Polpette di bollito (Breaded Boiled Beef Balls)

Frankantipasti, secondi piatti34 Comments

Polpette di bollito

One of the pleasanter dilemmas I face on a regular basis is what to do with leftover boiled beef. In all but the hottest months, making homemade broth is a Sunday evening ritual for me. With the advent of electric pressure cookers, it’s now more or less effortless, and homemade broth is so much better than anything you can buy. Broth making not only leaves you with a tasty broth but, of course, boiled meat, an old fashioned treat that many people these days have never even tasted. If it sounds to you like hospital food, think again. Properly made, boiled beef is every bit as good as any stew—aromatic and tender and beautifully juicy.

Fresh from the stock pot, I enjoy serving boiled beef as is, with a nice salsa verde, a piquant green sauce made with parsley, garlic and anchovies. But every now and again, especially if I’m dealing with leftovers, I like to mix things up a bit. If the meat is beef, as it is more often than not, I particularly enjoy recycling it as bollito rifatto con le cipolle, where I gently warm the boiled beef in beautifully caramelized onions and bit of rosemary, moistened with a ladleful of broth. It’s exquisite served with mashed potatoes. Another favorite is the Roman classic, piacchiapò, where the beef simmers with aromatic vegetables and a bit of tomato.

But perhaps the most delightful way of all to recycle boiled beef might be this one: polpette di bollito. Also called polpette di lesso, these are meatballs made more or less in the usual way, but using finely minced boiled beef instead of the usual ground raw meat. It may seem like a minor change but, let me tell you, the result is very different. Boiled beef is fork-tender, of course, which produces a more delicate morsel, but the beef has also been infused with the flavor of the aromatic vegetables and seasonings it’s been getting to know while simmering gently in a stock pot for a few hours. Polpette di bollito are breaded before frying, resulting in a kind of croquette. But whatever you call them, they’re little globes of goodness bursting with flavor, tender and juicy on the inside, golden and crisp on the outside.

Serve them as a starter or, in larger portions, as a second course.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 400-500g (14-16 oz) boiled beef (see Notes)
  • 1-2 slices bread, trimmed of its crust and soaked in milk and then squeezed dry
  • 50g (2 oz) freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
  • A few sprigs of parsley, finely minced
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper

For breading the meatballs:

  • flour, q.b.
  • 2 beaten eggs
  • breadcrumbs, q.b.

For frying:

  • olive and/or vegetable oil

Directions

Mince the boiled beef finely with a sharp knife or in a food processor.

Mix the minced beef with the bread, grated cheese, garlic, parsley, egg, salt and pepper until you have a smooth, homogeneous mass.

Take walnut sized pieces of the beef mixture and form them into round meatballs with the palms of your hands.

Place the flour, eggs and breadcrumbs into separate shallow bowls. Beat the egg. Gently roll each meatball in the flour, then the beaten egg, then finally the breadcrumbs. (You may need to re-shape them with your hands after breading them; the mixture is quite soft and can get misshapen as you roll them multiple times.)

In a large skillet, fry the meatballs in abundant oil, turning so they brown nicely all over.

Drain the polpette di bollito on paper towels and serve.

Notes on Polpette di bollito

The ingredients and method for making polpette di bollito is very much like making ordinary meatballs. The main differences when making this kind of meatball lie in compensating for the softness of the boiled beef. You use less bread in the filling, just enough to help bind the ingredients together. Unlike with regular meatballs, you don’t need the bread to avoid toughness or keep things moist. Boiled beef is soft and moist enough on its own.

You should also be gingerly when shaping the balls. They shouldn’t be too big—walnut sized is best. Be gentle when breading them, too, reshaping them with your hands just before frying them if they’ve gotten beat up in the breading process. Fry them in at least 3cm/1 inch of oil, enough so they float around and don’t touch the bottom of the pan, which will help them keep their shape. Once they’re fried, you can relax. Their crispy coating ensures the polpette di bollito will keep their round shape.

