Growing up, one of my favorite things to ask for when my family went to a restaurant was "meat sauce". Meat sauce on spaghetti. Meat sauce on ravioli. Meat sauce on veal cutlets. I'd even ask for meat sauce on top of chicken parmesan! Well, I've grown up and matured (OK, somewhat). In this article I'll show you how to make a grown-up version of "meat sauce"--Ragù alla Bolognese.
One of the very first meals we had during our Voyage to Italy was Pici al Ragù... a Tuscan version of Spaghetti Bolognese. We had just gotten off the train from Rome in the small Tuscan town of Chiusi Scalo ("Scalo" designates the part of a town that surrounds a railway station). Chiusi proper, an historic Tuscan town with proud roots back to the Etruscans, was up on the nearby hilltop.
We were so weary from having traveled about 16 hours or more, first by air to Rome and then by train from Rome to Chiusi, where we were to pick up our rental car. And at this point we were also famished--needing to re-fuel. When we got off the train, the Hertz office was closed for riposa (a 3 hour siesta), so we had planned to have lunch while we waited. I had already picked out the trattoria that we would eat at, selected weeks before while fine-tuning the details on my Google Earth maps... we would eat our first Italian meal at Trattoria Porsenna, one block from the train station. It was a fantastic choice. With only 12 tables and a casual country style, we order a bottle of gassata for the table and waited for our meals. When the Pici al Ragù came, I couldn't believe how delicious it was.
By the way... Pici is a sort of thick, hand rolled spaghetti. Ragù is basically a meat sauce, the best of which is Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna but is found all over Italy nowadays. People will tell you that "spaghetti Bolognese" doesn't exist in Italy--but it does. The sauce will just be called "Ragù" instead of "Bolognese", as in "Spaghetti al Ragù", and typically in place of spaghetti the dish is usually served with tagliatelle, a long, flat, fresh pasta noodle--"Tagliatelle al Ragù".
Historic records even prove that in centuries past, spaghetti (dried) was commonly used with a Ragù sauce anyway. (NOTE: In the weeks that followed, we saw "Spaghetti alla Bolognese" listed on many menus). So, whatever the name, and no matter what type of pasta you put under it, I knew that this was the Ragù I wanted to duplicate when I returned back home.
2 pounds ground beef (80% or less fat)
1/4 pound speck (cut 1/4" thick), 1/4" dice (Speck is a smoked prosciutto)
1 large Vidalia onion (or 2 large yellow onions)
1 teaspoon sugar (for sauteing onions)
4 tablespoons canola oil (for sauteing)
3 carrots, 1/4" dice
3 celery stalks, 1/4" dice
4 garlic cloves, smashed then diced
5 bay leaves (remove after cooking)
1-1/2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1-tablespoon dried basil
1 cup full bodied red wine (Primativo, Montepulciano, Chianti, etc.)
1-28 ounce can Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes
1-6 ounce can tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream
This recipe will make enough Bolognese sauce for several meals. It also freezes very well.
If you would like to make fresh tagliatelle to go with your Bolognese sauce, read Making Fresh Pasta at Home: Not a Necessity, but a Tradition.
Or, try making our Torta Rigatoni Piede Bolognese al Forno - Baked Standing Rigatoni Pie with Bolognese. Or, try Baked Standing Rigatoni in a Mug. It's also wonderful spread on a bruschetta for a small lunch or snack.
You know, I always thought I'd have a problem eating weird things if I ever traveled in the Orient. I'm a person with a fairly narrow palate... I admit it. Even my 14 year old, Lucas has a much broader palate than I do. I like what I like and won't try what I know I don't like. I'm old enough to say that I have tried lots of stuff--for instance, I hate caviar and cooked spinach makes me gag. I know what I can't stomach. In my research and travels about Italy, I've come across things that I wouldn't eat if you paid me. Some things I'll try--once--while others... well, you just sort of know to stay clear.
