Got (Meat) Balls?

1226949190When I was in college, a friend of mine had a class in the Agriculture school called Meat Science, and his textbook was a brilliant tome called The Meat We Eat. And for some reason, I couldn’t get that four-word mantra out of my head while traipsing around Dante‘s recent Ball Brawl, an al fresco meatball cook-off held on the restaurant’s patio.

Boy, was there meat.

Lots and lots of meat.

Chefs like Tony Susi of Sage, Andy Husbands of Tremont 647, Toro‘s Jamie Bissonnette, Harvest‘s Mary Dumont, and Colin Lynch of No.9 Park turned out every imaginable combination of beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken, even rabbit. The “Best Balls” award went to William Kovel of Aujourd’hui, who presented a one-two punch of chicken-nugget-esque meatballs and saucy Asian style balls.

I voted for Dumont’s superfluffy multi-meat blend, which was studded with currants and doused in marinara; my brawl companion opted for Husband’s BBQ-inspired pork ball served on a roll with sweet cabbage slaw. (We both found Aujourd’hui’s entry somewhat ho-hum.)

But the day’s big surprise was Dante DeMagistris‘s seriously tasty meat-free entry. Made of eggplant and topped with tomato sauce, grappa-soaked raisins and pine nuts, each “meatball” concealed a gooey mozzarella center that even had my carnivore companion gushing. And so, while the chow-fest focused on the meat we eat, we found a vegetarian dish to devour, too.

Lucky for me, he’s sharing his recipe.

Dante’s Eggplant Polpette with Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella, Toasted Pine Nuts and Grappa-Soaked Golden Raisins
Makes 24 meatballs

Eggplant Polpette

1 lb. eggplant
6 eggs
1 cup ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
2 cups plain bread crumbs
½ cup fresh parsley leaves, roughly chopped
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
Sea salt to taste
24 one-inch cubes of low-moisture mozzarella
Flour (for coating the polpette)
3 cups olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Wash the eggplant.
Roast the eggplant whole in the pre heated oven for 30 minutes. Remove the
Eggplant from the oven and allow to cool.
2. Cut the eggplant in half, scoop out the inside of the eggplant and set aside. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a medium sized sauce pot with the eggplant skins. Simmer the skins for 30 minutes. Drain the skins.
3. In a food processor, blend all the ingredients except for the mozzarella, flour, and the olive oil until smooth. Refrigerate the mixture for at least an hour.
4. Use a tablespoon to scoop out 1½ oz. balls of the mixture onto a floured plate. Stuff each ball with a cube of mozzarella, then roll each ball in the flour to coat.
5. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Fry each ball, turning them in the oil until brown on all sides. Lay the cooked balls on paper towels to drain the excess oil, then transfer them to a deep baking tray. Cover the balls with tomato sauce (recipe below), cover the baking sheet with aluminum foil, and bake in a 300-degree oven for 30 minutes. Serve with grappa-soaked golden raisins and toasted pine nuts.

Simple Tomato Sauce

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 twelve-ounce cans crushed San Marzano tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Sea salt to taste

1. Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a sauce pot over medium heat. When hot, add the whole garlic cloves, red pepper flakes and the tomatoes. Stir and allow the sauce to simmer for 25 minutes. Season with salt to taste and set aside.