Lemon Polpette with Spinach

I never thought I would like meatballs with lemon in them, but over the years I kept seeing recipes putting lemon in meatballs, so I thought I would give it a try. Now I hardly ever make any of my other standard meatball recipes— recipes that took many moons to perfect. Although there is some preparation involved with the meatballs, overall the dish keeps the simplicity I was looking for. Actually, after watching a show about tiny houses— the ones built on trailer beds— I realized this would work well for a tiny kitchen: you could easily do the meatballs in a toaster oven and you only need a two burner stove for the rest.

Options: The lemon goes really well with spinach and probably other greens too— maybe chard or kale. I’ve been alternating between two sauces: one is Marcella Hazan’s classic with the onion and butter— which I won’t put here since it’s easy to look up— and the other is a kind of basic sauce with a little wine kick. These meatballs are all beef, but you can make them with a combination of beef, veal, and pork, or you can make them with ground chicken or turkey— maybe even tofu. I’m using 90% organic grass-fed beef because I think it has the most tender texture and a really clean beef flavor. I also make this with a panade of crusty Tuscan bread soaked in milk, but you could substitute with Panko, bread crumbs, or saltines. I usually make this with gemelli pasta but I could only find strozzapreti this time. Any pasta could work here; wagon wheels could be fun.

Timing note: It takes me about 10-15 minutes to make the meatballs and then they take around a half hour in the oven. Once the meatballs go into the sauce, I like to let them simmer for 20-25 minutes, but you can skip this step and have the meal done in less than 45 minutes. I usually check email or clean up while they simmer.

For this four person version, you’ll need:
• Around a pound and a third of 90% lean organic grass-fed beef
• One pound of gemelli pasta
• Large slice of Tuscan or Italian bread (around 1″ thick)
• A half cup or so of whole milk
• One large egg
• One tablespoon each of lemon zest and juice (or more, or less to taste)
• Garlic (I used four cloves in the meatballs and four in the sauce)
• Salt & pepper
• Olive oil (or other mild oil)
• Small yellow onion (or half a large one)
• Half cup of red wine
• 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes (I used Muir Glen Organic)
• 8 oz fresh baby spinach (or other greens)— save a few leaves to garnish
• One teaspoon crushed rosemary
Optional: fresh cracked pepper, Parmesan or Romano

Cooking equipment I used:
• Saute or saucepan (I used a 3 qt All-Clad lidded saute pan)
• 13×18 sheet pan for meatballs (or toaster oven pan)
• 4 qt stock pot for pasta and spinach

Put a rack in the upper third and get the oven going at 400ºF.

Start with the meatballs.  I like this recipe best when I make a panade with a large slice of crusty Tuscan or Italian bread in milk. If you want to do this, you need to get this going first. In a small bowl, break the bread into small pieces and add about a half cup of milk and then use a fork to kind of smush the bread and milk together; you’ll need to keep coming back and smushing it while you work on the other stuff. You may need to add more milk. If you don’t want to use bread, you can use a half cup of Panko or bread crumbs or even eight smashed-up saltines. You can soak these in milk or just add to the rest of the mix dry.

Next, line your sheet pan with parchment or foil if needed. In a large bowl, beat up one egg. To this you add around a tablespoon of lemon zest, around a tablespoon of lemon juice, a teaspoon of crushed rosemary, minced or pressed garlic (I ran four cloves through the garlic press last time I made this but you may want to start with one), and around a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Add the bread mixture or crumbs and the meat and mix everything together. Now you can make the meatballs. I have been making them a medium size, around two inches giving me 16 meatballs. If you are doing this in a toaster oven, you will need to make 8 larger meatballs. Once you have them done put them in the oven. They’ll take around twenty-five, maybe thirty minutes to get nice and brown.

Set your bowls on the stove to warm.

Next up is the sauce. As I mentioned before, I’ve been alternating between Marcella Hazan’s classic sauce and this basic one. In a large saute or saucepan (you’ll need room to put the meatballs in later if you want) add a few tablespoons of good-tasting olive oil and get that warming up on medium while you finely chop a small yellow onion or half of a large one and add to the oil. Turn the heat up to kind of sizzle but not brown the onions. Add a teaspoon of salt. Finely chop or put through the press however many cloves of garlic you want (I used four again). Add the garlic to the onions and saute until the onions are sort of translucent. Now deglaze the pan with a half cup of red wine and let it reduce to about half. Then add one 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. You can taste it now and see if it needs more salt or some pepper. If you think you want more sauce, you can add a 14.5 oz can of tomato sauce. Let this kind of simmer/bubble on medium/low with the lid slightly ajar.

When the meatballs are done, add them to the sauce.

There’s a little bit of a lag here depending on how you want to do this. I like to let the meatballs simmer in the sauce for 20-25 minutes, so I usually don’t start the pasta water until the meatballs go in the sauce. I use the time to clean up the prep area or go through the mail, whatever.

So, depending on your timing— gemelli usually takes 12-13 minutes— once the meatballs are in the sauce, get your pasta water started on high, salting it if you want, and get out the colander. Also get the spinach out. When the pasta is three minutes from finished, add the spinach, mixing it with the pasta as it wilts— if you try kale or chard, they may need an extra minute. You could probably add the spinach to the sauce— and I may try that— my worry is it will make the sauce taste bitter.

Once the pasta and spinach are drained, it’s ready. You can top with some Parmesan or Romano or both. A friend mentioned maybe goat cheese or feta. I’ll have to warm up to that idea a little bit. I guess fresh basil too— that wouldn’t clash with the spinach, would it? I’ve been garnishing it with a few fresh spinach leaves.

Notes: For olive oil, I use Columela or Nuñez de Prado— they both have a sort of spicy flavor, for sea salt flakes, I use Maldon, and for pepper, I use the Tellicherry variety. I use table salt for anything mixed in or cooked and save the sea salt flakes for finishing or roasting. Using these ingredients adds a little extra flavor to the dish and they’re getting much easier to find now. I also use grass-fed organic beef all the time now— the flavor, and especially the texture, are better.

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