Growing up in the south of Italy means knowing the sea like your best friend. It is there, listening to your thoughts and comforting you with the sound of the waves rushing on the coast, hugging you with the gentle touch of the clear water, showing all its greatness below the dark surface.
It also means to be well aware of tides, if it is safe to sail a boat if the wind blows in a certain direction, where and when you have the best chances to go fishing.
The pungent smell of the sea, hated by most, is something that will always remind me of home and my previous life on the Mediterranean coast. It is interesting this thing about smells: what for somebody is just a fishy smell, to me is my childhood, my holidays, my place to think about an important decision.
My Italian home smells of fresh peaches and coffee, I remember waking up late when I was a student and looking forward to a delicious brunch made of fruits and espresso.
But on a Sunday, I would wake up with something even more tempting: the tomato sauce bubbling in the pot, the soffritto aroma still in the room, and the polpette sizzling on the pan. It is meatballs day, a glorious day where families, pre-Covid, used to gather together at lunch and enjoy these simple, yet delicious, little balls of meat, cheese and scrumptiousness (is that a word?).
Fun fact: Meatballs in Italy are a main, they are not served with spaghetti.
Today meatballs are always associated to Italy, but what not everybody knows is that they were originally invented in Persia. Persians had the koftas, little balls of minced meat, that they introduced to the Arab population when they conquered the Middle-East. When the Arabs conquered Spain, this dish became part of the Spanish culture, with the creation of the albondigas we all know today.
But the concept of meatballs, that can be summarised as minced meat flavoured with additional ingredients, is actually present in several culinary cultures: in Portugal, they are called almondegas, and they are made of minced beef, chorizo and spices; in Sweden they eat kotbullars, made of minced beef, pork, veal, to which they add onions and bread soaked in milk; the Norwegians lihapullat are quite similar but they also include reindeer meat.
Even in Italy itself, polpette are prepared differently in each region: in Milan, they are fried in butter; in Rome, they are served with tomato sauce; in Bologna they mix minced beef, pork and mortadella; in Trentino they are prepared with mashed potatoes and smoked pancetta.
They all sound delicious, and I can guarantee you that within the same city, each family will have a different recipe. So here is my favourite recipe, that I make on those Sundays when I miss the polpette ritual:
Ingredients for 12 polpette
-minced beef, 100g
-stale bread, 50g
-milk, couple of tablespoons
-sausage meat, 100g
-pinch of salt and pepper
-olive oil, 4 tablespoons
-parsley and oregano to spread on top
-tomato sauce, 170g
-frozen peas, 100g
- Put the bread in a blender to make some fine crumbs
- Mix together the breadcrumbs, meat, parmesan cheese, egg, salt and pepper
- Gradually add the milk, until you get a soft consistency. You might need to add a little bit more of milk, depending on the bread
- Take a tablespoon of the mixture, and form a little ball – keep doing it until you used up all the mixture
- Warm up the oil in a pan, and add the meatballs – let them fry a couple of minutes on each side
- Put the meatballs aside, and add the mushrooms and peas in the pan for 6-8 minutes
- Once cooked, add the tomato sauce and the meatballs, and let everything cook for 15 minutes at low temperature
- Preheat the oven at 200°
- Scatter the mozzarella on top of the meatballs
- Put the pan in the oven for 5-10 minutes
- Spread parsley and oregano on top and serve