian ones, tend to contain cumin - a spice of limited popularity in European traditions - as a main flavouring ingredient, indeed evoking a Turkish connection...
So, what I will not do is claim that my recipe for polpette below is in any way definitive. Italy is a very diverse country, and many versions of something as simple (and as delicious) as meatballs are likely to exist. What is certain, though, is that I learnt the preparation that I present below from a Sicilian scholar many years ago, when he was staying at the Irish Institute in Athens, where I had a position at the time. He was (and hopefully still is) an avid and gifted cook, and now and then I scribbled down some notes on his preparations, as I did for this one. On that occasion, in 2006 or 2007, we did eat the polpette with pasta, and I seem to remember being told that the combination does indeed crop up in Italian kitchens, or at least in Sicilian ones - but perhaps my colleague was simply compromising far from his home... Sicily's cuisine certainly reflects the many influences that have affected the island over the centuries and millennia, just as its archaeology and its architecture do, so maybe my colleague's polpette have a place in that spectrum.
This is not the place to conclude one way or the other on such a widely-discussed issue - let's leave that with the experts in the field of food scholarship, a fascinating topic. Instead, ours is the place to present a simple and delicious recipe for a version of Sicilian polpette, defined by the way they are first fried and then boiled in the very sauce that will accompany them on your plate, whatever they are served with!
[That said, I am sure there is more than one version of these humble meatballs or polpette even within the great island, with variations not just between ingredients and accompaniments, but also between the much more pertinent question of whether they should be fried, boiled, broiled, grilled or baked - so let me repeat that this recipe does not claim to be canonical by any means!]
Polpette alla Siciliana - Sicilian meatballs in tomato sauce - recipe
Serves 4 or more
(For the sauce)
- 4 to 5 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, de-seeded and chopped into small pieces
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 onion
- 1 handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large pinch of cumin (or more, to taste)
- salt and black pepper
(For the meatballs)
- 500g (1lb) minced beef, or half-and-half beef and pork. Ask your butcher to put it through the mincer twice
- 170g (6oz) dry savoury rusks (ideally Italian/Sicilian ones), crumbled up. Alternatively, you can use the same weight in breadcrumbs, in which case I'd recommend roasting them in the oven for a few minutes beforehand.
- 1 large egg
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley
- a large pinch of cumin
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- salt, black pepper
- about 150g (5oz) flour
- up to you! A 500g (1lb) pack of pasta of your choice would work, prepared according to the instructions on the packet, as would a cup of rice, or some fresh white bread.
- also up to you, but highly recommended: grated parmigiano reggiano, a little or a lot.
1. Prepare your rusks or breadcrumbs. A) If using rusks, break them into small pieces, place in a bowl and add lukewarm water to soak for at least half an hour. Afterwards, mash the mixture thoroughly with a fork (or in a blender) to make sure it is evenly moist and the rusks have disintegrated fully. Squeeze out some of the liquid. B) If using breadcrumbs, especially from white bread, place on an oven dish and roast in a pre-heated oven at a medium temperature for about ten minutes. Then let them cool and add a small amount of water and mix to make an even paste.
2. While your rusks are soaking, you can prepare the sauce. Start by heating the olive oil in a saucepan at a medium temperature. Once it starts sizzling, add the chopped onion, reduce the temperature and sauté for at least 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and transparent. Then add the garlic, and sauté for another 2 minutes.
3. Now add the tomatoes and all the other sauce ingredients, bring to the boil, then reduce to a medium temperature and let it bubble away for 20 minutes or more (it should thicken a little). Afterwards, reduce the temperature to a minimum and leave it be for the time being.
4. Time to make your meatball mixture. Place your rusks or breadcrumbs in a large bowl (unless they're in one already) and add all the meatball ingredients except the flour and oil (the bowl should contain soaked rusks/breadcrumbs, meat, egg, garlic, parsley, cumin, salt and pepper). Mix and knead thoroughly until you have an even mixture that is not too wet. Pour the flour into a small bowl.
5. Place your hands under a cold water tap, then remove a quantity of meat mixture and roll it between your palms into a spherical ball, 2.5 to 3cm in diameter (that's an inch or a little more, by eye the size of a walnut or apricot). Squeeze the ball a little, then roll it around in the flour until covered and set it aside. Put your hands under cold water again before making the next meatball, continue until all the meat mixture has been used.
6. Heat the oil in a frying pan to not more than a medium heat and place the meatballs in it. Make sure they are not squeezed in too tightly at this stage - if necessary, use two pans or do them in two batches! Let them fry on one side for 5 minutes, then turn (using two spoons) and continue for another 5, then turn them again and fry them for 5 minutes or more until all sides have browned, but not burnt. [One major variation of this, as practised in Sicily, would be to bake the meatballs in the oven instead. It would require at least half an hour at a medium to high temperature and if you fancy it, I recommend looking for recipes beyond this one!]
7. If all the meatballs are in one pan, pour the tomato sauce over them (if there's not enough space, spoon the balls into the pot that the sauce is in), briefly increase the temperature until the tomato mixture begins to simmer, then reduce and let simmer for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, you can prepare your rice or pasta (depending on what you've chosen to accompany them).
8. That's it. Your meatballs or polpette are ready to serve.
This is a simple and fun recipe for a dish that certainly merely begins to conjure up a hint of the great wealth and variety that distinguish Sicily's culinary heritage. Of course, you'll encounter much more of that heritage if you join us on Exploring Sicily, experiencing Sicilian food along with so many other elements of the island's history. And to go a step further, you can gain a fuller and more hands-on understanding of the Sicilian culinary tradition on our unique Gastronomic Tour of Sicily!
As always, our gallery below provides a little step-by-step visualisation of the polpette recipe.