il polpettone e come mai lo insegno: meat loaf and why i teach it

by Silvestro on November 15, 2010

 


At the school we serve rabbit, at least once a week. We serve bitter weeds, once caked with red mud. We serve cheeses that could revive dazed boxers. We serve actual flower bulbs, boiled in vinegar and then put up in jars. We serve squiggly little things that live between shells at the bottom of the briny sea. And in general, our students are open to new experiences. That’s why they come.

In fact, one of the few things that is NOT a stretch in any way for them is meatloaf. Everyone loves it. So why teach it? What’s to learn? What’s to teach?

It’s because our students come from wealthy countries from all over the world. Ask yourself why rich people would go to study the cooking of the historically poor. Go ahead.

Take a minute.

Then read on.

It takes a village to make a good polpettone. Or at least an entire market. Start with Stefano the butcher: Ask for lean beef and pork and that he to mince it for you. Suggest to him that you’d like a 30% pork-to 70% beef ratio, minced or ground twice. Don’t skip this stage, as hamburger won’t work, not really anyway.

Stefano is my trusted butcher and has been for the last 8 years. He’s never let me down. Our conversations usually go like this.  Me: ‘Polpe‘. Stefano: ‘quante‘ (‘quante persone’, for how many people). Me: 12. Stefano: ‘Azz‘. (Which I’ll translate as ‘Sweet Fancy Moses’). The bag he always gives me is on the light side, considering it’s meat for twelve. That’s the first thing to notice, how light the bag is. I’ll ask you to carry it, to feel its heft.


Pick up a scamorza affiumicata, a cheese that most of you will know as smoked provola, from Gian-Franco of course, our salumi guy for the better part of a decade. He treats all his cheeses as if they were live chicks, his fingers holding them delicately as not to leave any mark not made by the actual cheese maker.

He’s also my source for fresh milk.

And eggs, those that have never seen the inside of a refrigerator.


Slice la scamorza, anyway you like as long as it’s thin and even.


Add a couple of eggs, some salt and pepper, some grated cheese and the same weight as the meat in bread crumbs. There is no need to measure any of these. No one here ever would. Just make sure that the bread crumbs and the meat are about the same weight. Polpettone started as a way to stretch meat. Lose that concept and you’ve lost polpettone.

Pour milk into the mixture until it’s a little thicker than oatmeal. It needs to be really wet, wetter than you might be thinking.

Stuff it with your spicy salame and then smoked cheese. Don’t go nuts on the filling. Think ‘pearl in the oyster’.

So why do I teach polpettone? It’s because it’s formerly a poor person’s dish and one that reminds us all of that, everyday, what it was like to NOT have.

But polpettone is also about the dish itself, not the cook, that he’s better, smarter, faster or more savvy than the other cooks that make it (You could easily swap my polpettone with that of any 80-year old neighbor lady and she couldn’t tell the difference).

It’s because it’s simple.

It’s good.

It connects us, as a community.

It means something, something profound.

And as I see it, that’s in pretty short supply today when it comes to food, when it all seems to be about trends and sizzles, bells and whistles.

To paraphrase the brilliant food scholar Felipe Fernàndez-Armesto, if the next generation of eaters is to be successful, they will have to undo all that has been done by the current one.

But if it DOES happen, you’ll know. Odds are good that you’ll have your mouth full of meatloaf at the time.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

ann larson November 16, 2010 at 9:05 am

Your Italian version of a meatloaf looks delicious but as for the adventurous-eater’s items you mention, my travelers are not THAT adventurous and would need to pack a lot of snack crackers, etc to eat on those days- seriously! They would prefer learning to make typical pasta dishes probably!

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Silvestro November 19, 2010 at 5:00 am

Ann,
While our programme has been a great success for the last seven years, one thing that has become clear is that we’re not for everyone.
I never recommend our programme for anyone that hasn’t been to Italy before. It happens a few times a year, just the same, but generally, our students have been to Italy many times before and fully grasp the regionalism of it.
We can’t be all things to everyone, so we go authentic and local and let the cards fall where they do.
Silvestro

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Boyd and Gay Gibbons November 16, 2010 at 9:07 pm

Silvestro:

You made our mouths water, so tonight I made the meatloaf. It’s baking now in the oven. But you didn’t tell us at what temperature to cook, nor how long. It’s now been in about an hour at 370 degrees farenheit, and I’m not sure if it’s one yet.

We debated the “equal weight of bread crumbs to meat,” and put in slightly less than a pound of meat to about 1/2 lb. of bread crumbs.

After it went in the oven, we thought how we usually make meatloaf by including chopped peppers, onions, celery, carrots, tomatoes. What would you think of adding those?

We’ll let you know the results!

Boyd and Gay Gibbons

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Silvestro November 19, 2010 at 5:12 am

Boyd,
in the next few weeks you’ll be given a link to a site of all of our updated recipes. But, regarding the meatloaf, I think you’ll be looking for 140 degrees internally. We make meatloaf for 10-12 people each week and so our cooking times are long compared to what you and Gay will likely need for the two of you, or a dinner with friends. I’m guessing, a 4 person loaf, cooked on a metal pan, will take around 45 minutes to hit 140 internally. (I think in centigrade, so I look for 80 internally, same as a roast pig). As we have guests from all over the world each week, I say ‘hot’ oven, to avoid the gas mark, centigrade, Fahrenheit issues.
A cheap probe thermometre will prove helpful.
As an aside, this blog is about the food, wine and culture of the Salento but it’s not geared to be a recipe site. I aim to promote the region, not just give away recipes for the sake of giving them away.
Our new recipe site will be up soon and it WILL give you all the recipes from the school, now and forever more
Silvestro

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Silvestro December 4, 2010 at 8:40 am

Richard,
I’m working on a website for alumni, today in fact. I’ll send you a link through your email. Hope our paths cross again someday!
Silvestro

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rebecca December 16, 2010 at 11:17 pm

oh wow this meatloaf looks divine and adore your blog

Rebecca

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Dean Nelson December 30, 2010 at 12:14 am

ahh…made me think of the time at the table where on the first day at the cooking school community was formed….Felipe Fernàndez-Armesto sounds like a scholar who understands the deeper meaning of food. This meatloaf story brought me back to the meatloaf after church on a Sunday on the farm with good neighbors just not in Italy. Look forward to trying this version of meatloaf

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Dana January 6, 2011 at 11:57 pm

I found your blog today and am eager to follow along. Funny that the most recent post is about the boring old meatloaf as I just wrote a post about taking a cooking class where said meatloaf was one of the stars! Ha! I’m not much on meatloaf, but these 2 versions may be changing that.
Have a great day.
Dana

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Tonia January 22, 2011 at 1:44 pm

My mom used to make meat loaf frequently when I was growing up because 1)dad liked it; 2)it was not only dinner, but also sandwiches for lunch the next day or so; 3)it was inexepensive. Yours looks delicious and I’ll have to try this variation one day. Thanks for the memories!

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Lynne April 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

It’s just so lovely, Silvestro, how even the pictures teach. And cooking is ‘essence’ isn’t it. I’m going to make this beauty, as it looks yummy finished . . . and with a lot of crunch all around. Am going to adjust my views of time and temp to what you’re explaining and will make this Sunday next providing lots for my spouse to take for his week away.

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Keith July 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Wow, this meatloaf recipe is great! I just made one (using turkey “tacchino”) the other day, but this recipe reminds me of my grandmother’s recipe (she’s from Puglia), especially the meats used.

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CJ at Food Stories January 4, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Love your food story 🙂

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