MEAT BALLS or POLPETTE (PURPETTI CU’ SUCU, Sicilian)

I love the Italian language – polpettine, polpette, polpettone, much better than small meatballs, meatballs and meatloaf. (Polpette from polpa, meaning flesh). The Sicilian word for meatballs is purpetti, and even better.

I had bought some beef mince (my butcher selects the meat, shows it to me and then puts it through his mincing machine in front of me – no additives, no preservatives) and I was going to use it to make a fausu magro – a large braciola stuffed with hard boiled egg, mortadella and cheese and braised in tomato passata).

Usually this dish is made with a large slice of beef topside, (a lean cut of beef I buy in Australia) but some Sicilians use mince and I wanted to see what amount of stuffing the mince would tolerate without falling apart in the cooking.  My mother used to cook a large unstuffed meatloaf which was partly based on the cuisine from Trieste where we lived. She called it a polpettone (Italian name for meatloaf) and rightly so because sometimes she braised or baked it using a little white wine and some stock for moisture rather than using tomatoes.

Then a friend arrived unexpectedly from interstate and I had no time to prepare the fausu magru so I made large meatballs instead. It only took about 15 minutes to make the meatballs – they were great.

If you look at recipes for making meatballs, they are always sealed (sautéed in hot extra virgin olive oil) before the braising liquid is added (passata or tomato paste and water) but not this time. A Sicilian friend of my mother’s once told her that where she came from (Agrigento) meatballs were dropped unsealed in the hot tomato based sauce – this results in a much lighter dish. The other thing I did was to add cinnamon sticks and bay leaves to the braising liquid.

As a teenager I had a friend who was from Calabria and her mother would always add sultanas to her polpette. For a short time I also lived next door to a family from Naples. The signora added sultanas and cinnamon to her mixture – my mother was even more horrified about this – obviously this was not part of the Sicilian cuisine that my grandmother knew (my grandmother was born in Catania, on the east coast of Sicily). Both the Calabrese and Napoletana women seemed to add a large proportion of bread to their mixture, much more than I was used to in my mother’s kitchen.

I have checked my many resources and there are Sicilian recipes that list ground cinnamon, dried grapes (currants or raisins or sultanas) and pine nuts in the meatball mixture, as well as the usual ingredients used to make meatballs all over Italy: breadcrumbs (usually soaked in water or milk beforehand and squeezed dry), grated cheese (parmesan or pecorino, depending which part of Italy you come from), salt, pepper, nutmeg, raw egg and a little chopped parsley.

I even found a version in Giuseppe Coria’s Profumi Di Sicilia which lists amaretti biscuits, whole pine nuts and ground pistachio nuts, cinnamon and sultanas as part of the meatball mixture (I can see more meatballs coming!)

Meatballs, of course, were eaten throughout Italy way back in time, and in many other parts of the world, too (maybe not always shaped like a ball) – think of the Greek (sometimes with powdered cloves) and the Middle Eastern lamb variations with coriander and cumin; Swedish meatballs with a cream gravy (tomato-less and much like my mother’s version of polpettone); Vietnemese meatballs with pork mince, water chestnuts and fish sauce; or the Chinese lion head and the oversized pork meatballs from Shanghai cooked in a clay pot. (I could go on, but it is not appropriate for a blog.)

INGREDIENTS

minced beef, 600g
eggs, 2
fresh bread crumbs (from 2 slices good quality sourdough white bread, crusts removed)
cinnamon sticks, 2
grated pecorino cheese, a small handful
salt and pepper
nutmeg, grated, a pinch
parsley, 1-2 tablespoons, sliced finely
bay leaves, 2-3
sun dried sultanas, a small handful
pine nuts, a small handful
extra virgin olive oil, a good splash
passata, 1-2 bottles( or tomato paste and water or tinned tomato)
garlic, 1-2 large cloves, whole
oregano, dried, a pinch

 

PROCESSES

Mix minced meat, cheese, eggs, bread, parsley, salt and pepper and nutmeg together, add pine nuts and sultanas and shape into balls (mine were large- tennis ball size – I was in a hurry).
Place passata, oil and garlic, a little salt and pepper, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and oregano (or fresh basil which I try to do without in winter) in a pan and bring to the boil.
Drop the balls in gently, turn down the heat and do not stir or turn them over for at least 10 minutes (prevent breakage). I like to have the meatballs completely covered with liquid.
Poach them on low heat until cooked (approx. 30mins).

They smell good too and unsurprisingly, the sauce can be used to dress the pasta, the meatballs are presented as second course.

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5 thoughts on “MEAT BALLS or POLPETTE (PURPETTI CU’ SUCU, Sicilian)”

  1. As usual, delicious! Yes, polpette always popular. I also make a polpettone which may be a cross with fausu magru. Taught to me by my Piemontese mother in law it consists of a large piece of topside or two joined together a layer of polpette mince then a row of hardboiled eggs. Rolled tied then braised in a tomato based sauce. Do you know of this one?

  2. No, I do not, but there are many versions. The one I know is stuffed with sausage mince…..similar. I like the idea of 2 pieces of topside joined together-often the slices of meat are not big enough.

    Do you know about “Cima Genovese”. My Piedmontese aunt who lived in Genova used to make it. A pocket is cut into a breast of yearling and stuffed with sweetbreads, eggs, parmesan, peas, marjoram and other goodies. It is then poached in broth. Wonderful.
    Marisa
    I only made it once- keeping the filling inside was difficult.
    Buon appetito!

  3. I grew up in NJ and all of my Sicilian (American) friends’ mothers made their meatballs w/ raisins!
    My Jewish grandmother always stuffed her cabbage w/ raisins and ground beef.
    I enjoy your blog very much!

  4. Stacey, how interesting.My mother’s family came from Catania, my father’s from Ragusa and whenever I have asked them, they say they are not familiar with this practice – Sicily is a relatively small island, yet the variations in the cuisine is very evident.
    Last night I ate fried peppers with a sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs- not just for decoration but to absorb the juices and to add texture. This person’s grandmother had always done this, one more thing I have never seen my relatives do.
    Thanks Stacey.
    Marisa

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