Or: Spaghetti and Meatballs, the Annual Terrine Dinner project.
One year ago
Within days of serving up last year's Terrine, I spied a recipe for a cold molded terrine called Polpettone Rigoletto in a 60's vintage book by Richard Olney. From that I learned that polpettone is Italian for 'great big meatball', an Italian family classic with which I was previously unfamiliar. But not the kind of meatball Americans think of. Rather, a loaf where a seasoned ground meat mixture is spread out flat and topped with layers of cheese or Italian delicatessen meats, rolled, and, typically, baked. Often, hard boiled eggs are rolled up in the center. It can be free form or placed in a mold, chilled and dolled up, as in Richard's recipe, with aspic and a decorative outer layer of colorful stuff--the recipe in Richard's book had chopped red bell pepper, gherkins and slices of hard boiled egg. Which I hardly gave another thought to: it was the parmesan cheese and the mortadella I liked. I happily made the decision there and then that this would be my 2011 Terrine--different from anything I'd done before, and perfect for old Italian wines. Ah yes, things are so bright and sure a year away, so crystal clear, so perfect, so easy.
Six months ago
While shopping one day, I found little square ramekins. You have to understand, among my major weaknesses are 1) ramekins and 2) things square-shaped. So, a square-shaped ramekin? Heart be still! These were made for me! I couldn't NOT buy them, even though I already had a very large and deep drawerfull of many sizes of rounds and ovals. I bought six and justified this totally unneccessary expense to my husband by pointing out how they matched the shape of the clerestory windows that ring our great room 18 feet up. He didn't look convinced, so I immediately served something in them at our very next dinner party. Everybody oohed and aahed at how clever my ramekins were, and I was sure Bob now understood how badly we needed these. Then we were invited to a dinner party at which I was to bring a course, so I planned to make little wild mushroom parmentiers in my little square ramekins. But oops, there were going to be ten guests so of course I had to buy four more. Once again, everyone loved the little square ramekins. Oohs and aahs again abounded! Euphoric over that success, I wondered what next I could do with my wonderful little square ramekins, and I looked at my calendar. And there it was: July 31st. Terrine Day. I would make individual baby terrines! It had never been done before! I would make history! How brilliant! Hurray! Life was good!
Then I raced off to the store to buy two more.
Four months ago
I received a mailer from a chef's shop in Seattle I buy specialty items from time to time from. They had something I'd never seen before: truffle caviar. Little pearls of black truffle juice solidified via molecular gastronomy into what looked just like fine caviar. It was about $50 an ounce but oh my, just picture that set in the aspic on top of my little square terrines, with perhaps an additional little scoop on top? They would look like petit fours! They would be art! And it would create the ultimate match for the old brunello and old barbaresco I planned to serve with my course! It was all so perfect I nearly cried with happiness just thinking about it!
Two months ago
Where the hell is that recipe, I asked myself one morning, where did it go? I couldn't for the life of me remember where I'd seen that cheesy meatball thing. So much time had elapsed I'd completely forgotten which book I'd gotten it out of. In fact, I completely forgot that I had the Richard Olney book--it had been a new acquisition at the time. I tore the house apart looking for it.
But finally I found it and started reading. OH DEAR, I thought, my heart sinking with every ingredient. It was all wrong. Very 60's, and I couldn't for the life of me make sense out of putting five beaten eggs into just a little over a pound of meat. Along with a cup of bechamel, that sounded less like a mousseline than a meat porridge. But, don't I love a challenge? Don't I do my best work when painted into a corner with difficulty? Don't I always not just make food, but learn something new? Oh yes, but I'd thought I had this one "in the bag" as they say.
So, first project: make the base loaf mixture anyway just to find out why anyone would want to use five eggs--maybe someone knew something I needed to learn. And I found out: they didn't. Grainy and spongy like a seriously overcooked scrambled egg, neither Bob nor I liked the result. Confronted by the enormity of a reality I didn't like, I decided to put the whole thing out of my head. La de da, just like Scarlett O'Hara. Another month went by while I concentrated on other things.