Still, we have to respect the culinary traditions of our Italian heritage and try not to be so grossed out by it. Food is fuel--fuel is food. In Italy, nothing goes to waste--not beast or flora. So, I hope you pardon me as I poke a little fun at some of Italy's oddest culinary creations--even though I may tease a bit, I still want to honor the complexities if la Cucina Italiana...
In ancient Rome peacock eggs, boiled ostrich
and stewed parrots were common on menus.
There is a protected, fluffy tailed species of dormice (Glis glis or Ghiro) that have been eaten since the days the Caesars ran things. Down in Calabria the rodents are still stuffed and chomped on. They are stuffed with meat, nuts, raisins, onions and spices. You can imagine little squeaks as you take a bite. I have no idea what they do with all those cute fluffy tails.
Ghiri alla pizzaiola :
Ingredients : . 2 Ghires, 50 g of lard, 50g of pancetta, gr 600 gr peeled tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon of oregano, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Engage the dormice lengthwise, peel them, quickly remove the bladder without
breaking it and leave it in running water for a few hours.
Rinse them and blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes.
Chop the lard and the bacon and put the mince in the belly of the dormice.
Place them in a large pan, pour the oil and cover with chopped tomatoes,
parsley and minced garlic, oregano and salt.
Cook over moderate heat, keeping the pan tightly closed with the lid.
Riccota Forte (or Scanta)
The Pugliese are a resourceful bunch. I know--mu Dad was from Puglia. Many of you may know that ricotta means twice cooked or re-cooked... basically, ricotta is a by-product of normal, everyday cheese making. You take the little bit of whey left over, add an acid, boil it and presto, you have ricotta cheese. It's a fresh cheese and should be eaten within a couple of days. When it dries out, the frugal Pugliese add salt, and let it dry even more into Ricotta Salada (one of my favorite cheeses).
But some go even further. Some just let it go bad... and stinky... and acrid, turning it into a Apulian delicacy called Ricotta Forte, or Scanta. Many think this acrid, foul smelling cheese is worse than any other stinky cheese they've even eaten--but in a good way. We tried it during our stay in trullo B&B outside of Alberobello. Yes, it stinks, and our host told us how it's just kept in a dark, un-refrigerated place (under his sink) to grow more bacteria and even sometimes microscopic worms--but we actually liked it! (But it did burn my eyes a tad).
It's the kind of taste that shocks your eyes open, assaults your nose but somehow in the end pleases your palate. It's also a surprise when you are first introduced to it in a plain jar that looks like it's your Aunt's 1950s era home brew face cream.
Enjoy. (Oh, just don't get it on anything sweet... I got it on some Nutella and bread by mistake and nearly got whiplash when I popped it in my mouth.)
Casu Marzu or Formaggio Marcio
(Rotten Cheese), with Maggots
Casu Marzu is a sheeps' milk cheese from Sardinia and Corsica (they call it Casgio Merzu) that actually contains maggots--live ones. Most cheeses rely on fermentation and bacteria to develop their flavor, but this cheese relies on actual decomposition caused by the Cheese Fly larvae. The texture is an oozing, seeping liquid, essentially caused by... well... maggot poop. Some people eat this stuff with the larvae, some will tickle the cheese, causing the larvae to be disturbed enough to actually jump out... as much as 6 inches! The daring who have tasted it say this muck is so acidic that it leaves an after taste in your mouth for hours afterward. I recall a cheese like this in France years ago--I wouldn't go near that either!
From what I hear, battarga is definitely an acquired taste that's at least a thousand years old and perhaps more ancient than that. It's made from the roe (fish egg) pouch of either grey mullet or Atlantic blue-fin tuna. The roe pouch is manipulated by hand to get rid of any air bubbles and then cured in sea salt for several weeks. After curing, the result is a hard, dried salty slab which is usually (but not always) coated in beeswax.
