Growing up in America in the 1950’s and 60’s, most Italian-Americans, and non-Italian-Americans too, knew Wednesday as “Prince Spaghetti day”. Of course the natural accompaniment to spaghetti were the much beloved meatballs. While spaghetti and meatballs is a wonderfully satisfying meal, the dish is a bit cliché. So why not change it up with something equally satisfying, and somewhat trendier, Polenta and Meatballs.
Most basic recipes for soft polenta call for three simple ingredients: cornmeal, water, and salt. I however, prefer to make mine a bit more decadent by adding chicken stock, Parmigiano cheese and butter. This results in a lush, even creamier polenta which pairs wonderfully with any tomato sauce or meat ragù; or even topped with caponata.
You can find cornmeal in several textures ranging from finely ground to coarsely ground. Any grind can be used, but keep in mind that the coarser the grind the longer the cooking time. I like finely ground cornmeal as this also contributes to making a creamier, less gritty, polenta. Quaker Yellow Cornmeal is a good choice for this.
Instead of plain water, I prefer using chicken stock. You can use your own homemade stock or canned stock. I prefer to make up a quick stock using a chicken base. While you can use any chicken base you like, I prefer Better than Bouillon, which can be found in most grocery stores, and is used at a ratio of 1 tsp per 8oz cup. I find it to be richer than canned and of course quicker than making your own. For vegetarians, a vegetable base is also available and both bases are available in an organic version too. These three additional ingredients all contain salt so I eliminate the typical 2 tsp of salt usually called for in basic polenta recipes. If you prefer the additional salt, add more to your taste but be careful not to overdo it.
Another difference in my method is the point when the cornmeal is added to the water, or in this case, stock. Most recipes say to boil the stock and add the cornmeal in a slow stream while whisking it. The goal is to prevent lumps of cornmeal from forming in the polenta and not fully cooking through. I find that adding cornmeal to boiling liquid doesn’t always work and you will find lumps of cornmeal. Instead, I add the cornmeal in a steady stream to cool stock while whisking to make sure it’s well incorporated, and then bring the mixture to a boil. This is really a foolproof method and you’ll never find lumps in your polenta.
My final secret is the plate test for doneness. Well, it’s really not so secret as any Italian Nonna knows this. Nevertheless, uncooked polenta will stick to any surface, leaving some behind when lifted away; from a plate for example. To be sure the polenta is cooked, put a spoonful on a plate, flatten it a little and wait a few seconds. Then lift it off the plate with a fork. If it comes away cleanly the polenta is cooked. It’s as simple as that.
The following are my preferred recipes for this dish. For 4 servings, make the meatballs ahead of time and keep out 3 meatballs per serving. Freeze the rest for future use. Prepare your favorite Marinara sauce and add the meatballs and simmer for about 20-30 minutes until the meatballs are warmed through. While the meatballs are simmering, cook the polenta and when done ladle equal portions into four bowls. Add three meatballs to each bowl and ladle the marinara sauce on top. Serve with grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese.
Try this dish on a cold autumn or winter day and let me know what you think.
- 1 lb Ground meatloaf mix (pork, beef, veal)
- 1 lb Bulk Italian sausage
- 1 Medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 Medium red pepper, finely chopped
- 2 - 3 tbsp. minced garlic (to taste)
- ¾ cup Italian breadcrumbs
- ¾ cup Parmesan cheese
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 2 or 3 tbsp. Dried parsley (to taste)
- 1 or 2 tbsp. Italian seasoning (to taste)
- 2 tsp. Salt (to taste)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- In a medium skillet, sweat the finely chopped onion and red pepper until softened, making sure the mixture doesn’t burn. Add the minced garlic and cook about 2 more minutes. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, add breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, Italian seasoning and salt if desired and mix well. Then add milk, a little at a time, and using a fork mix until completely wet and the consistency is slightly softer than the ground meat.
- Add the ground meatloaf mix, bulk sausage, the sweated peppers, onions and garlic, and eggs to the breadcrumb mixture; then using both hands, combine all ingredients making sure the result is totally homogenous and there are no lumps of the breadcrumb mixture.
- Roll into 2½ oz balls and place on a cookie sheet lined with greased aluminum foil. Using a cooking spray works well.
- Bake in the oven for about 15 - 20 minutes, until cooked through.
- Add 3 to 4 meatballs per serving to your favorite Marinara and cook for 15-20 minutes
- Serve with your favorite pasta, polenta or in a sandwich
- 1 cup Yellow cornmeal
- 4 cups of water
- 4 tsps. Chicken base
- Salt to taste
- 2 tbsp. Salted butter
- ½ cup (2oz) Parmigiano cheese
- In a heavy stainless steel 3-quart saucepan add ½ cup cold water and 4 tsp. of chicken base and slowly heat while whisking until the base is dissolved, then add the remaining 3½ cups of cold water and whisk a few more seconds.
- Gradually add the cornmeal to the cool stock while continually whisking until all the cornmeal is incorporated. Frequently whisking to make sure the polenta doesn’t stick to the sauce pan and burn, bring the polenta mixture to a boil, and then reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer.
- Continue cooking and whisking, scraping the inside of the saucepan with a rubber spatula to incorporate any cornmeal that does stick. While cooking, the polenta will bubble and spit.
- Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes and test if it’s done. If while cooking the polenta gets too thick and starts to stick to the bottom of the saucepan, add a little warm water. The polenta is done when it’s very creamy and passes the plate test. Keep in mind that it may take longer depending on the grind of the cornmeal.
- When done add the butter and Parmigiano cheese and remove from the heat. Whisk until the butter and cheese are well incorporated.
- Spoon onto a plate and flatten, then top with your favorite polenta accompaniment.
Image: Traditional Italian-American Pork and beef meatballs served on polenta with a drizzle of olive oil is used under license from Adobe Stock: © Centaur – stock.adobe.com