One month ago
Bill wants commitments on who's making what. He wants to start putting the dishes in order, and other cooks as yet undecided about what to make appreciate being able to rule certain things out. So as a place-holder I tell him mine will be called Polpettone Rigoletto, using the name even though I have no intention of making Richard's recipe again. I confidently told him "think spaghetti flavors and Sangiovese" where in fact all I had at T Day Minus 30 was 12 of the cutest little ramekins anybody ever saw and a really cool garnish.
It was time to get my butt in the kitchen and start over.
Over the next three weeks I searched the internet for recipes and made several versions of polpettone, like sausage-man Bruce Aidell's and one from a woman who begs her mother to make the dish every time she goes home to Milan. It is very much a comfort-food kind of dish.
(Btw, I found no evidence of 'Rigoletto' attached to any other version so that must have been a name made-up to sound impressively Italian in the Olney book.) Also, I learned that beef and veal are the most typical meat ingredients, and that every recipe I came across was a family treasure. And though none promised as refined a result as I wanted, the time was not lost. I learned to love the dish, and I learned how to vary the rolling and pre-stuff the mold so that any mixture I put in fit and was nicely centered. For my little ramekins, I could make a long roll and segment it, stuffing a tiny hard-boiled quail egg into the center and plugging the entry point, so that when served and cut in half, each revealed a little treasure. I tested various combinations and thicknesses of deli meats. And using my little ramekins, I'd make some plain and to the others add ingredients like ground mushrooms, spinach, wine, and sun-dried tomato, just to name a few items, which Bob and I would taste and compare.
Tuesday, This week
With six days to go, I looked at everything I'd learned over the past few weeks. I loved the panade made with bechamel and found that two eggs bound with a pound and a quarter of meat made the quantity I needed. I had found a handful of panko crumbs gave it better texture. For the deli meats, we liked the combination of thinly sliced mortadella and genoa salami best. For seasoning: nothing beat fresh oregano and lots of nutmeg. Additional ingredients, even wine, just dulled the impact these two made, though a few tablespoons of finely diced sauteed shallot made each seem more complex. The more parmesan the better. And we liked a beef and turkey combination better than beef alone which made me consider that pork, which I had not tried, might be better than beef.
So I replaced the beef with a turkey-pork combination, ramped up the parmesan, and made a new loaf.
Voila! Finally, a perfect polpettone. I had my recipe. I planned to plate it with a Mario Batali recipe for baby turnips braised in chianti and pencil thin home-made bread sticks.
Early Wednesday morning
Got up and went downstairs. Turned on the news, started coffee. Bob waddled in while I was making this and complained that he was hungry already. So was I to tell you the truth, so I decided to make him a slice of panfried terrine (each time I made a batch, I'd make enough to do a single large 10" terrine--I'd already figured out how to make smaller versions for the square guys, and the leftovers were more useful to me this way) topped with a poached egg. I threw a slice in the pan for myself, too. Now I've done this over the years with countless meatloafs of the past so nothing new here, but I've never done it with a meatloaf chock full of parmesan cheese and mortadella.
When Bob and I cut into those and took our first bites, we stared at each other in amazement. "Oh dear God," said Bob, "you can't NOT do this."
He was right. Principally, the conversion of the parmesan from cold seasoning to something that toasted in a skillet was a total game-changer. In love as I was and had been for a whole year with the presentation of glistening little sloping squares of aspic-encased cold meat, I had inadvertently created a more compelling dish.
So I spent the rest of Wednesday miserable, listening to my little square ramekins crying from their drawer while I moped around trying to figure out how to make a fried polpettone that wouldn't look like Spam. Taste was big, but presention no less so.
Meanwhile, a note to David and Nadine revealed that we, or rather I, had a calendar issue. I had thought Terrine Day was Sunday, but David and Nadine said it was Saturday. It was while rifling back through group correspondence to confirm this (of course, they were right) that I came across Bill earlier joking to the others about "Jenise making spaghetti and meatballs", and that suddenly hit home in a good way. Hot terrine...with spaghetti? YES! I emailed Bill with the name change on my dish: Spaghetti and Meatballs it would be. Suddenly, I was excited again! I had a reason to live! I was thinking like Thomas Keller!