To use it, you grate some on top of pasta or on top of crostini (toasted bread) and drizzled with olive oil. It also can be used as a main ingredient along with garlic for tomato sauce. It has a tremendously long shelf life and is often smuggled out of Italy due to its high price--up to $140 a pound! You can actually order some on AMAZON.
Colatura di Alici, Fish Sauce
In ancient Roman times there was a fishy concoction called garum, a clear sauce made from salting and compression of various types of fish. The clear garum on top was used by the upper classes, while the sludge left over, called allec, was used by the lower classes to add flavor to polenta, porridge or on bread.
Today there is a modern version called Colatura di Alici made in one of my favorite villages on the Amalfi Coast, Cetera (click the photo to see it on Amazon). The first time I took a tour of Cetera at ground level on Google Earth I started seeing barrels and wondered why this village had so many. It's a fairly simple recipe...
The golden liquid is prized in Italy and is used to flavor all sorts of dishes. Watch the video of Colatura being made...
(Polenta with Songbirds, or Polenta e Osei)
Yes, the same song birds that will awaken you on a misty Tuscan morning are being shot or captured in hanging nets by hunters to supply their illegal bounty to select restaurants throughout Italy. Yes, it is illegal, but those doing it consider the practice as being furbo (crafty). They make a living while carrying on a tradition. In Tuscany the birds are flambéed, in Sardinia they are boiled and preserved, in the Veneto rolled in pork belly and fried. Perhaps the best known version is in Lombardy where they are grilled or fried.
It seems this is an elite recipe item in Italy. Ladies and gents get dressed up in all their finery and make an event out of eating these little skylarks, goldfinches and other types of song birds. Our hot air balloon pilot, Stefano told us they shoot anything in Italy, especially song birds, so much so that some species are becoming endangered. Oddly, we flew directly over some "hunters" in their treetop blind, releasing pigeons only to shoot them a moment or two later.
The little tweetys are usually stuffed with pork, beef, rabbit or even other birds. They are served with their heads and beaks on top of polenta, an attempt to mimic a bird's nest.
To illustrate how much Italians love this special dish, certain pasticcerie have created a legal version: a dessert called Polenta e Osei, made to look just like the real dish. It's made of a soft light sponge cake filled with hazelnut cream that is rolled in a yellow fondant. On top are little chocolate birds made from chocolate marzipan. You can find this in the town of Bergamo.
As for the real song bird dish, the macho thing is to pick up the birdie by the beak and leave nothing... devouring bones, beak and all. At least they are not as ruthless as a similar dish I saw in France years ago--where they drown the birds in the local brandy, then when eating drape a napkin over their heads and the dish to inhale the fragrances and crunch down on the bird, apparently head hidden in shame.
(Cheese from Cow's Intestines)
This is either a Roman dish or what the Devil himself would order up. A young, milk fed (no grass feed) calf is slaughtered, and besides getting veal, brains and other delicacies from it, the intestines are used to make this delicacy--pajata. The intestines are washed, but not emptied. When cooked, the partially-digested milk inside turns into a thick, funky cheesy substance which is used as a pasta sauce, and often served on its own with crostata. No grazie!
Cieche are baby eels that migrate upriver after being born in the sea. The name, Cieche (cieco) literally means blind – these babies have no eyes. In coastal areas of Tuscany, cieche are usually fried or boiled alive. Just be careful they don't jump out when you're trying to dump them into the boiling water or saute pan.
Tuscan Blood Torte
Enough said. A torte or cake made from the blood of pigs? I've tried Argentinian blood sausage and British blood sausage, and if the flavor is anything close to what I experienced, I would never go near this stuff. But this recipe contains cocoa and has a chocolate taste, albeit a bit more... er... pungent because of the pig's blood it contains. The pudding used is similar to Sanguinaccio Dolce, a traditional recipe in the South made when a pig is slaughtered using the pig's blood, chocolate, raisins pignoli and sugar. This is an example of the Italian philosophy that nothing goes to waste, not even the last drops of blood.