The cuts for making polpette di bollito are those you’d otherwise use for making broth or boiled beef. Chuck is my go to. It’s relatively inexpensive and has lots of flavor due to its ample marbling. Shank is also nice but not easy to find these days. When I’m feeling flush, I sometimes opt for short ribs if they’re particularly meaty. Brisket or rump roast would also work well. And, by the way, if you have other kinds of meats from making broth or bollito misto—chicken, say—go ahead and add them to the mixture if you like.

The bread you use for the meat mixture should have a good crumb, something that will stand up to soaking and squeezing. Ideally you’d use homemade pane casareccio. But in a pinch, an equivalent amount of breadcrumbs, moistened with milk or broth, will do.

Variations and Sauces

It may sounds like a minor thing, but whether you mince your beef with a knife or in a food processor makes a fair difference. Processing produces a more uniform paste-like mixture, while the knife produces a rougher—and some might say more interesting—texture. But the mincing by hand is a lot more work, obviously. Sometimes, in fact, when I’m feeling a bit lazy, I process the whole mixture, starting with the garlic and parsley, then the meat, then the rest of the ingredients.

There are a few, relatively minor variations worth noting. Some recipes call for a bit of mashed potato as a binder, others a dash of nutmeg, or a bit of fresh basil or mint, or even some mortadella for extra flavor. They can also be baked in a moderate (350F/180C) oven for 15-20 minutes or so if you prefer. (Not my cup of tea, but it may be yours.)

Polpette di bollito are plenty flavorful on their own, but I do like to accompany them with a bit of salsa verde, a kind of riff off of a classic Italian boiled dinner. Just a bit since, as I mentioned, the polpette are quite savory on their own. In the alternative, you can simmer them in a simple tomato sauce as you would regular meatballs. In that case, you’d call them polpette di bollito in umido. They’re perfectly fine in umido but, frankly, to me they tend to lose their unique qualities when immersed in a sauce.

Polpette di bollito

Meatballs made from boiled beef

Ingredients

  • 400-500g 14-16 oz boiled beef
  • 1-2 slices bread trimmed of its crust and soaked in milk and then squeezed dry
  • 50g 2 oz parmigiano-reggiano cheese freshly grated
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic finely minced
  • A few sprigs of parsley finely minced
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper

For breading the meatballs:

  • flour
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • breadcrumbs

For frying

  • Olive and/or vegetable oil

Instructions

  • Mince the boiled beef finely with a sharp knife or in a food processor.
  • Mix the minced beef with the bread, grated cheese, garlic, parsley, egg, salt and pepper until you have a smooth, homogeneous mass.
  • Take walnut sized pieces of the beef mixture and form them into round meatballs with the palms of your hands.
  • Place the flour, eggs and breadcrumbs into separate shallow bowls. Beat the egg. Gently roll each meatball in the flour, then the beaten egg, then finally the breadcrumbs. (You may need to re-shape them with your hands after breading them; the mixture is quite soft and can get misshapen as you roll them multiple times.)
  • In a large skillet, fry the meatballs in abundant oil, turning so they brown nicely all over.
  • Drain the polpette di bollito on paper towels and serve.

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34 Comments on “Polpette di bollito (Breaded Boiled Beef Balls)”

  1. I love that you do all the old favourites that I was brought up with. Particularly, I enjoy that I wasn’t the only one who was brought up on homemade broth (brodo). It was a staple in our home and I still make it today (either slow cooker or pressure cooker though). We always ate the meat (beef or chicken) from the broth in various ways mostly with salsa verde. But this is a particularly delicious recipe using the boiled beef. Quite a few years ago my niece ordered a dish in Italy – Bollito Misto. When is arrived she exclaimed “Oh this is just nonno’s boiling meat. I eat this all the time”. It was funny because she thought she was ordering something she had never had!

    1. You know, these days I always make my broth in the pressure cooker. So easy! And that’s such a funny story about your niece… 😉

  2. I always use raw beef or lamb to make meatballs, so this is a new technique for me. So, it sounds like you take beef that has been cooked for several hours until it is very tender (i.e. ‘shredded’), then use that as your base for the meatballs? Sounds yummy! BTW, thanks for commenting again on my post for ‘Lobster Caldoso’! I learned this recipe in Marid.

