Meatballs (whether based on meat, or fish, cheese, vegetables or any other ingredients) are traditionally the best, most delicious, most cost-effective way of using up leftovers. This ancient practice is based on the wisdom of the women who used to have to run households with meager budgets, feeding a large number of mouths with the minimum expense.
These days, the reuse of leftovers might seem an old-fashioned, obsolete practice, given how wastefully we consume, throwing everything away without a thought. Instead, we could be using our intelligence and creativity to come up ways to transform leftovers into tasty new meals.
Making meatballs has the extra advantage of being an inherently relaxing activity, the repetitive, slow actions giving our brains a chance to go on holiday, leaving our thoughts free to wander.
Let’s also not forget that meatballs require time to rest. In Massimo Montanari’s book Let the Meatballs Rest, he describes “the interval of time in which it is as though the mixture we have lovingly prepared acquires flavor and pleasantness on the palate from the beneficial contamination of the resting ingredients all mixed together.”
Whatever the ingredients, the most important thing is to combine them so that they acquire the correct consistency to be formed into balls that will stay together while being cooked. Otherwise you might find yourself regretting having launched the whole meatball-making project.
Rather than talking about set recipes, we prefer to give procedures and tips for anyone making meatballs that can be adopted to whatever ingredients they have to hand.
MEATBALLS USING LEFTOVER BOILED MEAT
In Romagna, meat broth used to be common throughout the winter and spring, usually served with the addition of pasta and making regular appearances at Sunday lunches and on religious holidays: cappelletti in broth on Christmas Day, passatelli in broth during Easter, and so on.
Keep a few pieces of meat from the broth, perhaps the tougher ones leftover from the plate of boiled meats, and all the vegetables that ended up in the pot to flavor the broth (celery, carrots, onions).
Grind the meat very finely, together with the well-drained, cooked vegetables, a few sprigs of parsley, a clove of garlic and if there’s a slice of mortadella hiding in the fridge, then add that too, why not!
That’s the base for the mixture; now add a fistful of grated Parmesan or pecorino or some other kind of aged, hard cheese.
The next step is to give the meatball mixture some softness, and this can be done by adding one or two boiled, mashed potatoes, two or three spoonfuls of ricotta or some other soft cheese (we use Raviggiolo).
Sometimes in the osteria we like adding a few spoonfuls of room-temperature, cooked polenta instead of the potatoes, or some spoonfuls of béchamel leftover from the Sunday lasagna.
Nonna Gina, the inspirational muse behind our meatballs, used to say that now it was time to add “un ovetto,” a little egg. Add an egg, add salt and pepper to taste and work everything together with your hands, enjoying this moment of direct contact with the food. Feel like a child playing with clay, earth or wet sand.
Now it’s time for the mixture to rest, as described earlier. Then everything will be ready to start forming the meatballs: small, large, round, squashed… as you prefer.
Dip them in beaten egg, slightly salted, and then in breadcrumbs. Once fried in a light oil, they’ll have that crunchy crust so beloved of meatball fans.
Fry the meatballs in very hot oil for just a few minutes, because apart from the egg, all the other ingredients are already cooked. If you prefer to cook them in the oven, you can also skip the egg and breadcrumb coating.
The meatballs can then be eaten straight, perhaps with some vegetables, or they can be returned to the pan and cooked in a sauce.
To do this, prepare a tomato sauce with fresh peas, blanched spinach, cauliflower florets or whatever else is in season in a large frying pan. Return the famous meatballs to the hot sauce, and prepare to enjoy a dish of unimaginable dignity, given the ordinary leftovers that have gone into its making. Now… buon appetito!
MEATLESS MEATBALLS WITH SEASONAL VEGETABLES
Vegetables are well suited to being transformed into meatless meatballs, which are no less succulent and delicious than those based on meat.
Spinach, chard, cardoons, cauliflower, Savoy cabbage, celery, fennel and many others can all become the star of your meatballs or a variety of leftover vegetables can be happily mixed together.
SPINACH, CHARD, CABBAGE AND RAVIGGIOLO MEATBALLS
The best way to make flavorful meatballs is to finely chop all the vegetables and sauté them in a frying pan together with a spring onion or a whole clove of garlic.
If the greens have already been steamed, just sauté them briefly in the pan with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and adjust the salt and pepper.
The meatballs we make in the osteria include cooked greens, sautéed in the pan until any excess liquid has evaporated; Raviggiolo and ricotta, fresh but not too wet (drain off the whey before using); a few spoonfuls of soft cheese (in Romagna we use Squacquerone but you can use any other soft cheese); a handful of Parmesan or another aged cheese; breadcrumbs and an egg.
If the ingredients seem too wet when you start mixing them together, add some more breadcrumbs.
Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour, so that it becomes nicely compact, and then form the meatballs, taking care not to take all of the mixture out of the fridge at the same time, but taking small amounts and leaving the rest to chill.
Finally dip the meatballs in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, then fry them over high heat for a minute.
The high temperature of the oil will give a crunchy crust, serving as a delicious casing for the tender heart of your meatballs.
In the osteria, we like to serve them on top of a puree of seasonal vegetables. You could use pumpkin and potatoes, zucchini, zucchini flowers, potatoes and fresh thyme or whatever you like.
In the spring, we add acacia flowers to the mixture. The small white flowers give the meatballs a unique fragrance and flavor.