Watch the video below from the Two Greedy Italians series where Gennaro shows how they make the pudding (at 9:45).
Vending Machine Pizza
As all of the above proves, Italians will eat anything... even pizza made totally inside a robotic vending machine. Not THAT's a real crime!
Let's Pizza machines were initially designed and manufactured in Northern Italy. It offers a choice of four kinds of pies, and makes the pizza while you watch the whole process through windows--adding water to flour, kneading the dough, placing the sauce and toppings, and baking the pizza via infrared oven in just 2.5 minutes. It can produce 90 to 100 pizzas before it needs to be refilled. Ugh. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should!
Ok, so vending machine pizza isn't such a big deal, but how about (suspenseful music...) Gatto in Umido? This translates as "Stewed Cat"!
Calmati, Betty White... "Gatto in Umido" is simply Stewed Cat-Fish.
As I said, we all have to keep an open mind. I hope you enjoyed this look into the traditions of culinary Italy.
Via la Cucina Italiana!
Memorial Day Weekend is here. And so is the corn on the cob, French fries, burgers, hotdogs, hot wings and brisket. In Italy the equivalent of our Memorial Day is April 25, la Festa della Liberazione which commemorates the end of WWII, followed by Festa dei Lavoratori (Labor Day) on May 1st. Many Italians combine the two and go on holiday to celebrate the beginning of spring, and like Americans, they love their BBQ, but typically over a wood fire. Many Italian-Americans are looking for ways to bring a little of Italy into their choices... here are some ideas.
From Giada's Giadzy:
Burrata and Kale Salsa Verde Bruschetta
The salsa verde for these decadent toasts can be made a day ahead, making assembly a breeze once the grill heats up.
Florence's signature dish doesn't need to be made with that famous Tuscan beef - a good-quality rib-eye marinated in this herb-garlic mixture will do the job perfectly.
Tomato, Avocado, and Escarole Salad
Bitter escarole is a perfect foil for the rich steak in this simple side salad, while tomatoes and Castelvetrano olives add bright acidity. And you can never have too much avocado!
Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwiches
Ice cream on the grill? It's true! Grilled bread topped with luscious chocolate-hazelnut spread encloses scoops of vanilla ice cream for a perfect ending.
A here are some tips on how to recreate an
Italian Mixed Grill from Honest Cooking, using a variety of meats grilled over a wood fire, as Italians do.
And of course, the ultimate Italian BBQ is the Tuscan classic, Bistecca alla Fiorentina, offered here from Memorie di Angelina. In Tuscany, the steaks used are from the Chianina, an Italian breed of cattle raised mainly for beef. It is the largest and one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world. In the U.S. 1-1/2 - 2"" thick porterhouse or T-bone steak are good substitutes. In Tuscany, these steaks are grilled over wood coals until dark and smoky outside and bloody toward the center. They are sliced thin and enjoyed by all with a salad of Italian greens (especially arugula) grilled potatoes or beans in olive oil and sage. There are always wedges of lemons, course sea salt, pats of butter or extra virgin olive oil to top it off. Chianti Classico or Brunello di Montalcino are good choices to add to the celebration.
by Jerry Finzi
For Valentine's Day, my wife treated us to a Beef Wellington dinner, prepared and delivered by a local chef. Even though she got rave reviews, we weren't really Wow'd. Having had Wellington in the past, I knew that there were a few things lacking... The cut of beef wasn't tender enough, the mushroom duxelle was a bit funky tasting, and it was missing a wrap of Parma ham inside the (greasy) pastry.
Thinking I could do better, I started thinking... and thinking... Why not transform the Wellington into an Italian version?
