Polpette di melanzane (Eggplant ‘Meatballs’)

Polpette di melanzane (Eggplant 'Meatballs')

The cooking of Puglia, the region that encompasses the ‘heel’ of the Italian peninsula on the Adriatic Sea, deserves to be much better known. It practically defines the Mediterranean diet, with a strong focus on simply prepared fruits of the sea and fresh produce like fava beans, cime di rape and eggplant. Puglia produces some of the best olive oil in Italy, of the deep green, fruity kind, which is used with abandon in the region’s dishes. And it has its own rustic fresh pastas, made with semolina flour and water—no eggs—that come two typical shapes: orecchiette, concave little rounds of pasta called literally ‘little ears’ and cavatelli, which are short strips of pasta curled (or, literally, ‘scooped out’) into little cylinders.

I have a special fondness for Puglian cooking, since my paternal grandfather was from Grumo Appula, a small town not far from the regional capital of Bari. But my knowledge of the cooking is fairly slight. Angelina did all the cooking in her household, and she was from neighboring Campania. I did get to know a few dishes, including orecchiette con le cime di rape, which, together with the tiella pugliese, is probably the best known dish of the region. Angelina would also make some dishes, like baked chicken or lamb with potatoes, that are common to both regions. And one of my great aunts would make a wonderful calzone pugliese, a kind of onion pie.

I recently picked up a lovely small cookbook called Puglia: A Culinary Memoire by Maria Pignatelli Ferrante, originally published in Italian as La Cucina delle Murge. It is part of an ongoing series of cookbooks, each featuring a different Italian regional cuisine published by Oronzo Editions. One recipe that immediately caught my eye was polpette di melanzane, or eggplant ‘meatballs’. It is made almost exactly like classic meatballs but substituting the flesh of a roasted eggplant for the meat—a brilliant idea, given the ‘meaty’ taste and texture of eggplant. Like so many dishes of the cucina povera, it was no doubt born from necessity, with incidentally delicious results.

Ingredients

Makes  4 servings

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 100g grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove garlic
  • A handful of parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Bread crumbs (as much as needed)
  • Olive oil for frying

Directions

Roast the eggplant, whole and unpeeled, in a hot (200°C/400°F) oven for 15-20 minutes. Remove the eggplant from the oven and let it cool a bit. Skin the eggplant and place the flesh into a food processor. (If you find the flesh is watery, gently squeeze out the excess liquid with some paper towels.) Add the remaining ingredients (other than the bread crumbs) and process until well amalgamated and fairly smooth.

Then, spoonful by spoonful, and using the pulse function on your processor, mix in bread crumbs until the mixture holds together into a soft but workable paste. (Use only as much as you need, no more.)

Take a bit of the mixture at a time, form little ‘meatballs’. Shallow fry the meatballs in olive oil, or a mixture of olive oil and vegetable oil, until golden brown on all sides.

Polpette di melanzane (Eggplant 'Meatballs')

You can serve your polpette as is, either hot or at room temperature. Served this way, they make a great antipasto or snack. In the alternative, you can simmer them in a simple sugo di pomodoro (tomato sauce) made with a soffritto of onion and garlic for a vegetarian secondo.

For this evening’s dinner, I made a vegetarian version of another popular Puglian dish, orecchiette con le polpette, dressing the pasta with the sauce, topped with the polpette and some grated cheese. It was, if I say so myself, perfectly delightful.

Polpette di melanzane (Eggplant ‘Meatballs’)

Rating: 51

Total Time: 45 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Polpette di melanzane (Eggplant ‘Meatballs’)

Ingredients

  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 100g grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1 clove garlic
  • A handful of parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Bread crumbs (as much as needed)
  • Olive oil for frying

Directions

  1. Roast the eggplant, whole and unpeeled, in a hot (200°C/400°F) oven for 15-20 minutes. Remove the eggplant from the oven and let it cool a bit. Skin the eggplant and place the flesh into a food processor. (If you find the flesh is watery, gently squeeze out the excess liquid with some paper towels.) Add the remaining ingredients (other than the bread crumbs) and process until well amalgamated and fairly smooth.
  2. Then, spoonful by spoonful, and using the pulse function on your processor, mix in bread crumbs until the mixture holds together into a soft but workable paste. (Use only as much as you need, no more.)
  3. Take a bit of the mixture at a time, form little 'meatballs'. Shallow fry the meatballs in olive oil, or a mixture of olive oil and vegetable oil, until golden brown on all sides.
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32 Responses to “Polpette di melanzane (Eggplant ‘Meatballs’)”

  1. Lisa
    9 July 2014 at 15:33 #

    Looks fabulous! I’m going to try it this week. Do you think these would freeze well? When would you freeze them?

