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.
- 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:
- olive and/or vegetable oil
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
- 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:
- 2 eggs beaten
- Olive and/or vegetable oil
- 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.