The idea was to design a recipe similar to Beef Wellington... but instead of using a tender loin steak inside, it would be a large, flattened Italian style polpette (meatball), wrapped in prosciutto and provolone cheese with an black olive/pesto Tapinade just inside the puff pastry. There are similar recipes in Italy called Polpettone in Crosta, but these are loaf-size meatloafs, often stuffed with hard boiled eggs or other ingredients. I wanted mine to remain a Polpette--a true meatball...
I set out to make my Polpette alla Wellington!
for the Polpette
2 pounds ground chuck
1 medium Vidalia, small dice
2 tablespoons red wine
1/3 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1-1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon dry thyme
1 tablespoon dried basil
15 cracks black pepper (from a pepper-mill)
1 cup canola oil + 2 tablespoons olive oil for frying
for the Tapinade
1 - 16 ounce can of black olives, well drained
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons pesto (from jar or Make it Fresh)
3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
for the Pastry Wrap
4-6 slices delicatessen sharp provolone
1/4 pound prosciutto, speck or Boar Head Brand Piccolo Prosciutto
2 packages frozen puff pastry (butter or shortening type, your choice)
1 beaten egg (for egg wash)
Frying the Polpette
Making the Tapinade
Next, to make the Tapinade, drain the olives and place into a food processor along with the pesto, tomato paste, garlic, red pepper flakes and Reggiano. Pulse several times to get a spreadable texture... but not too smooth. You might have to scrape down the sides of the mixer between pulses.
Assembling the Wellingtons
You can serve your Polpette alla Wellington over a bed of marinara, as we did for one meal, but to be honest, we thought the tomato sauce masked some of the flavors. Also, even though I made the size of our polpette match the size of most beef tenders used to make a traditional Wellington, we felt the serving was too large. If we make this again, we would serve as we did for our second "leftover" meal--each serving was one-half a Wellington.
In fact, the second meal we served with a side of Italian flat beans and no tomato sauce. We actually enjoyed this meal much better... the Tapinade's flavors came to the forefront and the spices in the polpette were obvious. The half-sized servings were a perfect portion. I actually thought that 2 days later, after setting up in the fridge, wrapped in foil, the flavors melded and intensified a bit. We re-heated the leftover halves in loosely wrapped foil for one hour.
If we make this recipe again, we will make smaller Polpette so each person can have a completely pastry-wrapped Wellington.
Enjoy this recipe and let us know how yours turned out!
Culatello is one of the most prized salumi in Italy, dating back to the 15th century. Culatello is produced in the flatlands located north of Parma, near the Po River. The city of Zibello is epicenter of production (Culatello di Zibello), due to its particular climate that is ideal for aging the meat. The thick fog that rolls off the Po and the biting cold of the winter give culatello its characteristic sweetness and fragrance.
Culatello is made with the muscular part of the hind leg of pigs that were born, raised and slaughtered exclusively in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy. The meat is then processed in the communes of Polesine, Busseto, Zibello, Soragna, Roccabianca, San Secondo, Sissa and Colorno, in the province of Parma. The thigh is skinned and de-boned, and the best part, or heart, is removed and salted immediately.
Twine is then wrapped around the meat in a spiral fashion, giving the culatello its signature pear shape. The meat is left to rest and after a couple of days it is massaged, causing the salt to further penetrate the meat. The culatello is left to rest again, in a cold environment, and is then encased in a clean, dry pork bladder and tied up well.
At this point, the culatello is placed in humid, room-temperature cellar for at least 12 months. Once it has been aged, the culatello should weigh between 6 ½ and 11 lbs and have kept its characteristic pear shape.
Parma versus Colatello
Parma ham is sweet and tender.
Culatellois is a bit saltier than Parma ham, with lots of flavor that comes out when chewing it--rich and sometimes peppery and aromatic.
Beef Ragu over Cheesy Polenta
A rustic, belly-filling recipe from simple ingredients. The cook time from pan to table is under an hour, so it's great for a quick family meal during the workweek...
