How to make tiny croquettes — meatless meatballs — ample and flavorful

Polpette di Pane, or meatballs made of bread, are a revelation. Photo courtesy of Canva.

The word “meatball” in English is so inadequate compared to the Italian “polpette,” pronounced pol-PET-tay. The problem is the word “meat.” It reduces the possibility inherent in what are essentially croquettes, defined by dictionary.com as “a small roll of chopped vegetables, meat, or fish, fried in breadcrumbs.” Italians understand that the role of the croquette or polpette is to take the meager and make it ample and delicious. They can be flat patties, cylinders or little balls.

The first time I viscerally understood this was at a restaurant in Lecce in the region of Puglia. Unfortunately I no longer remember the name of the place, but I have a mental photograph of the plate of small balls made of bread, cheese, and herbs held together with egg and rolled in breadcrumbs. They were first sauteed then stewed in tomato sauce. For years, I had been making croquettes from eggplant or spinach or leeks, but the idea of just bread was an aha moment. After all, I'd always added bread soaked in milk or water to ground meat for my meatballs. It gives a more tender result than if you use meat alone. Sometimes my meatballs are as much as 50% bread. On my recent trip to Abruzzo, I had polpette di pane made with walnuts and anchovies worked into the softened bread, which only confirmed for me the ingeniousness of using bread not only to bind but create a base for other flavors and ingredients. 

If you use dry breadcrumbs as a binder instead of soaked bread, you can use additions that have more moisture, like roasted eggplant or zucchini. Boiled potatoes can also act as a binder, as well as give you a pleasing tender result. If you plan to serve them in sauce, they need to be sturdy enough to maintain their shape while being warmed up. If you plan to serve them as fritters or patties, they can be a little looser, more tender.

Here are two recipes for you. The first is the Polpette di Pane or Bread Croquette. After you make it once, you understand how to start changing it through the addition of onions or cheese or vegetables or even meat. The second is my recipe for Eggplant Croquettes, which I usually serve as an appetizer with sauce as a dip on the side.

Polpette di Pane

You can serve these in tomato sauce as a vegetarian alternative to meatballs, or as an appetizer that is simply fried with tomato sauce as a dip.

Ingredients 

  • 2 inch thick slices sturdy artisan bread, day old
  • Enough milk or water to barely cover bread
  • ½ - 1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, depending on how cheesy you want
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • 2-3 mint leaves, minced (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon Salt and Pepper to taste.
  • Panko or other plain dry breadcrumbs
  • Oil for frying
  • Your favorite tomato sauce

Instructions

-Tear or cut the bread into pieces, discarding crust that is extremely dark or hard. Add more crumb if necessary to make up for the crust you’ve eliminated. Put the bread piece in a bowl and bathe with the milk. Let soak for a few minutes. 

-Squeeze the soaked bread to eliminate excess milk and put it into a clean bowl. Add 1 egg, the cheese, salt and pepper and herbs and mix well. I’ve found that using my hands is the best way. Let the mixture rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour at least and up to overnight. When ready to cook them, remove the mixture from the refrigerator and roll into 1” balls. 

-Beat the remaining egg. Lay enough breadcrumbs on a dish to coat the polpette. Dip each ball into the egg then the breadcrumbs. Repeat until all the batter is used.

-In a saucepan or deep skillet, pour enough oil to come up to 2.” Heat oil to 350 degrees then gently put a few polpette at a time into the hot oil. Fry until they are golden all over, then remove them with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towels. Immediately cook them in your prepared tomato sauce until they are heated through. Note: They will absorb more sauce than pasta does.

-Serve the polpette with a scatter of grated cheese.


Eggplant Croquettes are a meatless “meatball.” Photo by Kathy Ternay.

Evan’s Eggplant Croquettes
Serves 4 to 6 as appetizer

If you want to serve these in tomato sauce as a vegetarian “meatball,”  then double the breadcrumbs in the eggplant mixture.

Ingredients 

  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/2 cup Panko breadcrumbs plus more for breading
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced (to taste)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • Frying oil – grapeseed, peanut, or canola
  • Lemon wedge for drizzling juice

Instructions

-Preheat oven to 450 F. Place the eggplant on a foil-lined cookie sheet with sides, to catch drips. Bake in pre-heated oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until the eggplant collapses and the inner pulp is soft. Don’t worry if the peel gets burnt. If you like a smokey flavor, you can do this on a closed grill at moderate heat. 

-Let the eggplant cool enough so that you can handle it. Carefully scoop out the soft pulp and place in a colander to drain. 

-Put the drained eggplant in a bowl and stir briskly to break the flesh down into a very rough puree. Add eggs, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Place mixture in a bowl and refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour and up to overnight.

-Cover the bottom of a pie or cake pan with 1/2 inch of panko. In a medium frying pan, heat enough oil to come 1/2 inch up the sides. Drop a tablespoon of the eggplant mixture onto the breadcrumbs and roll to coat. Place immediately in the frying pan. Fry until golden brown on all sides. Serve hot with lemon wedges or tomato sauce.