  2. 14 April 2013 at 19:15 #

    This sounds fabulous. Born of thrift, here is a really special dish.

  3. HolliDe
    9 March 2013 at 22:42 #

    Frank, you did it again! This is now the 2nd recipe (with the first being the Peposo) that I made this week of yours and it was OUTSTANDING! The polpette di mealzane recipe is no different than our family’s MEATball recipe that we use except for the roasted eggplant. We LOVED, Loved, loved this recipe and will DEFINITELY make this agin, and again, and again. Following is my Facebook post about this wonderful meal. Mille grazie!!! https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.631774843504817.1073741825.100000169209619&type=1&l=256b14eac3

    • 29 May 2013 at 08:58 #

      Looks marvelous Holli! Thanks for the shout out. (And sorry for the late reply, somehow I had not seen your comment until now…

  4. 3 March 2012 at 09:47 #

    Welcome, Ale! Thanks for the follow!

  5. 27 February 2012 at 13:03 #

    I love eggplant polpette! and also orecchiette being Barese! Compliments for your blog! I know it thanks a friend of mine, Chiara Giglio! From now I follow you, I put your blog among my preferite ones! See you soon…bye!
    Ale

  6. 4 January 2012 at 07:38 #

    @Liliana: Great to know! The cheese in the middle does sound delicious…

  7. Anonymous
    23 December 2011 at 09:01 #

    I made them with basil instead of parsely.
    In the center before frying a little cube of cheese, what a success at my party as an appetizer. Liliana

  8. 20 September 2011 at 23:02 #

    Excellent post. Never heard about this recipe before. There are various religion recipe which we have never tried. Where can i buy this small book puglia??

  9. 28 August 2011 at 03:02 #

    Another great italian recipe!have a good Sunday….

  10. 23 August 2011 at 02:22 #

    Frank, thks for sharing what Polpette di melanzane is! I've completely no idea what that was initially. Would love to try it some day!

  11. 22 August 2011 at 08:40 #

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I have only recently discovered the tasted of roasted aubergine (eggplant) and so would love to try this recipe. I love the way you weave in a bit of local knowledge to your posts.I had never even heard of cime di rape before. It really helps to set the scene.
    Thanks for sharing!

  12. 21 August 2011 at 18:06 #

    Fantastic recipe, I use it in my Apulian cooking workshops and I make them with parsley, basil and pecorino instead of parmigiano. Viva la cucina povera! :)

  13. 20 August 2011 at 12:29 #

    Perfect timing for this post, Frank. Now is the time when our friends with gardens are being generous with their wonderful produce. You've given us a great idea for what to do with our abundance of eggplant. You're the BEST! Robert

  14. 10 August 2011 at 15:09 #

    Ciao Frank, what a nice blog!! You are a really excellent ambassador of Italian food. I don't know very well typical dishes from Puglia… but I can suggest you something from Florence.
    I like these polpette with eggplants very much. I have absolutelly to taste them.
    If you want to take a look on my dishes, I wait for you in my blog.

  15. 9 August 2011 at 08:14 #

    Frank, what an inventive dish! That is why I love Italian food so. They can take any ingredient and make it into a masterpiece!
    Thanks so much for sharing this great recipe with us!

  16. 8 August 2011 at 21:57 #

    These sound wonderful! I love eggplant and what a great way to make a vegetarian dish. I could see pasta with eggplant meatballs and marinara sauce. YUM! I can't wait to try this.

  17. 8 August 2011 at 16:54 #

    That picture of the vegetarian version of 'Orecchiette con le polpette' looks so appetizing and yummy,it made me hungry instantly!:-)
    Cannot wait to try the polpette,whenever I do,will let you know how did it turn out to be..:-)

  18. 8 August 2011 at 13:39 #

    Now, I'm not going to be able to get that plate of orecchiette with the eggplant meatballs out of my mind. It looks divine! I love eggplant and feel they are just as filling and even more satisfying than meat. I so agree that Puglia deserves more attention, and not only in the way of its food. I absolutely fell in love with its southern region, Salento, when I visited this Spring.