Of course, I was first introduced to pot roast by my Mom, but being a working mother, she always looked for shortcuts--a big thing for Moms back in the 50s and sixties. Although it was delicious, her shortcut was to use cans of Campbell's Onion Soup and to cook it in her very scary, rattling pressure cooker (Mom managed to blow up a few of those beasts). Even as I moved on to my own life, he loved making this for me as a special treat, believing it was my "favorite" meal. (I really liked her lasagna much better).
Well into my thirties, as I developed my own culinary skills, I wanted something more authentic, so I opted for using sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla to add a sweet, deep flavor to my version. In recent years, I've developed my Italian Style Pot Roast, reminiscent of Sugo (Sunday Gravy), but with a much lighter stew type sauce. In Italy, this type of recipe is called Stracotto (literally, overcooked), because of its slow cook time. Another name for this recipe, or rather, style of preparation is simply Brasato di Manzo (braised beef).
To ensure that the meat is tender, you should plan this as a weekend meal, allowing most of the afternoon to slow cook the roast on a gas range (OK, electric would be fine also). Yes, as my mother did, this pot roast isn't done in the oven but rather in a heavy pot on a cooktop. This method takes a minimum of 4 hours of slow-cooking. Technically, it's a braise and not a true roast. (One day soon I should show you how I do my Dad's Oven Roasted Beef).
I cook mine in our tri-bond, stainless steel, flat-bottomed All-Clad Stockpot, rather than our Dutch oven. I find the wider base spreads the heat out rather than concentrating it in the center, as the narrow-bottomed Dutch oven does. (Which would tighten the proteins in the beef rather than relax them). I also use a heavy cast iron Heat Diffuser over our medium diameter gas burner to diffuse the heat even further. I suppose I could also use one of our other options, like our Staub Coq au Vin Cocotte or our Emile Henry Brasier (for a smaller roast) but I like working with steel.
What Cut of Beef?
You will see cuts of beef labeled "chuck roast" in the supermarket, but you can use pretty much any type of beef--as long as it's a tough cut--not tender. A slow cooking time and very low temperature really define the process--not the cut of beef. Pot roast is a braise (slow cooked in liquid) that cooks at a low temperature for a long period of time.
The tougher cuts work best because the slow cooking gently breaks down the proteins and collagen, giving you a luscious, nearly-fall apart, fork-cutting texture. These cuts are from the parts of the animal that are very muscular with lots of connective tissue and very little fat. If you quickly grilled these cuts, the result would be very tough.
The following three cuts will all make a fine pot roast:
Allora... Buon appitito!
Don't forget to write and tell me how yours turned out...
GVI CUCINA HACK
In this recipe, I shared the trick of thickening with breadcrumbs, which gives a rustic charm to the dish. Of course, if you'd like a richer, even more tomato-y version, you can thicken the sauce during cooking by adding a little tomato paste--perhaps a couple of tablespoons. You can also thicken by using cornstarch... dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in a 1/4 cup of cold water and then stir it into the hot, bubbling sauce while stirring to distribute it. (High heat is needed for it to thicken).
My dad, Sal was a great cook. He loved food and worked with it every day, starting out selling produce down by the Hoboken waterfront with his brother Anselmo and their "three-legged (lame) horse " and cart. Later on he worked as a greengrocer and as a deli man. He even grew food in our tiny backyard garden--especially tomatoes. When his customers saw him around the county, they'd shout out "There's My Baloney Man!"
My Mom did all the daily cooking--soups, chicken, pastas and all that, but my Dad did the special meals: Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas Baked Ham, Roast Beef and lots of other Italian specialties like smelts, fried eel, and quick lunches like his "potatoes and egg" frittata. He was always great at making something from pretty much anything he found in the fridge.
But what I loved best was the way he made fist-sized meatballs in the deli. Only one of them would fit into a pint sized container. It was always a special treat when he brought some home. One of these giants on a plate with spaghetti was a feast--one meatball equal to about 4 or 5 the way my mother made them. No need to ask for any other meatballs--one was certainly more than enough.
