The Tyrian Chef’s Guild strikes again! Once more, the delicious library at my cooking station in Lion’s Arch compelled me to tackle a dish along the “Classic” lines~ I suppose this one sounds very familiar to… well everyone, the term “Meatball Spaghetti“ buzzing around in heads around the world on autopilot. Classic italian dish… right? Wait, what’s that… that rattling noise… Oh, yes, that’s a horde of Risen, italian chefs no less, aiming to hit you over the head with rusty frying pans without further ado.
Well, while both components are Italian indeed, this well known combination is not. This widely beloved dish is nothing more than a romantic idea, planted into our heads by Walt Disney and nurtured by the food industry. <insert tip to the hat to the masterminds at the big food marketing offices> Not that this fact makes it less delicious, though~ Here’s a tidbit of foodology anyways: In a classic italian order of courses, meatballs are considered a „meat course“ which customarily follows a small „pasta course“ – and, as different courses, they don’t belong together. But, foodology aside, I suppose hardly anyone really cares about the white-tablecloth-rules of traditional course orders or fine dining when there’s a deliciously steaming, yumtastic mountain of pasta, just waiting to be conquered, in front of them~
This one popped into my head a while ago, when I was getting ready to prepare a batch of meatballs to add some substance to a light salad’y lunch. I couldn’t resist the impulse and decided to go big on the amount and prep more meatballs for a Guild-Wars-Style dinner to surprise my less-opposed-to-pasta better half.
The almonds might seem a little unusual unless you’re familiar with regional tweaks to traditional italian recipes. I’ve got to admit, I only remembered this tweak thanks to a sort of an accident… During my impromtu double-the-amounts-shopping trip, I managed to skillfully avoid buying more bread or breadcrumbs. As I was racking my brain for possible substitutes back home, in an attempt to spare me a trip back to the store, I remembered having read something, somewhere, about traditional Polpette alla Fiorentina containing almonds. I coulnd’t remember how, how many and in what form the almonds were used though, in addition to pulling up blanks as to where exactly I had come by that particular piece of info. I found what I was looking for in a small box containing a stack of recipes friends had sent to my grandmother way back in the days. The first page was missing but a small note in the margins said something along the lines of „my friend from tuscany substitutes half or all of the bread in her Polpette with ground almonds“. Go me, for turning my bookcase upside down for 2 hours in order to unearth this hastily scribbled note… to avoid hoofing to the store again… oh well~!
2 Tbsp Herbed Chiabatta Breadcrumbs
A few Tbsp of Skimmed Milk
2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
400g lean Minced Beef
3 small Cloves of Garlic, very finely chopped
2 Tbsp Blanched Almonds, toasted and ground – if you can’t find those in the baking section of your usual supermarket, buy whole ones, blanch and skin them, toast them in a dry pan until they turn a pretty golden-brown color, then blitz them into a pile of coarse crumbles in your food processor once they’ve cooled off
4-5 Tbsp ground Almonds – in addition to the amount above. You’ll use these to dust the finished meatballs with before popping them into the pan
1 Tsp dried Basil
1 Tsp dried Oregano
1 Tsp Fennel Seeds
Sea Salt and freshly cracked Mixed Peppercorns to taste
2 heaped Tbsp of Parmesan, freshly grated
1) Tip the breadcrumbs into a small mixing bowl.
2) Pour just enough milk into the bowl to cover the crumbs and set them aside to soak for about 15 mins.
3) Place the minced beef into a larger bowl and add the dried herbs, almonds, garlic and parmesan.
4) Squeeze any excess milk out of the breadcrumbs, then add them to the mince.
5) Dig in~! Literally, this time – use your hands to knead and mix the ingredients until everything comes together nicely and all of the spices are well incorporated. Season the mix with salt and pepper while you’re at it. If you’re squeamish about using your bare hands, use CSI gloves or just get over it since you’re going to have to roll the balls with your hands as well – spoons really don’t work in this case.
6) If the mixture seems too wet to keep it’s future ball’ish shape, add another dusting of ground almonds and mix the lot again. Set the bowl aside for about 10 mins, giving the salt and almonds some time to work their magic and bind the “dough” a bit further.
7) Shape the mixture into walnut-sized balls, dust them with just a little more ground almonds and set them onto a tray lined with baking parchment. Mini-meatballs or slightly larger, bite-sized ones work too, but have an extra eye on the temperature of your pan if you’re going down that road, otherwise they might turn dry.
8) Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan set onto medium-high. Fry the meatballs in 2-4 batches, depending on the size of your pan, to avoid crowding the pan and thereby lowering the temperature to a point where the meatballs cook instead of frying.
9) Turn them regularely and fry until they are golden all around. By the way, they let you know when they’re ready to be turned~! Pick a target and lightly poke it with whatever tool you have at hand. If it rolls over obligingly, you’ve hit the mark. If it insists on sticking to the pan and threatens to break apart, give it a few blinks and try again.
10) Once they’re nicely browned and crispy all around, take them out of the pan one by one and place them on a tray or large plate lined with paper towels to soak up excess fat. Cover them with aluminum foil and set them aside for the time being.
11) Reduce the heat to medium and move on to the sauce~
2 Shallots, finely diced
2 Cloves of Garlic, finely chopped
½ Red Chilli, finely sliced
A Splash of white wine
2 x 400g canned Plum or San Marzano Tomatoes
1 Bunch of Basil, tightly tied together with a piece of butcher’s string
1 Tbsp fresh Oregano, finely chopped
1 Tbsp Mild Olive Oil
Sea Salt and freshly cracked Black Pepper
1) Add the olive oil to the pan and use a rubber spatula to loosen all of the leftover roasting aromas sticking to the bottom of the pan.
2) Add the shallots, garlic and chilli and sautée them for about 3 minutes until they start to soften up.
3) Deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine, then add the tomatoes along with the whole bunch of basil. You don’t need to chop it or pick off the leaves, this only serves as an infusion to the sauce, you will discard it later.
4) Add the oregano and leave the sauce to simmer for 5-10 minutes to reduce and thicken.
5) Pick out the basil, have a taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper – be careful with the salt though, the parmesan you’ll be finishing the dish off with adds more of that as well.
6) Once that’s done, reduce the heat to medium-low, gently set the meatballs into the sauce, cover the pan with a lid and let the lot simmer for another 10 min.
7) Meanwhile, get your pasta going – freshly made Tagliatelle are perfect for this one~
8) My carb-free alternative for things like this is usually composed of whatever veggies I feel like that day, thinly sliced and blanched. This time, I went with a bunch of bell peppers and king oyster mushrooms. Yum~!
Assembling the Dish
A couple of fresh Basil Leaves – just pick a couple off of the bunch destined to season the sauce before popping it in
freshly grated Parmesan
A drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1) Once your pasta or its replacement is almost done, take the meatballs out of the sauce again.
2) Move the pasta out of its cooking water while they’re just short of al dente, and, after giving them a quick shake, into the pan holding the sauce.
3) Flip them in the sauce, cover them with the lid and leave them to rest for 5 mins in the hot pan – don’t place the pan back on the stove at this point. The residual heat will finish cooking them while they soak up the sauce. If the contents of the pan appear to get too dry during that time, add just a little of the cooking water to the pan and flip the pasta again.
4) Divide the pasta and the sauce onto serving plates.
5) Arrange the meatballs and some basil leaves on and around the pasta heaps, drizzle some olive oil on top, and sprinkle them with some freshly grated parmesan just before serving.