  19. 8 August 2011 at 13:35 #

    What a great recipe! I am already drooling.

  20. 8 August 2011 at 12:21 #

    Che meraviglia…A me non riescono mai!

  21. 8 August 2011 at 08:33 #

    Thanks, friends, for your comments!

    @Joan Carol: I wonder if you aunt Mary's version wasn't her own invention or something local from her town? Every recipe I've seen (whether in Italian or English) has called for either bread or breadcrumbs. A few recipes call for a spoonful of flour in addition to help bind the ingredients. But I'll keep an eye out—it does sound delicious! You might even experiment with this recipe, substituting (uncooked) farina for the breadcrumbs, and see how it comes out.

    @PolaM: The reason is simply that's what the recipe said! But seriously, though, keeping them whole does minimize caramelization of the flesh, which would alter the taste—not necessarily in a bad way (I love baba ganush, for example, where the charring of the flesh if part of the typical taste profile) but, at least in this recipe, you are aiming for a 'pure' eggplant taste. There are also recipes that call for boiling the eggplant rather than roasting it, for the same reason.

    You are right to mention the potential excess liquid when you don't pre-salt—and thanks for the reminder! Obviously that's not an option if you keep the eggplant whole, so the alternative is to gently squeeze out any excess liquid before adding the eggplant flesh to the processor. What liquid is leftover will be absorbed by the breadcrumbs, although too much breadcrumb will make the polpette 'bready' and tough so, yes, eliminating excess liquid is definitely a good idea!

    @Ciao Chow Linda: I've read about the Sicilian version. If I remember correctly it includes raisins and pine nuts, which sounds like a nice variation.

    @Savy owner: Wow, what a wonderful compliment. I always get a real kick when I hear from folks who have actually made the recipes on the blog. Makes it all worthwhile!

  22. 8 August 2011 at 07:29 #

    it looks delightful too, as I think even I would be well satisfied and happy with this meatless dish sitting in front of me, and you know I am a meat and potato guy…

  23. 8 August 2011 at 05:28 #

    I wanted to surprise my family last nigh and cooked your Polpette di melanzane recipe. It turned out absolutely delicious. Everybody was soooo happy with dinner. Thanks a bunch.

    Savy

  24. 7 August 2011 at 23:09 #

    This is brilliant! I love eggplant! I loved the Puglia region of Italy when I visited – the food was incredible! The Trulli region was indescribable…

  25. 7 August 2011 at 17:56 #

    Hi Frank – I think your dinner pasta dish would be a big hit over here. An especially satisfying dish for vegetarian guests.
    LL

  26. 7 August 2011 at 15:36 #

    I have been meaning to buy a food processor for a very long time. This will be the recipe that forces me to. What a great idea!

  27. 7 August 2011 at 14:17 #

    Frank – Your meal looks so tempting. I will have to recreate now that my eggplants are large and ripe enough to pick. I remember eating similar meatballs made with eggplant in Sicily too.

  28. 7 August 2011 at 10:50 #

    What a great dish! I love eggplants and this seems like a great way to enjoy them!

    For roasting the eggplants, I usually cut them in half, salt them and then roast them, because I feel Midwestern eggplants are too watery if I keep them whole. Is there a specific reason to keep them whole?

  29. 7 August 2011 at 10:23 #

    I enjoyed poplette di melanzane at a cooking class by Rosetta Costantino. Your look amazing with the pasta and sauce! I need to make these at home now.

  30. 7 August 2011 at 10:08 #

    A vegetarian “meatball” is always useful to have in your culinary arsenal I am sure this is quite delicious as is but is also uite versatile.

  31. Joan Carol
    7 August 2011 at 08:51 #

    I have searched for years for a recipe similar to this which my dear Aunt Mary used to make. The ingredients are basically the same, but she used Farina–the breakfast cereal Farina– and no breadcrumbs. The result was fluffy little balls of eggplant goodness. I must have tried to replicate her dish dozens of times, but either the balls were falling apart or had the consistency of a sofa cushion. I don't know if she used cooked or uncooked Farina but have tried both. Anyone ever hear of this kind or recipe? (My family was originally from Naples if that is any help.)

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