I bounded out of bed on Thursday morning ready to figure out how to make a portion of spaghetti that would be both small and elegant. In the freezer I had a great little marinara sauce, and in the pantry I had a pound each of capellini and linguini. I figured that one would be too thin and the other too thick and by lunch I'd end up at the store later buying something in between, but in fact the capellini was splendid. Big enough to not cement like angel hair but diminutive enough to wind on a fork into a little nest that could re-cook in a cupcake tin for a mold, cappellini made perfect, tidy little nests that stayed together even when sauced as well as do the most important job: hold that gorgeous dollop of truffle caviar.
Later in the day, I made Mario's turnip recipe. He actually used regular turnips cut into eight segments where I used babies, but I didn't care for the result at all. Too soft and too tannic in flavor. And I do mean too soft: though I didn't cook mine the whole 40 minutes he specified, I cooked them longer than the four to five minutes I would have pulled them out at.
On Friday I shopped again and made the new and final versions of everything. A half pound of cappellini made 12 perfect pasta servings. The new turnips I bought were parboiled lightly in preparation, to be dressed them with vinegar, chianti and white truffle oil just prior to service on Saturday. I added a row of green olives (canned with water and salt, not the vinegary Spanish kind) to the center of the polpettone. The bread sticks went out the window, no time. And on Saturday morning, I blanched a bunch of basil with two green onions, then whizzed that in a blender with some olive oil and salt. That gave me a fresh and colorful sauce to go under the polpettone, and with the red of the spaghetti and the white of the plate? Very Italian.
It plated beautifully, tasted great. Below are two pictures. One, the baked but not yet fried polpettone, and the other, the dish as I served it at Bill's. It's not a good picture--this slice got a little too much color so I kept it for my serving, and the pic's a bit blurry, but you get the point. And below that is the recipe; for me, a real keeper.
3/4 lb ground turkey
1/2 lb lean ground pork
1 cup milk (I use 2%)
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 handful panko breadcrumbs, maybe 1/2 c
2 tablespoons finely diced shallot, sweated in butter
1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan Reggiano
1/2 tsp nutmeg
coarse ground black pepper
1/4 pound thinly sliced mortadella (or about 18 thin slices)
1/4 pound thinly sliced genoa salami (or about 18 thin slices)
Make a roux out of the butter and flour and whisk in the milk, creating a bechamel. When thickened, place in a large mixing bowl to cool. Add the oregano, nutmeg and shallots. When cool, mix in the eggs, then add the rest of the ingredients EXCEPT the mortadella and salami.
Choose your mold (this recipe works for a 10" Le Creuset terrine dish). Lay out a sheet of wax paper and lightly spray both the wax paper and your terrine dish with Pam. Using a rubber spatula, start putting down the meat mixture on the paper in a flat square roughly 10" x 9". Tile the flat meat with mortadella and then the salami--about three rows of three each, twice. Once the deli meat's on, flatten a bit with your hands to create uniform thickness. Hold back about a cup of the meat mixture--you probably won't end up using it all.
Now take some of the ground meat mixture and cove the bottom sides of your form with it. Since it's a square pan and you will be placing in it a round loaf, you need to fill in those gaps so that the roll doesn't have to flatten into those corners ruining the circular design of the deli meats.
Also, put a row of ground meat laterally about 1" thick across the bottom border of the flat meat mixture in front of you. That gives the center of your polpettone better structure even if you're not using a center object, like the green olives I used. If you're using one, embed them in that meat. Now, start rolling, using the paper to help you lift and push the roll forward. Do not roll all the way off the paper--stop when it's rolled up but the last part--it's bottom, which will become your top, is still on. Set the terrine dish down behind it to compare lengths. Using a very sharp knife slice the edges off the terrine to fit the mold exactly. Now invert the mold and place it over the loaf. Use the paper on either side to now pull the terrine dish upright and peel the paper off. Use your remaining meat mixture to fill in the top of the terrine and smooth down with a wet rubber spatula.
Set a loose piece of untucked foil over the top for a nominal cover and place the terrine in a larger baking dish half full of water. Bake at 350 F for an hour or until a thermometer reads 150 F.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov