Saturday, January 17

Braised Polpettone

I've never been all that taken with meatballs. It's been one of those foods that always sounds great, but is generally uninteresting, and sometimes just plain unappealing (in a crockpot, with toothpicks to serve). I've had my eye out for a recipe worth trying though, and when I skimmed past Molly Steven's "Polpettone Braised in Tomato Sauce", from her book, Braising, I spotted some serious potential. These big boys have a lot going for them in the tender department right out of the gate, by using ground veal exclusively - then add to that some delicious local whole milk ricotta, fresh breadcrumbs, parmesan and parsley, and I'm starting to think meatballs might be an undiscovered culinary crush.

What truly makes this dish though, is the quick tomato sauce you throw together in the pot, simmer briefly, then into which you delicately place your little meaty orbs. After mingling and getting to know one another, the sauce and meatballs happily swap some of their flavors - the meatballs giving a little of their heft to the sauce. I served these up with braised greens and bread for dipping into that divine sauce, and it was carnivorous perfection. The recipe made plenty of generously sized meatballs, so we enjoyed them during the week on sandwiches, on their own, and I even added a can of rogue chickpeas to them at work and decided beans simmered in a meat sauce would be an inspired pairing.

If you're a meat eater (so few of my friends and family are these days...) then you're going to love these. My recommendation for not just these, but all meat dishes, is to seek out the highest quality, most responsibly raised products you can find. It's better for the animals, better for the planet, and most certainly better for you as well. I used humanely raised veal from a local farm, which is blessedly easy to find in Vermont. If you find it difficult to good sources, and are willing to do some digging, there are online sources, and thankfully local producers are popping up all over the country right now, so look around!

Polpettone Braised in Tomato Sauce
Giant Veal and Ricotta Meatballs Braised in Tomato Sauce

Makes 12 very large meatballs, serves 6

The Braising Sauce
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk with leaves, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
2 cups tomato juice (I used more of a tomato puree)
2 cups chicken stock

The Meatballs
1 cup fresh bread crumbs made from day-old rustic white bread
1/2 cup buttermilk (or whole milk)
3/4 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 1/2 lbs ground veal

For the braising sauce: Heat the butter in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. When the butter is melted, add the onion, celery, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and barely translucent but not at all browned, about 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper, keeping in mind that canned tomato juice can be salty. Add the bay leaf, tomato juice, and stock. Bring to a simmer, stirring once or twice, and simmer for 15-20 minutes to meld and concentrate the flavors. Taste for salt and pepper.

While the sauce is simmering, make the meatballs: Combine the bread crumbs and buttermilk in a small bowl. Stir the bread crumbs around with a small spoon or your hands to moisten them. Let sit 5-10 minutes.

In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmigiano, parsley, egg, salt and pepper. Add the soaked bread crumbs and buttermilk and stir everything with a wooden spoon or your hands until well mixed. Break off hunks of the ground veal and drop them into the bowl. Then gently knead the meat to work in all the other ingredients. The goal is to blend everything evenly without overworking the meat - if you overmix it, the meatballs can become tough and heavy.

Shaping the meatballs: Using a 1/3 cup measure, scoop out a heaping portion of the veal mixture for each meatball and shape it into a round ball. Again, take care not to squeeze or overmanipulate the mixture. Arrange the balls on a large platter or tray without touching one another.

The braise: When the sauce is ready, reduce heat to medium-low and one by one, lower the meatballs into the skillet using a wooden spoon. Once all the meatballs are in the pan, spoon a little sauce over the top of each one and cover the pan. Adjust the burner so that the sauce stays at a low simmer and bubbles lazily rising to the surface. If it simmers too fast, the meatballs will toughen and the full exchange of flavor between sauce and meat won't occur.

After 20 minutes, carefully turn the meatballs with a a large spoon. They're fragile, so work slowly. Spoon sauce over the tops again, cover, and continue to simmer until the meatballs feel firm to the touch, indicating they are cooked all the way through, 35-45 minutes.

Serving: Let the meatballs sit in the sauce for about 5 minutes off the heat. To serve, place 2 meatballs on each plate and spoon some sauce over the top.


  1. I have had these bookmarked for ages and have finally got round to making them. They are great! Thanks for putting up the recipe, I shall certainly make them again.

  2. Anonymous9:26 PM

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  3. Muriel from Montreal10:21 PM

    I had found some locally-raised, under the mother, ground veal and the I found your recipe after getting home to try to figure out to do with it!

    Then I made a list of missing ingredients and went to the gym and I forgot to get the ricotta on the way back!

    Well, it was still delicious and light and a little sweet... Next I will try it with ricotta!


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