Weeknight Cooking

Vitello Tonnato Redux

December 13, 2010

Polpette di Vitello, Tonnato Style

- Jenny

Many years ago, when I wrote about health care, I learned that medical errors never stemmed from a single mistake. Even the case of the doctor who wrongly marked a pre-op x-ray before operating on the wrong side of his patient’s brain, as it turned out, had plenty of help in making that colossal boo boo.

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I think this is often the case with kitchen disasters, too. And so this week, while I will encourage you to try Polpette di Vitello, Tonnato Style, I use this space to connect on an emotional level with all of you about the shame of recipe abuse, something we all engage in from time to time, I suspect, in spite of our best intentions.

I was originally turned on to this recipe because I thought it could have two purposes: a possible appetizer to bring to a party, but also as an alterative to my usual meatball recipe, served with pasta, if I wished.

Things started out sub-optimally when I realized at 7 AM on Saturday morning, on a day I had to catch a noon train, that I had forgotten to make this recipe, which sent me to Whole Foods for veal at 8 AM, then home to start plowing through the instructions at rapid fire pace. First mistake: Rushing always leads to slowing down.

As I often do, I worked the recipe backwards, so I could have my onions chopped up and other things ready before I made the sauce. This is where reading ahead would have really helped.

The recipe calls for four eggs, but says “add eggs” to the meat. I had cracked all four into the meat bowl before realizing I need eggs for the sauce. How many? Who knew. You see, Pierino tells me many things –- Grind your own meat! Find a good tool for the sage! –- so I expected a more direct instruction on my eggs.

This is where things become very sad: I fished them out of my meat bowl as best I could -– yes there was some white left behind -- and dumped them unceremoniously into the food processor and carried on with the sauce.

When it came time to get back to the meatballs, I somehow interpreted “add eggs” as throw the sauce into the meatball mix and run with it. This mistake is quite insane -– somewhere between forgetting to add the dry ingredients to a cake recipe and throwing them in after it has been in the oven for ten minutes and using a chocolate fountain outside so that it could not be cleaned and then throwing it away and pretending it got lost in the move -– but, you know, there it was.

Strike two: Had I read to the bottom of the recipe, I would have known better, friends.

I boiled these guys up, for a lot shorter a time than the recipe calls for, and then pulled their sad, grey butts out of the water and unto a baking pan. I tasted one right away. Hmm. The addition of capers helped, it was more like an expensive purse with scuffed shoes –- a great distraction, but not compensatory.

The folks at food52 made the recipe correctly, and had much better results. “We're not used to poaching meatballs,” Amanda said, “but for vitello tonnato you typically poach the veal and that's unusual, as well. We liked the parallel between the classic and Pierino's variation.” She had a few other thoughts, like skipping the sauce straining and roasting a few for fun, which gave them more color.

My husband plans to fry them, which is really off-point but certainly a lemon/lemonade situation.

The larger point here -- are you even still reading? -– is that an offbeat recipe can turn out really well for the weeknight home cook, but the cook needs to pay attention, and there is really no upside in, strike three, trying to make sugar cookies at the same time. But that’s another story.

Polpette di Vitello, Tonnato Style

By Pierino

Serves 4 to 6

  • 2 pounds lean ground veal (please do grind it yourself, please)
  • 1/2 cup torn up bread, without crusts
  • 2 shallots
  • 4 eggs
  • Fresh garden sage
  • 3 really good oil packed anchovies (lest I be forced to remind you, pizza anchovies are diabolical and don’t belong in your kitchen unless you worship the devil)
  • 2 tablespoons salt packed capers
  • 1 120gm (or equivalent) can of top quality oil packed tuna
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • White wine vinegar
  • Sea salt and ground pepper (black, white or green)


1. Begin by making the tonnato sauce, it will make things easier if you do this first. In the bowl of a small food processor add two eggs, and begin to process as if you were making mayonnaise (actually you are) by gradually drizzling in up to half or more of the olive oil with the motor running. When it’s mayonnaise stop and add the tuna and the anchovies and just a small splash of vinegar. Pulse it until smooth and creamy.

