The first time I had this dish was with my son Daniel. We were on a week long eating and walking tour of NYC. Daniel and I had both researched restaurants and pastry shops but one of the best meals we had, which was not on our list, was at Vinateria in Harlem. I ordered an amazing whole grilled Branzino and the young daughter of our friends had meatballs on a bed of Polenta. She gave me a bite and I dreamt about them for the next two days: tender little meatballs the size of a walnut on a creamy, cheesey bed of polenta with a bright tomatoe sauce. We went back the night before we left and when I returned home I vowed to recreate them as best I could.
So, here is my version and I think it’s pretty close, but it will never replace the meal I had at this neighborhood bistro with my son, my childhood friend, her lovely husband and charming daughter.
Many of these components can be made ahead of time. The sauce can be made in advance and frozen. I make a lot of this sauce in August when the tomatoes are at their peak and I can use locally grown Roma tomatoes. You will not get the same result with supermarket tomatoes. The meatballs can be mixed and shaped a day ahead of time and then rolled in flour and fried the day you want to serve. The meatballs can also be mixed, shaped fried and placed in the tomato sauce a day or two ahead. I think they actually improve with a 24 hour rest in the sauce. I have also frozen the meatnalls cooked and in sauce. They defrost quite well.
Make The Tomato Sauce: (variation from Marcella Hazan)
- 2.5 pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes
- 5 Tablespoons of european style or cultured butter. I like Kerry gold but President, and Organic Valley Cultured butter are also good. You can use Land O Lakes or a store brand butter but the result will not be as good.
- 1/2 of a large sweet yellow onion
Wash tomatoes and cut them in half. Remove skin from onion but leave the onion half whole and still attached to the stem. Melt the butter in a wide shallow pan, like a sautee pan. Add the tomatoes and onion and cook, uncovered until the butter floats to the top and the tomatoes are soft and falling apart, about 1 hour. Remove the onions and peel,the skin off the tomatoes. Pass the tomatoes through a food mill, using the disc with the largest wholes.
Make the Meatballs
- 2/3 pound Veal, ground 3X
- 1/3 pound fresh whole milk hand dipped Ricotta cheese ( absolutely not the stuff that comes in a plastic tub. It’s grainy even if you force it through a sieve. If you can’t find hand dipped either make your own or make something else.)
- 1 large egg
- 1/3 cup Freshly grated Parmiggiano Reggiano cheese
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 tablespoon minced parsley
- Extra Virgin olive oil
- canola oil
Remove Ricotta from it’s tin and spread it out to be about 2″ thick on a paper towel. Place another paper towel on top and gently pat it on the ricotta. When there paper towels become wet, change the paper towels. This removes some moisture from the cheese. Do this a few more times until you’re not getting a lot of moisture. You can also place the cheese in a sieve, place it over a bowl and let it sit overnight in your fridge. Make sure you cover the cheese with Sara wrap so it doesn’t pick up odors from the refrigerator.
For a more delicate meat ball mix together ricotta, egg, veal, parmesan, minced parsley, salt and pepper and mix with your hands until completely homogenized. For a sturdier meatball you can throw the ingredients in a kitchen aid and let it mix on low for about 5 minutes, with the flat beater. Test the seasoning by making a tiny patty and frying it in olive oil. Adjust seasoning as necessary. You can add up to a teaspoon more salt, and a few more tablespoons of cheese, although be aware that there is Parmesan cheese in the polenta. Take an ice cream scoop that holds approximately 2 tablespoons, scoop out a level scoop, roll it between the palms of your hand until it’s round and put it on a tray. Do this with the rest of the meat. Let chill 1 hour.
Roll each meatball in flour and fry in 1.5″ of oil until all the sides are brown. Don’t crowd the pan. Do the browning in several batches, changing the oil if it gets too floury or dark. I like to use 50/50 canola oil and olive oil because canola oil has a higher smoking point and keeps the olive oil from burning. When the meatballs are done put them in the sauce and let them hang out until you are ready to use them.
Make the Polenta
- 1 2/3 cups polenta (not instant!)
- 7 cups water
- 2 tsp salt
Bring water and salt to a boil. Slowly pour polenta in with one hand while wisking with the other. Many suggest making a fist around a handful of the polenta and letting it fall through your fingers. I find that awkward. I just put some in a beakered measuring cup and pour slowly. You should be pouring so slowly you can see individual grains. Stir for two minutes. Now, at this point you can stand over the pot and stir for forth minutes or you can follow an alternative technique as follows. Adjust the heat so it is at a simmer and cover the pot. Cook 10 minutes then uncover the pot and stir for one minute. Continue this sequence of cooking covered for 10 minutes and stirring for one minute until 40 minutes have elapsed. It should be a soft creamy mass. If it’s not, let it cook for a few more minutes covered. Add two tablespoons of unsalted butter butter and a bit of grated Parmesan cheese to the polenta. Use immediately.
Some feel that you get the best texture from constant,y stirring but I use the alternative method and am very happy with it.
Place a ladlefull of polenta into a shallow rimmed soup bowl or a flat plate. Add some tomatoe sauce and a few Meatballs. Garnish with basil. Once you’ve plated everything pour the rest of the polenta onto clean cutting board and let cool. The next day you can make polenta fingers by cutting the polenta, rolling them in cornmeal and frying them in 50/50 canola and olive oil. Sprinkle them with Parmesan cheese.