Spicy Beef Meatballs with Bell Peppers

Spicy Beef Meatballs

Although I attribute my passion for cooking to my Neapolitan aunt, who I used to observe closely whenever she prepared, solely from memory, one of the multitude of dishes in her repertoire, it was Marcella Hazan who really taught me how to cook classic Italian dishes.

I remember how her first book, published in 1976, inspired me to try so many new dishes like baked semolina gnocchi, vitello tonnato, pork loin braised in milk, her unique ragu Bolognese, etc. etc. Over the years, I’ve collected almost all of her books and often refer to them either for new recipes or for cooking wisdom. It is the latter of these, sage advice, that makes up the greater part of her last book, Marcella Says, published almost 30 years after her first.

From that final collection, comes the recipe for today’s post, Polpettine di Manzo con i Peperoni, Spicy Beef Meatballs with Bell Peppers. These are nothing like the spicy meatballs one may associate with the legendary Alka Seltzer commercial or with the Italian-American versions that are part of many a Sunday sauce. Rather, they are small and delicate bundles of meat, gently mixed with parsley, chopped onion, and jalapeño pepper, and bound with egg and a white-bread panade, made from torn white bread soaked in milk.

Another difference is that there’s no tomato sauce. After frying, the meatballs are simmered along with a load of bell peppers, peeled and sliced. How long the peppers are cooked is up to you. If you like your peppers with some body, you can opt to cook them for as little as ten minutes. Or if, like me, you prefer a more tasty, succulent sauce, you can continue the simmer for about 30 minutes, or when the peppers just begin to dissolve.

My only problem with this recipe was with the size of the meatballs. The recipe says they should be the size of a very small egg, which I interpreted to be about 1 inch in diameter and made 16 meatballs. However, when I reread the recipe, I noticed that the yield should have been 30 to 35 balls.(I guess Marcella may have had a different egg in mind.) Nevertheless, I thought my size choice made for the perfect bite especially when accompanied by a piece of the soft red pepper. (Should you choose to make smaller meatballs, you may want to chop the onions, pepper, and parsley a little finer than I did.)

One final note. I was surprised by the inclusion of a jalapeño and almost substituted some crushed red-pepper flakes. But Hazan made a good case for using it since in her words it adds a “fine fragrance and mellow style of spiciness.”

Ingredients

Ingredients

4 meaty red bell peppers
2 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
½ cup chopped onion
Chopped fresh jalapeño pepper, 2 to 3 tablespoons, or to taste
⅔ cup torn fresh breadcrumb—the soft crustless part of a slice of bread
⅔ cup whole milk
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 egg
Fine sea salt
1 ½ cups fine, dry, unflavored bread crumbs, spread on a plate or a sheet of wax paper
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
A warm serving platter

Yield: 30 to 35 meatballs. serving 4 persons

Procedure

1  – Cut the bell pepper lengthwise along the creases, remove the stem, seeds, and pithy core, and skin them with a swivel-blade vegetable peeler. Cut the pepper into strips about 1/2 inch wide.

Peeling the peppers
Peppers sliced

2  – Put the parsley, onion, and jalapeño pepper in a bowl and mix together well.

Parsley, onion, jalapeno

3  – In a small bowl soak the fresh bread crumb in the milk.

Soaking the bread

As soon as the bread is saturated with the milk, squeeze it out gently in your hand and add it to the onion mixture, working it until combined.

Adding bread to onion mixture

4  – Add the ground chuck, egg, and salt, kneading the mixture very gently with your hands.

Gently kneaded meat

5  – Pull off a piece of the meatball mixture about the size of a very small egg and shape it in your hands into a ball, being careful not to squeeze it too hard.

Shaped meatballs

6  – Roll the meatball in the bread crumbs. Pull off another piece of the meat mixture and repeat the procedure until you have used all of it and the balls have been rolled in bread crumbs.

