Tomato and Olive-Braised Lamb Meatballs with Soft Polenta

Menu Part: 
Entree
Cuisine Type: 
Mediterranean
Serves: 
6

Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino
SPQR Restaurant
San Francisco

Meatballs are an on-trend menu item and a sought-after comfort food. Chef Accarrino of SPQR puts a Mediterranean twist on the dish by using ground lamb, smoked paprika and toasted cumin, but the Italian influence shines through in the tomato-based sauce and bed of creamy polenta.

Ingredients

Sauce
28 oz. canned whole tomatoes
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 bacon slices, very finely chopped
1 med. red onion, minced
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3/4 cup medium-dry red wine (like a Malbec)
1 tbsp. tomato paste

Meatballs
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp. smoked paprika (pimentòn)
1/4 tsp. toasted cumin* (see note)
3/4 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely grated Pecorino cheese
2 tbsp. finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1 lb. ground American Lamb (preferably from sirloin)
1/4 cup pitted Gaeta olives

Polenta
3 cups water
1 cup whole milk
1 cup polenta (coarse-ground cornmeal)
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup grated Pecorino cheese
1 tbsp. mint leaves, stacked, rolled into a tight cylinder,
sliced crosswise into thin strips
2 tbsp. grated Pecorino cheese
Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Steps

  1. Prepare Sauce: Pass tomatoes and sauce through the large-hole setting of a food mill; set aside. Wrap butcher’s twine around the bottom of the thyme and rosemary and tie together; set aside.
  2. In a heavy-bottomed oven-safe pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over med. heat. Add bacon; cook until the fat softens and begins to render into the pan, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in onions and salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until onions begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add garlic; cook, stirring often, until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Pour in wine; use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of pot.  
  3. When wine has mostly reduced, after about 5 minutes, stir in tomatoes and tomato paste. Bring sauce to a simmer; add thyme and rosemary. Reduce heat to low; gently simmer while preparing meatballs.
  4. For Meatballs: In large bowl, whisk together ricotta, egg, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Use a wooden spoon to stir in bread crumbs, Pecorino and parsley; add the lamb. Use your hands to combine the ingredients; shape into 24 balls (use a small ice cream scooper to get evenly sized balls if desired).
  5. Arrange the meatballs on an oven-safe skillet lightly coated with cooking spray; place under broiler until nicely browned, about 10 minutes, rotating the pan midway through for even browning. Remove pan from broiler.
  6. Transfer meatballs to sauce; stir to coat. Cover meatballs with parchment paper cut to fit. Cover pot; cook at 325 F for 1 hour.
  7. For Polenta: In a medium saucepan, bring water and milk to a simmer over medium-high heat. Slowly sprinkle in polenta; whisk constantly to ensure mixture is smooth. Continue to whisk until thickened. Use a wooden spoon to stir in salt and pepper. 
  8. Reduce heat to low; slowly cook, stirring often, until creamy and completely cooked, about 45 minutes. Turn off heat; stir in butter, oil and cheese; stir until butter is melted and incorporated.
  9. To serve: Remove meatballs from the oven, uncover, and discard the parchment paper, garlic and the herb bundle; stir in olives. Divide the polenta between 6 warmed plates or bowls. Top with a few meatballs, some braising sauce and a few olives. Finish with mint, Pecorino, a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of black pepper.

Photo courtesy of American Lamb Board

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