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