Breading meatballs
The breaded lot

7  – Pour the oil into a 12-inch skillet and turn the heat on to high. When the oil is hot, slip in the meatballs. Brown them to a dark color on one side, then turn them to do the other side. Do not turn them more than once. If the meatballs do not fit into the pan in a single uncrowded layer, do a batch at a time. When you have browned them all, put the meatballs into the pan before continuing. (I used a little more oil than called for in the recipe, but removed it after the meatballs were browned.)

Browning the meatballs

8  – Add the peppers with a little bit of salt, turn the contents of the pan over using a wooden spoon and a light touch, lower the heat, and cover the pan.

Adding the peppers

You have a choice of how long to continue cooking. If you want the peppers to star—that is, if you would like them to maintain enough of their shape to show on the plate—cook them just until a fork slips easily into them, about 10 minutes. If you think that you may enjoy them more as a sauce, and a very tasty sauce it would be, just continue to cook them until they begin to dissolve. When the peppers are done to taste, transfer the contents of the pan to a warm platter and serve at once.

The cooked meatballs

Wine Pairing: Barbera d’Alba

Penne with Cauliflower Ragu

Penne with Cauliflower Ragu

Sometimes I find that it’s the end of the week, and I’ve served nothing but meatcentric meals. More often than not this is due to buying what’s on sale at the market, re-purposing leftovers, or just my hankering for a steak.

It’s at times like these that I start to look for a non-meat dish, which usually winds up being pasta or, as my better half bemoans, “all too seldom,” fish. In my search, I came across this recipe from Mario Batali’s cookbook Molto Gusto. Just the word “ragu” made my mouth water.

Except for the frequent stirring of the cauliflower, it’s a relatively simple dish to prepare and, as the recipe points out, it can be made days in advance. I did find, however, that I needed to extend the three cooking times for the cauliflower, especially at the third stage. I’ve given the recipe’s original times, but strongly suggest that you taste the cauliflower for tenderness at each stage.

Ingredients

Ingredients
Serves 6 people

1 medium cauliflower (about 2 pounds)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 medium white onion cut into 1⁄4-inch dice

3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

Maldon or other flaky sea salt

1 ½ to 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces

Kosher salt

1 pound pennette

¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus extra for serving

½ cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs fried in olive oil until golden brown

1 ½ teaspoons minced fresh rosemary

Directions
1.  Halve the cauliflower. Cut off the leaves and reserve them. Cut out the core and reserve it. 2. Cut the cauliflower into small bite-sized florets, reserving the stalks.

Core, stalks & leaves

3. Chop the core, stalks, and leaves. (I used a food processor for this step.)

Chopped core, stalks & leaves

4. Combine the oil, onion, garlic, and cauliflower leaves, stalks, and core in a large pot, season with Maldon salt, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the leaves are just beginning to wilt, about 3 minutes. (This step took me at least six minutes.)

After 3 to 5 minutes of cooking.

5. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the cauliflower leaves are just tender, 18 to 20 minutes. (This step took me at least 26 minutes.)

After 18 to 25 minutes of cooking

6. Add the cauliflower florets, red pepper flakes, and 1 cup water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is very soft and almost falling apart, 22 to 25 minutes. (I added about 10 minutes to this step.)

Cooked florets with red-pepper flakes

7. Add the butter, stirring gently until it melts, then season well with Maldon salt and remove from the heat.

Adding the butter

The cauliflower ragú can be prepared up to 3 days ahead. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate; reheat in a large pot over medium-low heat before adding the pasta.

Ragu awaiting cheese and pasta

8. Bring 6 quarts water to a boil in a large pot and add 3 tablespoons Kosher salt. Drop in the pasta and cook until just al dente.

9. Drain the pasta, reserving about 2/3 cup of the pasta water.

10. Add the pasta and 1/3 cup of the reserved pasta water to the cauliflower ragú and stir and toss over medium heat until the pasta is well coated (add a splash or two more of the reserved pasta water if necessary to loosen the sauce).  Stir in the cheese.

Stirring in the cheese

11.  Transfer the pasta to a serving bowl, sprinkle with the bread crumbs and rosemary, and serve, with additional grated cheese on the side.

