Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In which I finally participate, or, Paper Chef 38

I have not been blogging for that long. Well, there were those four or five misguided months freshman year of college during which I thought everyone and their mom wanted to know about who sneezed in my English lit class, but let's save that for another time, shall we? This blog has been up and running for almost a year (note to self: think of something tasty for blog-o-versary) but I have yet to participate in any of the popular blog events that come around every weekend, or every Tuesday, or every Friday. But when I stumbled across the Paper Chef phenomenon, I was intrigued.

So here's the story. The first full weekend of every month is Paper Chef weekend. On Wednesday, the previous month's winner randomly selects three ingredients from a list of suggestions, and a fourth of their own choosing. Then you have to use them all in one dish. Hmmmm.

This month's chosen ingredients are fig, mint, anchovy, and polenta. Again I say, hmmmm.

First I thought of tapenade: figs, olives, anchovies, mint, all mashed together on a fried polenta crudite would be easy enough.

But then I remembered that meatloaf I made a while back that had prunes finely chopped and mixed right in. And I love mint in savory dishes - I sometimes confuse the flavor with basil, actually. Oh and anchovies are a great base for tomato sauce (no, mom, they don't taste like fish, they taste... nutty) and then I ended up with this:

Here are some things I would do differently: I wish the polenta had been creamier, so next time I'll use more water (and more butter!). I wish the tomato sauce had been less watery (though I think it looks ok) but I only had diced tomatoes, not pureed, and I was too hungry to let it reduce a lot. I LOVED the meatballs. Seriously. Mint and fig set off the savory beef and onion very well - I'll make these again, maybe to put in fresh pitas with a sauce of mint, yogurt and lemon.

Fig and Mint Meatballs with Anchovy Tomato Sauce over Creamy Polenta
serves 4

For the Meatballs:
1 lb ground beef (I used 90/10 which was just lean enough for me)
1/2 cup dried mission figs, finely chopped
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 a cup)
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 egg
1/4 cup grated parmesan
1 large clove garlic, minced or grated
3 tbsp basil, finely chopped
2 tbsp mint, finely chopped
1/8 tsp ground cumin
salt and pepper, about 1/2 tsp each

For the sauce:
6 anchovy fillets (packed in oil, rinse them first if you got salt-packed)
olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1 tbsp butter
1 28 oz can good quality diced tomatoes (or pureed tomatoes, see notes)
2 tbsp basil, finely chopped
1 tbsp mint, finely chopped

For the polenta:
1 cup polenta, not pre-cooked, but instant (5 minutes cooking time) is fine
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
2 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt

For garnish:
basil chiffonade
whole mint leaves

Preheat the oven to 375. Then, while you chop the herbs and onion for the meatballs, soak the finely chopped figs in some hot water, just to soften them up a bit. Let them sit for five minutes or so, then drain them thoroughly. Combine with all the other meatball ingredients in a bowl and mix, with your hands, until combined. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil on a baking sheet, and form the meatball mixture into about 18 balls, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Bake for 12 -15 minutes until cooked through, turning once if you like, and until there are some brown crispy bits on the tops.

While the meatballs bake, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet over medium high heat, and add the anchovy fillets. After a minute or so, you can start smushing them with a wooden spoon; they will eventually "melt" into the sauce. After two more minutes, add the grated or minced garlic, and saute for 30 seconds to 1 minute or until you can smell it. Add the can of diced tomatoes and let simmer for 5 minutes or until the tomatoes soften. Begin smushing the tomatoes with the wooden spoon, you're going for a sauce, but a chunky one. The meatballs are probably done now - just set them aside, it will all come together in a couple of minutes. Tent them with foil if you like, to keep them warm. Add the basil and mint to the sauce, stir, taste, and season with salt and pepper.

While the tomatoes simmer, prepare the polenta according to package directions. The brand I found said to bring four cups of salted water to a boil, then add one cup of polenta in a slow stream, whisking constantly, then whisking for 5 minutes over low heat until it thickens. It thickens FAST and it's so thick that the bubbles are violent. Whisking constantly is not a recommendation, it's a must, and it helps to have another person in charge of whisking. After five minutes, add the butter and parmesan to the polenta, taste, and add more salt if necessary.

To plate, lay the polenta in a circle in the middle of a wide bowl or dish, top with tomato sauce, and put 3-4 meatballs on top, garnish with chiffonade basil and a mint leaf.

Note: I was going for something sort of pretty, but if you've gotten the timing off a little, you could add the meatballs back to the tomato sauce and simmer for a few minutes to warm them up.


  1. Oooo, lovely! Paper chef sounds like a really fun challenge; I'll have to check it out.

  2. this sounds very tasty! great job with the ingredients :) and fun challenge!

  3. Love your mint & fig meatballs. What a great idea. Anchovy and tomato is a great combination too. My friend makes an anchovy pasta that really brings the taste of anchovies to the fore and it's called 'the stinky pasta' but it tastes great!

  4. This sounds delicious. I wouldn't have thought to add figs to meatballs, but now that you mention it... mmm!

  5. Mmmm indeed! And speaking of yum, the rest of the recipes are in the roundup on the paper chef blog: http://paperchef.blogspot.com/2009/03/paper-chef-38-round-up.html

    Go check it out!

  6. Great creation! The anchovy tomato sauce sounds really good.

  7. This was a good idea. I like how you used the ingredients here. Good thinking.