Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Origin stories

This might be the recipe that started it all. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

A couple of months after I got married, I took a day off work so I could help my mother make a batch of meatcakes – or really, watch her make them and write down everything she was doing, so that I could replicate it in my own kitchen. Even though I’d been watching her (or my grandmother) make them all my life, and eating the results, I wasn’t sure about meaurements, the precise order of assembly, and a number of other details. Since my mother made them out of her own head, the way her mother had done, and had taught her, there was no documented form of the recipe. And since I’ve never come across another version of meatcakes that are quite like my family’s meatcakes, I wanted to be absolutely sure I could replicate it.
Even the name is different. Most other people I know make meatballs. We make meatcakes – ours are not round, but oblong, and flat on the top and the bottom. The word my grandmother used for them always sounded to me like bubette; it was only after I started studying Italian in college, and came across the word polpette with a shock of recognition, that I made the connection between standard Italian terminology and my grandmother’s typical Calabrian twist on pronunciation.

I’m not sure my mother remembers how to make meatcakes anymore. And that makes me more grateful than ever that I took the time to write this down 17 years ago and have carried it with me on my travels since then. Every time I make these, wherever I am, I feel as though I’ve got my mother and grandmother back in the kitchen with me for a little while. 

Polpette alla mia famiglia 
The texture of these is much lighter than most meatballs I’ve come across – almost fluffy on the inside, while the frying in olive oil gives a thick, crisp, dark brown crust on the outside. I love this crust so much that I don’t submerge my meatcakes in tomato sauce when we have them for dinner with pasta; I reheat them in the oven and eat them by themselves after I’ve finished my pasta.

~1.5 lbs firm Italian bread
3.5 lbs hamburger (at least 15% fat in the mix)
1 clove garlic
5-7 leaves fresh basil
11 eggs
1 lb pecorino romano cheese, grated
olive oil for frying

1. At least 48 hours before you want to make the meatcakes, cut the bread into large (about the size of your fist) chunks and leave out to get completely stale.

2. When you are ready to begin, submerge bread in a bowl of cold water to soak.

3. Break up hamburger in a large bowl; sprinkle the surface evenly with salt.

4. Mince garlic and scatter evenly over hamburger.

5. Shred basil and distribute evenly over hamburger.

6. Squeeze as much water out of bread as possible, one chunk at a time. Peel crust off, then break bread insides up over hamburger.

7. Pour oil ¼-inch deep in frying pan; heat on low.

8. Mix bread into meat with hands until mixture is a consistent pink color.

9. Mix in eggs, using a spoon.

10. Mix in cheese, about ¼ of the total at a time.

11. Shape mixture into oval patties, about 1½-inch thick, and as big as will fit into your cupped palm.

12. Place patties in oil.* Cook for 10-12 minutes total; turn patties over (towards the outside of pan) when they are browned evenly on the bottom (they should come away from the pan easily when ready to turn).

13. When fully cooked, remove meatcakes from pan and put on paper towels to drain. Repeat with remaining mixture until all patties have been cooked.

Yield: ~40 meatcakes
Total time: ~3 hours

* Turn oil up to medium heat after adding patties; turn to low or off to add, turn, or remove patties from pan. Oil will fizz increasingly as more meatcakes are cooked.


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