Tag Archives: salsa

A comforting dish of meatballs and polenta

What am I doing, writing this on one of the hottest days of the year? But English weather is so variable that you may need this in a couple of days. You can, of course, eat this when it’s hot, and we do. But it is particularly comforting on a day when you need succour – be it due to weather or weariness. I can’t over play how delicious this is, and how easy if you make it in stages – which I do.

I have also been meaning to write this up for some years, ever since I saw the Chiappa sisters make this on TV. (I have since adapted it slightly.)

After reading about a brilliant piece about the nitrates in our meat, written by the excellent Bee Wilson I realised that I had become really lazy about making meatballs and burgers. Which is shocking given my heritage.

My mother has never ever bought shop bought burgers or meatballs. And although she now allows herself the luxury of buying ready-minced meat, she also – until fairly recently – used to mince all the meat herself. It was the only way she could be absolutely sure of the cut of the meat used for mince.

My mother is a goat farmer’s daughter and when I was growing up and went shopping with her, she would tell the butcher not only exactly how she liked her meat cut, but where off the animal she wanted it cut and he utterly bowed to her expertise – she not only did this in butcher shops but she also used to do it in Sainsbury’s. Sainsbury’s – back then – used to have a phone over the chilled meat counter and you could ring up and speak to the butcher in the back (oh for those days!). She would pick up the receiver and he would recognise her voice and he would say “coming out Mrs Barbieri” and he would come out and meet her where the back of the shop met the shop floor, where the big plastic curtains were – and she would say, in her heavily accented voice, exactly how he was to cut the meat for our dinner. I used to baulk slightly at the time it all took, but even then, I would be awed at her expertise and the way he listened to her. And this was a time when not everyone did listen, because speaking in accented English – some thought – marked you out as stupid.

You see how far I’ve come, blithely slinging ready made meatballs and burgers into my trolley. All be them from Waitrose and free range and organic etc.

So now I make my own, thanks in no small part to Bee’s piece, in bulk. And I freeze them in vacuum packs. And of a morning when no-one can decide what to eat that night, or be bothered to shop, it is with high levels of smugness that I can then pull them out of the freezer to defrost.

Shall we get on with the recipe?

You can make much of this in advance and bring it all together at time of eating. This is what I do. Note I make double of the sauce and meatballs and freeze for another time. As the recipe stands it makes enough for four modest eaters. You have to make the polenta at the time of eating.

The sauce

2 red peppers, de-seeded, chopped

4 ish tomatoes, of medium size, quartered

3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled (less or more if you hate/love it) – leave whole.

A few sprigs of thyme

Salt, pepper, olive oil

Heat oven to 180C. Put the two chopped peppers, the four quartered tomatoes and the 3-4 whole cloves of garlic in a bowl. Sprinkle some salt and pepper over the top and about two tablespoons of olive oil and mix all together, then put on a baking tray and cook for about 20 minutes. I find this is massively variable as sometimes the veg puts out a lot of water, but you’re looking for the veg to be soft and a bit golden in parts.

When done, let cool slightly and then blend to a thick sauce in a blender. Don’t worry about the skin of the peppers, you don’t need to take it off. You can use immediately or keep it in the fridge for a couple of days (or freeze the whole lot). Heat up before using.

The meatballs (or, for another time, burgers)

This is a fantastic recipe, generally, for meatballs (polpette) or burgers and it’s the only one I now use. It makes a very well flavoured meatball/burger, but I do sometimes leave out the parmesan (or put less in) and the fennel seeds if I want something just really simple and plain. I would, however, urge you to make the proper version for this dish however as the polenta doesn’t have as much parmesan in it as some recipes.

I do have a bit of an important note which is – put all the ingredients in a food mixer and pulse together until smooth. Sharp eyed readers will know I do this with my meatloaf, because – if I know what’s in it – I do really prefer a very smooth ground burger/sausage/etc.

You’ll need:

250g of really good pork mince (organic, free range, farm assured)

250g of same quality beef

100g of grated parmesan (I buy mine in bulk, grate it and freeze it grated)

1 clove of garlic if you like it

100g of breadcrumbs

2 eggs, medium sized

a handful of chopped parsley

1 teaspoon of ground up fennel seeds

half a teaspoon of salt

a good grinding of black pepper

Oil to fry.

So I basically bung all the ingredients, bar the oil, into my Magimix and pulse away until it’s all smooth. But if you want, just mix in a bowl with a wooden spoon.

You then shape into meatballs/burgers and either cook immediately or freeze/fridge until needed. They keep in the fridge for as long as the sell-by date is on the meat. I make the meatballs into walnut size and the burgers I have a burger press for and they are, I guess, quarter pounder size.

