Veal meatballs with lemon and capers was another of my mother’s Southern Italian dishes I so loved as a child.
Not as much perhaps as her delicious beef meatballs bursting with juicy raisins and pine nuts and small enough to just pop into your mouth, but the lemony/salty delicacy of her veal version had a lush comfort factor all of its own - perfect when the dim, grey January skies hang heavy over your head and something fragrant and cosy is what you want to eat at the end of a long tiring day.
Now it is important to note that tomato sauce does not come into the picture. It seems that every time “Italian” and “meatballs” appear in the same sentence, “red sauce” and “spaghetti” enters the scene too.
Not here. No. Even though these meatballs are Italian.
Instead they are perfect served as is, perhaps with a squeeze of lemon – or maybe with a classic, quickly made sauce of lemon juice, capers, parsley and garlic cooked briefly in olive oil, always my preference.
A perfect companion is peas braised in butter with a few chopped baby shallots. And mashed potatoes, of course, the ultimate winter comfort food, put through a ricer for lightness and fluff.
Note: Here in England, there has long been anxiety about welfare standards and ethical considerations in the rearing of veal calves. There are now a handful of dairy herds producing rose veal under proper conditions, and a good butcher will have supplies in season.
Once again Arthur Schwartz has written the perfect recipe for what I grew up thinking belonged to our family alone. In “Naples at Table” he gives first the classic “Polpette di Vitello” and then the adjustments for “Polpette con Capperi e Limone.” Here I have put them in one.
Veal Meatballs with Capers and Lemon
All you need is: serves 4-6 as a main course; 8 as an antipasto
1 ½ cups dried, crustless bread cut into 1 ½” cubes before measuring
1 cup cold water
1 lb ground veal
1 egg, beaten to mix well
1 tsp finely minced garlic
¼ cup capers, rinsed and chopped
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 cup (loosely packed) grated pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tbps (loosely packed) finely cut parsley or mint
¾ tsp salt
¼ tsp black pepper
extra virgin olive oil for frying.
Soak bread in the cold water. In a large mixing bowl combine, but do not yet mix, all of the remaining ingredients other than the frying oil. Squeeze the bread by handfuls to drain off the water, then break it up into the bowl. First with a fork, then with your hands, blend the mixture very well, squishing it in your hands to make sure the bread blends with the meat.
With your hands moistened in cold water, roll the mixture between your palms into 45 meatballs, each about 1 inch in diameter. (Note: I make them slightly bigger)
Brown them in a pan skimmed with olive oil. (Note: I brown them in batches, moving each batch to a side dish. When all are browned, I tip them all back in the pan, cover with a lid and simmer them for a few minutes to make sure they are all cooked through.
Serve hot or at room temperature. Offer pieces of lemon on the side, or add
Lemon, Caper Sauce: serves 2
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
a handful of parsley or mint, finely chopped
1 tbsp capers, finely chopped
Cook chopped garlic on low heat until slightly coloured. Add chopped capers, parsley and lemon juice, then simmer for a few minutes until parsley/mint is soft and flavours blended.
Serve on warm meatballs.