  3. These look absolutely wonderful, what a great way to use boiled beef. I’m always looking for tasty appetizers and hors d’œuvres so I’m definitely bookmarking this.

  4. As with anything you do, these look wonderful. I never make boiled beef and only had t once in Italy (Milano). My stock is usually from roasted bones. Now I feel I should try this – just so I can have these meatballs!

    1. Yep, and boiled beef is pretty tasty, too. When I make my broth I usually like to include both bones and meat. That way I get the best of both worlds.. Thanks for stopping by, David!

  5. When I saw the first photo, I thought you made some kind of potato croquettes hehe. But bread beef balls? I’ve never heard of polpette di bollito, so thank you for introducing a new recipe to me. They look and sound delicious!

  6. What an interesting recipe, Frank! I completely agree with you about homemade broth. We often make homemade broth in the winters, but I must admit that in the summer months, I cheat and use the store-bought stuff. Now you’re making me rethink that! I love learning about ways to use leftovers, and I’ve never heard of polpette di bollito before. These meatballs sound fantastic!!

    1. Thanks, David! I tend to stop making stock when it gets warmer, say around late June or so, myself. I have it in my mind that it’s too hot. Almost out of habit, though I have to say, with a pressure cooker it hardly matters that much. After all, you’re not really heating up the kitchen for hours, the way it was back in the day.

  7. how interesting is this! i’ve never even thought of using boiled beef in meatballs. mainly because i would never have that ingredient in my kitchen. but i bet they taste marvellous.

    1. It does… If you ever do wind up with some boiled beef leftover from making broth—or even leftover stewed beef—it’s worth checking this one out.

  8. On Fridays my mother would make vegetarian polpette using mashed potatoes, chopped garlic , lots of chopped parsley, eggs and then fried in olive oil- delicious
    Your recipe sounds like her meat polpette recipe also delicious.

  9. Love the idea as I make my own beef stock regularly and always use both beef and marrow bones. Oh I cannot wait to fish the hot, juicy succulent beef out of the pot and pounce upon it, usually with lots of strong horseradish sauce ! Pure heaven ! Often black bread alongside it and perhaps Scandinavian pickled cucumbers or a green salad. Your meatballs may not present quite as healthy in their methodology but are a new variation to me and will assuredly be made ! A little crispy on the outside and tasty succulent soft upon biting in . . .

    1. I love boiled beef right out of the pot, too. In my case, the accompaniment is usually salsa verde, although I’ve also been known to dabble in horseradish as well, every once in a while. 😉

  10. Salsa verde is wonderful stuff. Every culture seems to have their own “green” sauce, but this one, at least to me, is the “mother” sauce. I think I’d process my meat by knife, too — I just enjoy knife work, and I do know how the difference in texture can actually alter the taste of the dish. Anyway, this looks terrific — thanks.

    1. Thanks John! So true about green sauce. It’ll perk up just about anything! Love it on chicken, too, and eggs and fish… you name it.

  11. Frank, how true is it that many have never tasted boiled beef. Brodo was a staple in our house growing up. I woke up to the most wonderful aroma on Sunday mornings. Now when I make it, it brings me back to my childhood and I’m so grateful that my parents taught me how to make it.

    The polpette sound delish. But here is another suggestion….beef salad. That’s what my mother would make if the beef didn’t get eaten with the pastina or home made noodles. Chop up the beef, celery, oil and vinegar. It’s yummy. I make it now too….although more times than not the beef gets eaten up.

    Love your recipes
    Filomena

    1. I definitely will try that next time, Filomena! Sounds very nice indeed, especially now that the weather’s getting warm.

  12. I love croquetas, so I know I’d love your Polpette di bollito. The boiled beef with salsa verde sounds quite delicious too!

  13. Well this is fascinating! So you make stock/broth using a piece of meat, then remove the meat just for the purpose of making these meatballs?! I don’t know why this is so intriguing to me – I guess mostly I use a chicken and make chicken broth, so it’s the same thing… Anyway, I love this recipe!

    1. I alternate between chicken and beef, and sometimes do a combination. All depends on my mood and what’s in the market. I guess I should do a post one of these days on what I do with leftover boiled chicken, lol!

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