2. Strain the sauce through a coarse sieve such as a tamis. Set aside in a large bowl.

3. For the meat balls; tear up the bread and sprinkle with cold water and white vinegar just to soften it up.

4. Chop the sage rather finely. There are tools for that.

5. Mince the shallots.

6. In a large bowl, one in which you can fit both of your hands, combine the meat, the eggs, shallots and the sage. Squeeze as much liquid as you can from the bread and work that into the meat mixture with your scrubbed hands. Sea salt here would be good. Ground pepper too.

7. Get a pot of water boiling, add salt and reduce to a simmer. Meanwhile (the dreaded meanwhile), form veal mixture into small, very small meatballs. Like the size of a ping pong ball.

8. Add just a splash of vinegar to the simmering water. Working just one or two at a time at the beginning add your meatballs to the poaching liquid. Keep the heat at a steady simmer. After about 15 minutes spoon one out and check for doneness. They must be cooked all of the way through. When they are done scoop out onto a sheet pan to rest for a minute or so.

9. Now the capers. You’ve purchased really top notch salt packed capers, right? Okay, well allow those to soak in cold water. When you get ready to plate things up, carefully drain off the water using your hands or a strainer. The cappers are there to finish the plate.

10. Now, onto each appetizer plate ladle a little sauce, scatter a few capers and add your chilled meatballs. E voila!

By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, covers Congress for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.

Jennifer Steinhauer


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pierino December 16, 2010
Okay, I've gone back and re-edited the recipe per Jenny's comments. However I wouldn't encourage roasting or frying the polpette as the original is meant to be served as a cold appetizer, and yes, the poaching step does seem odd but that's actually how vitello tonnato is prepared.
guzziguldsko December 14, 2010
try frying the capers till crisp, so good..
Jestei December 15, 2010
Fried and capers = yum
mariaraynal December 13, 2010
Jenny, my fellow weeknight cook, my last kitchen misadventure was Thanksgiving morning, as I attempted what might be the easiest recipe in Amanda's new book. Sitcom material. Always refreshing to know I have kindred spirits out there.
Jestei December 15, 2010
always! xx
pierino December 13, 2010
I appreciate all of your comments. I'm to go back and correct the steps as soon as I can. I was trying to make deadline in the "meatball"competition and obviously I was typing too fast. I'll fix that. And thank you Jenny for having a run with it.
drbabs December 13, 2010
You make me feel so much better about all my little (and large) screw-ups.
Jestei December 13, 2010
believe me, i have ten for every one success.
mcs3000 December 13, 2010
I feel your pain, Jenny! My kitchen meltdowns have been caused by similar issues. On one occasion, I couldn’t salvage my cake and it ended up in the compost bin. Too late to make a new one, I had to serve store-bought cake... On the upside, excited about checking out pierino's recipes.
Jestei December 13, 2010
wait, you can put cake in a compost bin? i learn so much here!!
Sagegreen December 13, 2010
What is it about Mondays? I needed two, not just one, early morning market trips to get all the ingredients I neededfor the recipe I am testing before heading off to work! Thanks for featuring pierino, whose style we have come to love, too.
Jestei December 13, 2010
happy monday sagegreen! xx oo
mrslarkin December 13, 2010
Yep, that's where multitasking will get you - up the crick. I'm a pro at it. Hope the cookies came out okay. Thanks for the lesson, Jenny, and the great recipe, Pierino.
Jestei December 13, 2010
Please let us know if you make it how your version turned out!!
mklug December 13, 2010
Jenny--you always make my Mondays! And the combo of you and Pierino (who is always so nice to me with pickle answers and has great recipes!) is fantastic...I second TiggyBee!
Jestei December 13, 2010
A person who helps with pickles is a friend indeed! Thank you!
Lizthechef December 13, 2010
We have all been there, Jenny.
Jestei December 13, 2010
i know, i know.
TiggyBee December 13, 2010
God, I just love pierino and Jenny, independently, of course - as I see the complications.
Any chance for a Jenny/pierino ticket in the future?
Jestei December 13, 2010
this could happen. i feel it.
pierino December 13, 2010
Well, thank you ma'am. I think it's pretty good myself, but clearly I need to tweak the instructions further. One thing food52 has helped me with is the discipline of writing recipes so that they're fool proof. Too often I operate on the principle that cooks instinctively understand the steps, but clearly I've been wrong before.
Jestei December 13, 2010
we love you, all of us.