As the temperatures dip, I find myself seeking out comfort foods. And what says ‘comfort’ more than a good meatloaf? And, yes, Italians make meatloaf too. They call it a polpettone or big meatball. Makes sense if you think about, doesn’t it?
We’ve already seen Angelina’s southern Italian style meatloaf, stuffed with mozzarella and baked in the oven with potatoes. In this version, the meatloaf is browned and braised on top of the stove, the more usual technique among Italians. The initial browning does require a bit of dexterity to avoid the loaf breaking apart, but from there it’s smooth sailing. Tomatoes and sautéed mushroom are added to the pot to braise along with the meat, providing a delicious autumnal sauce; extra sauce makes a great dressing for pasta.
Serves 4-6 persons
To make the meatloaf:
- 500-700g (1 to 1-1/2 lbs) ground beef, or a mixture of beef and pork
- 70g (2-1/2 oz) of prosciutto, finely minced
- 200-250g (7-8 oz) of freshly made breadcrumbs (see Notes), or store-bought breadcrumbs
- 100 ml (1/2 cup) of milk
- 2-3 eggs
- 100g (3-1/2 oz) grated Parmesan cheese
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper
- 1 or 2 chicken livers, finely chopped (optional)
- Dried breadcrumbs for rolling the loaf, q.b.
For the braise:
- Olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, slightly crushed
- Red or white wine
- 500g (1 lb.) or one large can of tomatoes
- 250-300g (8-9 oz) porcini or other mushrooms, or a mixture (see Notes)
Mix all the meatloaf ingredients in a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, spatula or, best of all, your hands. Make sure all the ingredients are very well mixed, then leave the mixture to rest for a good 15 minutes or more.
Form the mixture into a compact, elongated loaf, trying your best to eliminate any creases in the loaf. Then roll it in the dried breadcrumbs until the loaf is totally covered.
Heat a cast iron “Dutch oven” large enough to hold the loaf snugly, preferably oval, and add a generous amount of olive oil. (Don’t be shy, you’ll be able to de-grease the pot later.) Shallow fry the loaf in the oil over gentle heat until it is golden brown on all sides. This is the only tricky part of the recipe; you’ll need to be quite gingerly when you turn the loaf over to avoid it breaking apart.
Add a garlic clove to the oil and, when the garlic begins to give off its aroma, drizzle the wine over the loaf, let it simmer for a minute as the wine boils off. Then turn the loaf over and repeat the procedure. Continue until the loaf has been anointed with wine on all sides. If you’re using red wine, it will turn the loaf a lovely burgundy color.
Now come the tomatoes. Crush them with your hands as you add them to the pot.
Cover the pot and let the meatloaf braise for a good 30 minutes.
While the loaf is braising, sauté the mushrooms separately, in a bit of olive oil, per the recipe for funghi trifolati. Add them, too, to the pot, nestling them beside the loaf.
Cover the pot once again, and let the loaf braise for another 30 minutes.
After that time, take the loaf out of the Dutch oven and let it rest for at least 15-20 minutes. You can even let the loaf cool completely if you prefer. Do not skip this step, however; it is crucial to allow the loaf to come together and firm up a bit. If you don’t, the loaf is likely to fall apart when you slice it.
When you are ready to serve your polpettone, reheat the sauce. (If you find it too fatty, skim off the excess fat with a large spoon and discard it.)
Make a bed of the sauce in a large serving dish. Slice the loaf, or as much as you think you’ll need, and lay the slices and rest of the loaf over the sauce. Serve immediately, with any extra sauce in a separate bowl for those you want more.
To make fresh breadcrumbs, take day old bread, trim it of all crust and cut it into cubes. Add the bread cubes in a food processor and process until you have fine crumbs. In the alternative, using the more typical Italian technique, you can soak the bread cubes in enough milk to cover for a few minutes, drain the bread and squeeze it dry in your hands, crumbling each handful as you add it to the meatloaf mixture.
The meat can be ground beef, or a mixture of beef or pork. If the latter, you can dispense with the prosciutto if you like, which makes for a much more economical dish. Some recipes call for cooked ham rather than cured, but here in the States most cooked ham is smoked, which would give the meatloaf an uncharacteristic taste—but try it if it appeals to you. The chicken livers, I find, are a nice touch; they lend a paté-like flavor to the loaf.
The mushrooms used for this dish are traditionally porcini, when in season, but if you can’t find them (or can’t afford them!), those packets of pre-sliced mixed mushrooms are a great convenience. If you like an assertive mushroom flavor, try using dried porcini, soaked in water until soft, rinsed and chopped. You need not sauté them; just add them directly to the pot along with the tomatoes at the very beginning of the braise. In fact, you can do the same with fresh mushrooms if you don’t want to dirty another pan, although I find that the sauté adds a certain extra layer of flavor.
For the sauce, you can add peas along with (or instead of) the mushrooms, which would give the dish a more Spring-like flavor. Potatoes are another typical addition. And if you make the dish in summer when they are at their seasonal peak, fresh tomatoes can replace the canned variety.
You will notice that I have been a bit loose with the measurements for the meatloaf mixture. That’s because exact amount do not matter all that much. Obviously, more bread means a softer loaf. The main thing is to make sure you form a compact loaf that will stick together as you turn it over in the pot—make sure you press the loaf together firmly, ironing out any creases with your hands. After the initial browning, there is no need to turn the loaf, but do move it around from time to time, to prevent the bottom from sticking to the pot and burning.
This meatloaf is equally good served fully cooled. At room temperature, the loaf firms up so that it can be thinly sliced and served as you would a pâté, as a starter, perhaps with some pickled vegetables and a slice of crusty bread. It’s great for picnic or in a sandwich, too.
Related recipes from Memorie di Angelina
- Angelina’s Polpettone (Southern Italian Style Meatloaf)
- Sformato di tonno (Baked Tunafish Mold)
- Stracotto alla fiorentina (Florentine Pot Roast)
- Brasato al vino rosso (Pot Roast Braised in Red Wine)