Braised Meatballs with Polenta

Don’t tell Great Grandma Turano, whose namesake meatballs have been the default in our house for decades, but we’ve been silently betraying her for the last year and half. It all started when I read about Anna Francese Gass and hergrandmother’s meatballs, featured in Gass’s 2019 cookbook Heirloom Kitchen: Heritage Recipes and Family Stories from the Tables of Immigrant Women. The recipe has roots in Calabria, and calls for braising the meatballs in a simple basil-garlic infused tomato sauce. In other words, there is no browning the meatballs before they simmer, a step in Great Grandma Turano’s recipe (and in my own Abruzzi-hailing mom’s recipe) that I had always thought was crucial for imparting depth and flavor. Well, I’m sorry to say that the first time I simmered up a batch of these, I was so pleasantly distracted by the addictively tender texture of the meatball that I didn’t notice anything missing at all. (And I don’t even use the fatty veal-beef-pork mixture Gass calls for — I almost alway go with ground dark turkey.) Last weekend, though, feeling heavy with guilt about ignoring our own heirloom meatballs all this time, I decided to apply the braising technique to the flagship recipe, and served the resulting tender, saucy meatballs over creamy polenta. I think even Great Grandma would’ve approved.

Braised Meatballs with Polenta
I find these meatballs are almost too fragile to hold their own alongside a sturdy pasta — I prefer eating them with polenta or on a bed of steamed garlicky spinach with or without a hunk of bread. Serves 4 with leftovers.

For the sauce:
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Red pepper flakes
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 small can tomato paste
1 tablespoon sugar
2 15-ounce cans tomato puree (or diced tomatoes)
2 tablespoons oregano
Few pinches fennel seeds
Small handful thyme or basil

In a Dutch oven, saute onion and garlic and a few red pepper flakes in olive oil over medium low heat until onions are soft and just starting to turn golden. Add tomato paste and sugar and stir, mashing paste and onion mixture together, about 1-2 minutes. Fill empty tomato paste can with water and add to pot, stirring until mixed, another 1-2 minutes. Pour in tomatoes, oregano, fennel, and thyme or basil, and stir. Simmer lazily over low heat, uncovered, for as long as you want: the longer the better. If the sauce gets too thick, add a little water.

For the meatballs:

2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
1 cup shredded Parm
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
Few pinches fennel seeds
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground pepper

In a large bowl, combine meat, bread crumbs, eggs, Parm, parsley, fennel, salt and pepper. Mash together with hands until thoroughly combined. Roll into balls (the size of golf balls) and set aside on a plate. When all the meatballs are shaped, add them to the sauce, and simmer, cooking over medium-low heat for at least 30 minutes. (It’s always a good idea to test one meatball to ensure doneness.)

For the Polenta:

4 cups stock (chicken or vegetable) or water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal 
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup freshly grated Parm

In a medium pot, bring the stock and salt to a boil, then reduce to a simmer over low heat. Add the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, whisking continuously so it doesn’t clump. Continue to stir until the polenta starts pulling away from the sides of the pan, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the heat. Toss in the butter and cheese, and stir until both are melted.

To serve:

Divide the polenta among four bowls. (If the polenta has sat for too long, it might have set — just stir in a little water to loosen.) Top with meatballs, sauce, a little more Parm, and a drizzle of good olive oil.

I’m ready for the scaffolding to come down in our apartment!

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One Comment

E E Deere

Jenny, this is just the ticket. The older I get the less I want to brown meatballs. And I frequently cook for a person with braces, so soft polenta is a great idea.
I may serve this in big soup plates. A ring of spinach around the edge oof the bowl, polenta covering the rest of the dish’s bottom, and then meatballs on top.

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