“I have a confession to make…” were Oliver’s words when he entered the room. “How many?” I fired right back at him. I exactly knew what had happened. I heard him walking towards the kitchen earlier where he couldn’t possibly have overlooked something deliciously simmering on the stove-top, and really, how could he not be tempted? I jokingly call him the food mobster, since you really need to hold on to your plate and never dare to leave the room and your food unattended. Afterwards he’ll claim it was never there to begin with. This time he had gotten hold of an Italian specialty from Calabria, ricotta balls (polpette di ricotta) cooked in a “fake sauce” (per the original meaning). Salsa finta, its actual name, arose from the fact that this tomato sauce contains no meat, which Italians seem to have considered key for a “real sauce” back in the days…
This recipe found its way into our kitchen via ARTE, a German/French TV channel. My latest discovery is their summer special covering regional food documentaries, broadcasted every evening from Monday to Friday. Each documentary features one culinary region, highlights the people that live there, talks about local problems (e.g. the challenges that come with having small, local farms) and shows them preparing typical regional dishes in their own kitchens, all put together in a very authentic and unpretentious way. More often than not the families struggle to survive with their own agriculture, yet daily food and family feasts are celebrated with such joy, it’s a pure pleasure to watch.
And their recipes! Having a weak spot for hearty, down to earth food, I diligently took notes while watching family Olivetos preparing a potato-eggplant dish, ricotta balls and much more. Watching with an empty stomach was almost torture! Checking with ARTE’s website right after made my notes redundant though, oh well. With a few minor changes the recipes turned out beautifully. Easy to prepare and light in consistency, perfect for a rainy August evening – ok, the rain is not crucial ;)
Preparing the sauce (Salsa finta):
Heat the olive oil in a larger pan. Add the finely diced onions and sauté until translucent, then add the tomato puree and lastly the canned tomatoes, crushed or whole. If I use whole ones, I carefully mash them with my fingers right over the pan, that way I can remove the stems easily. Season with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a generous dash of sugar, which helps to balance the tomatoes’ acidity nicely.
Let it cook lightly for about 15 minutes and add more salt and pepper if necessary. The original recipe makes you add fresh basil to the pan at the same time as you add the tomatoes, but I prefer to add a handful just before serving, maybe a minute or two, to ensure the basil is still fragrant and green.
Preparing the ricotta balls (Polpette di ricotta):
Drain the ricotta over a fine-mesh sieve for at least an hour. Put in a large bowl, together with the finely grated parmesan cheese, one egg, the breadcrumbs, chopped parsley and season with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Finally add two or three tablespoons of the salsa finta, then start working the ingredients together with your hands and season to taste. If the mix is too smooth to form balls of the size of a walnut, add more breadcrumbs, if it is too firm, add more salsa finta.
Form the balls, add them to the pan of salsa finta and let them cook right in the simmering sauce for about 10 minutes. Don’t forget to sway the pan from time to time to ensure the little balls get cooked through evenly. Just a minute or two before serving add a handful of basil leaves (whole, torn or cut into chiffonade, you decide) to the pan. The original recipe suggests eating the ricotta balls with salsa finta AND pasta, we savored them without pasta, just like we’d enjoy gnocchi, served with some more freshly grated parmesan and black pepper. No pasta required – if you ask me!
Salsa finta & polpette di ricotta
Preparing the sauce and ricotta balls: ~45 minutes (plus draining ricotta)
Ingredients (serves 2-3):
4 tbsp olive oil
1 mid-sized onion
2 tbsp tomato puree
~600g canned tomatoes, whole or crushed (including juice)
a generous dash of sugar
sea salt, freshly ground black pepper
a handful of fresh basil leaves
Polpette di ricotta:
40-50g freshly grated parmesan
1 mid-sized egg
~ a handful chopped fresh parsley
sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg to taste
2-3 tbsp of salsa finta
to serve: freshly grated parmesan, freshly ground black pepper