Meatballs with Tomato Sauce and Polenta / by Amy Cantu

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Meatballs with Tomato Sauce and Polenta

We were out of town for two weeks over the holidays, visiting family and friends. So when we returned home an hour before dinnertime, I stared into the cavernous empty fridge and let out a loud groan. Ugggghhh. What are we going to eat?! I started freezer diving, and when I came up for air, I bestowed upon my family the bag of frozen meatballs from Cynthia! (Cue angels singing and bright spotlight on the frozen meatballs.) I fished out a bag of polenta and a can of tomatoes from the pantry, and dinner was on its way. While the meatballs and polenta baked in the oven, I stirred together a simple tomato sauce on the stove. Within an hour, we enjoyed creamy, parmesan polenta, crowned with savory meatballs bathed in a simple tomato sauce. I gave myself a pat on the back, and whispered a silent thank you to Cynthia. Voila! Dinner is served!

Notes: Cynthia's recipe for Swedish Meatballs are spiced mildly enough that when combined with the tomato sauce and polenta, the dish tastes decidedly more Italian than Swedish. If you are starting from scratch and using Cynthia's recipe, you can substitute 1 teaspoon dried oregano for the allspice and nutmeg. Or, feel free to use your own meatball recipe here.  To make this an easy vegetarian meal, serve the polenta topped with a runny, fried egg and the tomato sauce - yum!

Time: 50 minutes

Serves: 4

20 small meatballs, Cynthia's or your own recipe
1 recipe Simple Tomato Sauce (recipe below)
1 recipe Baked Polenta (recipe below)
Parmesan cheese, grated (optional garnish)
Fresh basil, chiffonade/thinly sliced into ribbons (optional garnish - see photo below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. I baked Cynthia’s frozen raw meatballs on a sheet pan, alongside the polenta for the last 35 minutes of cooking. The meatballs were shaped on the smaller side, so make sure to test that your meatballs are cooked through by splitting one open. You could also simmer the meatballs in the tomato sauce, while the polenta is baking in the oven.

Spoon polenta into four shallow bowls. Top polenta with meatballs and tomato sauce. Sprinkle with grated parmesan and basil, if using.

Simple Tomato Sauce

Developed from here and here.

Notes: This is a simple sauce that can be made on the fly with items from your pantry. I like the sweet, subtle anise flavor of fresh basil in this sauce, but if you don’t have any in the house, substitute dried oregano, which will give it a more Italian-American flavor. Dried basil tends to have a flat, dusty flavor, so I prefer dried oregano.

Taking an extra minute to hand-crush canned whole tomatoes (as opposed to already crushed or diced tomatoes), will give your sauce better flavor. The best tomatoes go into cans of whole tomatoes, while the inferior tomatoes get diced up or crushed.

The onion in this recipe is used for flavor and then removed once the sauce is cooked. This leaves you with a rich tomato sauce infused with onion flavor and a nice texture. You can save the onions for something else (they would be delicious alongside pan-seared chicken or roasted meat), or serve them on the side.

1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil or butter
4 garlic cloves, peeled and slivered
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
1 large fresh basil sprig, or 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, more to taste

Pour tomatoes into a large bowl and crush with your hands, and reserve.

Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When it is hot, add garlic. Sauté until the garlic sizzles, but is not brown (see photo above - about 1 minute). Add the crushed tomatoes to the pan, along with the red pepper (if using), salt, onion, and large basil sprig.

Cook uncovered at a slow, but steady simmer for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, when you feel moved to do so.

Remove the onion and basil. Taste and correct for salt. Serve.

Baked Polenta

Notes: Baked Polenta takes more time than polenta made on a stove-top, but there is very little active time. Polenta made over the stove requires constant stirring for at least half an hour, while baked polenta cooks in the oven, freeing me up to fix a salad or wrangle with the kids (more likely). The results leave you with a piping hot bowl of creamy corn goodness.

This polenta would also be great topped with any saucy protein (like a meat stew), a fried egg and a side of sauteed greens, or some roasted vegetables.

4 cups (1 quart) low-sodium broth (any kind) or water
1 cup polenta, coarse ground cornmeal, or corn grits (not quick-cooking)
1 teaspoon kosher salt (if using unsalted broth or water)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
2 ounces Parmesan, grated (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter an oven-safe 2 quart dish. (An 8"x8" pan works well too.)

Combine broth (or water and salt), polenta, and pepper in the buttered dish and stir. Bake uncovered for about 1 hour, stirring once or twice. Polenta is done when it is thick and creamy.

Remove from oven, and stir in the grated parmesan and butter. Serve.