Once every few years, in honor of Dad, I set out to make his meatballs, his way. His size.
In this recipe, we used about 4 pounds of beef--ground chuck. You can use your own family's meatballs recipe or ours HERE. The ingredients would need to be increased to account for the 4 pounds (if you're making a lot), or simply make less meatballs. Four pounds would give you from 6-8 giant meatballs--2 pounds, probably 4 meatballs.
In the bottom of a roasting pan, I placed light olive oil, about 1/4" deep. The meatballs are placed in the pan and brushed with Extra Virgin Olive Oil to help the browning. The oven should be pre-heated to 450 F at first, then roasting the meatballs, uncovered for about 30 minutes. Next, cover lightly with foil and turn the oven down to 350 F and bake for another 30-45 minutes (ovens vary). Check occasionally to ensure the bottoms aren't burning. Turn the meatballs over a few times if necessary. You want them nicely browned, or until the internal temperature reaches 165 F (using an instant digital probe thermometer).
After the meatballs are done, you can serve over pasta with some of your tomato sauce, or place them into a large pot of your Sugo (Sunday Gravy) to flavor the sauce. You can also cut up one meatball to make a large meatball hero (sub) sandwich, topped with grated parmagiano and toasted in the oven, or smash one with sauce and sliced provolone cheese inside a large flatbread, like the type used to make a muffaletta sandwich. You might also serve half a meatball, cut side down on separate plates with pasta for an intimate supper... calling the half-moon dish Mezzaluna. "When the Moon Hits Your Eye... That's Amore!"
No matter how you enjoy them, you'll love making these huge polpette--my dad, Sal's Giant Meatballs.
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Who Says There's No Such Thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy? - Discover Pallottine from Abruzzo
In the province of Teramo, in Abruzzo there is a recipe that rivals the Sugo of the Neapolitan tradition: Chitarra con Pallottini. If there is any ancestor of Italian-American style "spaghetti & meatballs" (a dish that doesn't exist in Italy), then this is it...
Let me explain the name first. Chitarra means guitar in Italian, but in this case it refers to the pasta making tool called a chitarra because it's wire strings resemble a guitar (OK, perhaps it looks more like a zither or auto-harp, but let's not quibble.) The chitarra is used to make a type of spaghetti with a square edged profile, called Pasta alla Chitarra. A thin sheet of fresh pasta is laid on top of the chitarra and a small matterello pin is rolled over the pasta to squeeze it down and through the wires, creating the square sides. The pasta falls below, picked up and dried or cooked fresh. Kids would love to help make this pasta. The name of this type of pasta has taken on the name chitarra.
As for the Pallottini... palla means ball, the "-ini" ending means they are small. Small isn't the word. These Abruzzo meatballs are absolutely tiny. When I made this recipe, it took me well over an hour to make 268 tiny pallottine from about 3 pounds of minced, lean chuck. (Yes, I counted them). I should have waited until my son, Lucas came home from school to help me! While making them, I discovered that it was difficult to make the pallotine as small as the ones I found in authentic Abruzzese recipes. Mine came out around 3/4 inch in diameter... instead of the 1/2" or smaller seen in Abruzzo. The problem was trying to pinch a small enough bit of meat in between the tips of my fingers. Perhaps using a 1/4 teaspoon measure would have worked better. Tiny fingers and hands of young children would be perfect for the task, but knowing how tedious this task is, more than likely it would be considered as child labor.
On Sundays, when Neapolitan nonnas and mamas are making their Sugo, the kitchens in Abruzzo are filled with similar scents of Nonnas making their Sugo, pasta alla chitarra and pallottine. Traditionally, the dish is accompanied by a rich meat and tomato based Sugo rather than a simple marinara sauce. The sugo is slow-cooked all day with lamb, beef, and pork added to a large pot of crushed tomatoes. The sauce isn't finished until the meat easily falls or shreds apart and can be mixed into the sugo. In my recipe, I slow cooked the pallottine with crushed tomatoes and spices, leaving out the other meats. My thinking was that 3 pounds of tiny meatballs will still add loads of meaty flavor to the resulting sugo.
