Meatballs are another of those things I came late to (it’s a long list, I was a fussy child). Their tinned version created a strong and stubborn aversion. I assumed that they all came with that vaguely gristly sensation and slightly odd (perhaps offaly?) taste. I also could never get my head around the pairing with spaghetti. It seemed, indeed was, so impractical. Guaranteed to make the maximum amount of mess, use all the cutlery and be in no possible way as romantic as they made out in Lady and the Tramp.
So of course, when I first tried the real thing, made at home, with good meat, herbs and cheese; bound together by breadcrumbs and egg rather than a patented scientific process and browned before being coated in rich velveteen tomato sauce, my prejudices and aversions were overturned. Not least because, actually, just eat them with bread, forget the pasta, it’s a fiction that got turned into a fact by mistake.
This is a new version, I’ve mashed up a couple of recipes by Georgio Locatelli in his Made in Sicily book. The cooking on the barbecue is also a technique that the resident Sicilian has not heard of, so perhaps the method may not be strictly kosher, but the flavours are. I combined the fennel and the lemon because 1) the wild fennel is still frondy enough to use with abandon and 2) the lemon tree needed a prune, so I had leaves to burn.
The amount of fennel you need will vary according to taste, but also according to how strongly it’s flavoured. Hotter summers make for stronger flavours. To really up the aniseed, use fennel seeds instead. If you can’t get hold of lemon leaves (although ask around, given that you can buy the trees in Homebase these days, an obliging and green fingered friend may be able to help out), Georgio (not that he knows me from Adam) suggests bay instead.
Pork being such a mild meat, these polpette soak up the flavours; smokey from the charcoal, citrus and aniseed from lemon and fennel, saltiness from the cheese.
Polpette con limone e finocchio (Meatballs with Lemon and Fennel)
Makes 18 balls,
For the meatballs
500g pork mince
150g parmesan or pecorino
Bunch of fennel fronds, finely chopped (1-2 tsps when chopped)
Clove of garlic
20 fresh lemon leaves
For the tomato sauce
Clove of garlic
2-3 unchopped fennel fronds
Chop the onion very finely and then mix it into the pork, breadcrumbs and cheese.
Add the crushed garlic clove and the chopped fennel, season with the black pepper.
Now beat in the egg and mix (with your hands if you’re not squeamish) everything together until it’s completely homogenised.
Squidge golf ball sized portions of the mix together into little spheres
Now thread a lemon leaf onto a skewer, followed by the first ball, then another leaf, and another ball. I put three balls (and four leaves) per skewer.
Chill for an hour.
Put your passata into a saucepan with one crushed clove of garlic, the fennel fronds and 200ml of water.
Bring to the boil, and then reduce to a simmer for about 20 minutes – according to what your lowest level of gas considers a simmer. It should be thick, like a ketchup, no thinner. Take out the fennel.
When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, drizzle over some olive oil and place them on the oiled barbecue, turning them as they brown. It needs to be hot enough to cook them slowly. Too hot and they will sear themselves the the grill and then disintegrate when you try to turn them. (you can also just fry them, which removes the smokey element of the flavour, but makes them less liable to split).
Give two skewers to each person, with sauce poured over, and accompanied by chunks of fragrant yeasty bread to mop everything up.
There. No spattered clothes, minimal cutlery to wash up and deliciously simple.