What I do with the meatballs is fry them gently, but then finish them off in the sauce when I’m reheating it. This stops them having a super hard crust which I don’t like. But if you fry them super gently they should be okay. About ten minutes frying should do it for the meatballs. 12 minutes for burgers.

For the polenta

200g of fast cook polenta – for the love of God don’t use any other kind.

A knob of butter

800ml of cold water

2 handfuls of grated parmesan

a pinch of salt if you really want (but I find the parmesan salty enough)

Put the 800ml of cold water, the 200g of polenta and the butter into a large pan and bring to the boil. When it comes to the boil, lower the heat and simmer for another minute. You do need to be present and whisking, but don’t be intimidated as the whole process takes minutes. As it simmers for that last minute and finishes its thickening, stir in the parmesan and salt if you want. Then it’s ready!

To serve, dollop spoonfuls of the polenta onto a plate, top with the hot sauce and the cooked meatballs. I serve with broccoli.

If you have any polenta left over, and no chickens to serve it to, then you can persuade it into a flat tin (it will get harder to handle as it cools), put in the fridge, then cut into finger shapes and shallow fry to make polenta chips.

But I have never done this.

I made burgers from this and served it in brioche buns made from this recipe (obvs leae out the chocolate chips) and they were, hands down, the best burgers I have ever eaten.

 

The very best tomato sauce for pasta.

In Italy, August is the month of  ‘i pomodori’. Where they make pasta sauce for the whole coming year. The tomatoes are boiled, ‘passati’ (literally ‘passed’ through a sieve), reboiled and bottled. There is a lovely video here which shows you.

Because it’s quite a job, it tends to be done with everyone pitching in. It’s very low-tech (or used to be). Because the raw materials are the sweetest tomatoes the salsa you get (or passata) is incredible.

I never hoped to reproduce that in the UK, but my mother makes a very keen contender in her kitchen, in central London. She has even made it in my kitchen. I have tried to replicate it, I have watched her do it. I have bought the exact same ingredients as her, but it’s never the same.

If I have frozen salsa, and I serve it up on some pasta at a later date, my children can tell, immediately, if it’s ‘Nonna’s salsa’ or mine. They say her secret ingredient is salt, and love. And it’s true I tend to under salt things. For this I didn’t and went large with the salt.

It was a secret shame of mine, that I couldn’t make salsa as good as hers or any of my Italian relatives. Not because there is any shame in it really, but because, well, I cook a lot and you’d think this simple thing would not be beyond me. I tried cooking with plum peeled tinned tomatoes, chopped tomatoes,  fresh tomatoes, roasted tomatoes (this does work very well but is another layer of work), passata, all of the above and added tomato puree to it…but nothing came close. It all tasted too ‘new’ and didn’t have that complex taste, it always had a ridge of acidity, and none of the thickness of my family’s salsa.

“You needa to cooka it for a long time,” my Ma says – to take the acid out of the tomatoes. But whenever I tried I burnt it.

This year, I decided I really needed to step up. My mum and all the female relatives who hold the secret to good salsa are all…getting on.

So this is what I did. It’s so simple I am embarrassed I never tried it before and you will be disappointed there is no real secret recipe. Well there is. The secret is it’s really simple.

Warning, you really need a slow cooker and I think this goes some way to compensate for the fact that you are not using super red, sweet tomatoes from southern Italy. I have this one and it is a wonderful bit of kit which I use regularly and thoroughly recommend.

You take:

A jar of passata, I use Cirio’s Passata Rustica, 680g

One onion

A big pinch of sea salt

A clove or two of garlic if you like, chopped

Some very good olive oil (the better the better) – don’t skimp, this gives the sauce flavour

That’s it. Don’t add water or anything else. You finely chop the onion and fry it in the olive oil. I do this in my slow cooker as it has a saute function. When soft, you add the garlic if using and cook for a minute or so. It is at this point I add the salt but you can add it at any point, even at the very end, but give it a good stir through.

If you can’t saute in your slow cooker, and have been doing this on the stove top in a pan, you now add the onion, garlic and any remaining oil to your slow cooker. Then the passata.

Put down the lid and you cook it in the slow cooker, on low, for hours. At least six but 12 if you can. Then you take it out, cool it, use it all at once or store it in glass jars in the fridge (it keeps for a good few days) or freezer.

You can easily double/triple etc this recipe so you can make a batch up every few weeks and store it in the freezer so you are always good to go. And you will always have super-wonderful home made salsa for your pasta or pizza or whatever.

You can add herbs later but honestly, you just don’t need to. Yesterday I did as above, but cut up some sausages and stuck them in (lightly sauted first but you don’t need to) – you could also put meatballs in. I cooked it overnight for 12 hours and it was superb on pasta for lunch.