Some claim that Chitarra con Pallottini is a dish from the Piedmont region in the north from the early 20th century. In Abruzzo people have been making and eating pallottini since the early 1800s, a full 100 years earlier. To add to the confusion, a recent report by an Italian expert in archeological gastronomy discovered a Piedmont recipe in a monk's cookbook dated 1344 that described tiny meatballs used in a rice and pork blood dish. Wherever it stemmed from, this dish is unique and well worth making...
Since I didn't have a Chitarra when I made this recipe, I used some 3/4 inch wide tagliatelle for my dish. I also changed up the recipe a bit from the originals I found. They tend to use nothing but ground beef, one egg and a sprinkle of nutmeg to make the pallottini. I wanted to add a bit more flavor, so I added a very small minced of garlic (in a jar, imported from Italy) and since these meatballs were SO tiny, I couldn't use fresh diced onions as I do in normal sized polpette. Instead, I used dried onion flakes, knowing they would re-hydrate when added to the meat mixture.
I won't get into the recipe for the traditional Sugo here, but if you like, you can make my recipe HERE. Otherwise, for a fresher sauce, make a quick marinara with crushed tomatoes, a bit of sugar, and a decent amount of dried basil.
3 pounds of lean, chopped (minced) chuck/beef
2 tablespoons dried onion flakes
2 teaspoon minced garlic (in jar)
2 tablespoons fine sea salt
40 cracks fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 beaten egg
In a large mixing bowl, mix the minced chuck with the beaten egg, the minced garlic and all the other dry spices. Get in there with your hands and mix really well, until you are certain that each and every tiny meatball will get an assortment of garlic, onion flakes and other spices.
Lay out several sheets of wax paper on your work counter and start making the pallotine. If using your bare hands, barely pinch a little bit of meat mixture in between the tips of your thumb and two forefingers. Roll the meat into a ball shape between your palms. As I mentioned, the pallottine should be less than 3/4 inch around. If you want to try a 1/4 teaspoon measure, this might help to measure out a smaller amount.
Once you finished making all of the pallottine, heat a large saute pan with light olive oil filled to a depth of 3/4 inch deep. If you would like to brown the pallottine a bit more, you can use half the amount of oil, but you will have to pay much more attention to turning them as they brown. These tiny balls cook quickly!
Cook them in batches and remove with a slotted spoon, then place on a large baking tray covered with several layers of paper towels to drain.
When completed, you can place them in your marinara or Sugo and slowly simmer for about 1-1/2 hours or longer if you are adding them to a Sugo with several other meats.
So, the next time someone claims there is no such thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy, try winning a bar bet with your knowledge of Pallottine!
P.S. When I get my Chitarra tool, I'll update this article with photos of the Pallottine on top of fresh made Pasta alla Chitarra.
An many might know, each year for St. Patrick's Day we make a Shepherd's Pie and Irish Soda Bread to celebrate. I usually forget to "wear the green" and my son Lucas usually reminds me, but we still enjoy our Irish food, Celtic music and some stout.
Above is a photo of this year's efforts, still steaming from the oven. I gave it an Italian look of gnocchi on the top by using a pastry bag with the larges flat tip I own, with teeth running along it's 2" length. The texture of the potatoes gave a nice crispy surface. This was made in a 12" ceramic deep dish pie plate and weighed about 5 pounds when done. We had two meals out of it, and Lucas had a thermos-full for his school lunch on another day. I was considering topping a pizza with some of the leftovers, but thought that would be going too far...
For the original Shepherd's Pie recipe HERE.
For the recipe for Lisa's Soda Bread, click HERE.