Bread crumbs and rosemary

As you can see, I opted for big boy breadcrumbs.

Wine Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio

Calabrian Chili Pasta

Calabrian Chili Pasta

I know this recipe may offend some traditionalists; nevertheless, I’m posting it for two reasons. First of all, it’s my first encounter with Calabrian chili paste, an unctuous spicy condiment that I see becoming a staple in my pantry. Secondly, the recipe takes an innovative approach to cooking pasta that eliminates using a dedicated pot for its boiling. I admit that I was skeptical about this method, but for someone who cooks at home almost every night, having one less pot to clean seemed most appealing.

This relatively quick and easy recipe is from an episode of Giada DeLaurentiis’s “Giada at Home” that I saw while having breakfast early on a Sunday morning. The finished dish looked so good that immediately after church I made a trip to my local Italian specialty store to look for the chili paste. I was surprised to find there a couple of varieties, both imported and domestic, but chose the imported one from Tutto Calabria.

My only variation on the recipe was using heaping tablespoons of the chili paste, which although quite spicy, is not very hot.

Rather than pairing this dish with a southern Italian red, I opted for a Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo–perfect for a warm spring evening.

Here’s a link to the original recipe and video.

Ingredients

1 pound penne pasta
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup grated pecorino
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
3 tablespoons Calabrian hot pepper paste
1/3 cup chopped chives
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest, from 1 lemon
1 teaspoon lemon juice, from 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a 10-inch high-sided saute pan, bring 1 inch of water (about 4 cups) to a boil over high heat. Add the penne and the salt.

Pasta with about an inch of water

Cook, stirring often, until the pasta is al dente, about 9 minutes; there should be a little water left in the pan.

The cooked pasta

Sprinkle the pecorino over the pasta; toss to coat. (Work quickly, making sure that the cheese doesn’t clump together and is evenly distributed.)

Add the tomatoes, chili paste, chives, lemon zest, lemon juice and olive oil, and toss.

Wine Pairing: Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo or Sauvignon Blanc

Italian Roast Chicken with Peppers and Olives

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There’s something about Nigella Lawson. I can’t put my finger on it, but I can watch her cook for hours, even replaying her shows, and never get bored. Yes, she’s probably the most attractive TV chef around, but she brings more than good looks to the table. As she sashays through her kitchen with a just a hint of insouciance, she describes her dishes so sensuously that your mouth waters. And when she cooks, Italian, well…be still my palate.

Most recently, I watched her making an Italian roast chicken with peppers and olives accompanied by a saffron orzotto. The chicken is cooked untrussed in a roasting pan, stuffed with a half of lemon and rosemary, atop sliced red, yellow, and orange peppers, leeks, and pitted black olives. Everything is drizzled with olive oil and seasoned simply with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. A few more sprigs of rosemary are tossed in with the sliced vegetables.

Oven-ready chicken and vegetables
Oven-ready chicken and vegetables

Because the chicken is untrussed, it cooks rather quickly in a 400°F oven for about an hour or an hour and a quarter. As the chicken, or as Lawson calls it “my burnished bird,” rests, the vegetables continue to roast for another 10 minutes.

The "burnished bird"
The “burnished bird”

Lawson accompanies this succulent chicken with a saffron orzotto, an easy alternative to a risotto Milanese. I prepared it for two and used a half cup of pearled barley (orzo in Italian).
Heat 1 cup of chicken stock and add about a 1/4 teaspoon of saffron threads. Keep it warm.

Finely chop a banana shallot and cook it over medium heat in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When the shallot has softened, in about 5 minutes, add the barley, stirring to thoroughly coat the grains with the oil for about 1 minute.

Add the stock, cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the barley is cooked. At the end, stir in some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and serve.

The finished vegetables
The finished vegetables

There is nothing difficult about this menu. The multicolored vegetables and the golden orzotto alongside the burnished chicken make for a colorful presentation.

Here’s a link to the original recipe on Lawson’s Website.