The word for meatball in Italian is ‘polpetta’; and the English word ‘pulp’ must surely be related to it, as in when you beat someone ‘to a pulp’. Pulp as in ‘mushy’. But while a meatball always contains meat, duh!, in the English speaking world, in Italy the eclectic polpetta can be made using vegetable-only ingredients, or even just bread and cheese. Number one.
Number two. And whereas in English a hamburger contains only meat (unless it’s a veggie burger), the north Italian equivalent of a ground-meat patty (which is what a burger is after all) is called a ‘Svizzera’. ‘Svizzere’ were what people bought at the butchers before the word ‘hamburger’ become common even in Italy, probably towards the 1980s.
Kyle Phillips wrote the following in a blog post dated 2013 from “Cosa Bolle in Pentola”: “Why the Milanese should have called a ground beef patty a Svizzera is beyond me, but they did, and Svizzere were already quite common in Italy before companies like McD’s began to introduce American-style fast food. And now in every Italian supermarket and butcher’s shop you will find a considerable variety of ready-to-cook Svizzere, including moderately fatty beef, lean beef, beef with pork, beef with turkey, beef with chicken, and many Svizzere with different kinds of herbs and flavorings mixed through the meat.”
Further down in this post, he provides a link for the recipe of a Svizzera with spinach – the first time I see the marrying of meat and spinach in one fell swoop. Sadly, Kyle Phillips is no longer with us and I cannot consult him as to how we came to have a dish called “spinacina” in the single, and “spinacine” in the plural. As you might have guessed even though you may not speak Italian, the word ‘spinacine’ is based on the Italian word for spinach. A spinacina is a patty made up of minced/ground chicken (or chicken and turkey) to which spinach is added.
I reckon that Popeye has something to do with this. We have all grown up thinking that spinach is good for us, and contains a lot of iron. It is just part of our culture. But – and there is the rub – how do you get people to eat more spinach, especially if they don’t like it?
Thus, I also reckon that some adult wanted to entice a child to eat more spinach and that an obliging butcher invented this dish in order to come to the aid of an exasperated mother who couldn’t get her child to eat greens.
Last, I reckon that an Italian industrial ready-to-cook meat producing company (Aia) launched them country-wide in 1990 in order to a) help busy or time-strapped mothers prepare a quick, child-friendly dinner and b) reassure said mother that the child would also be ‘forced’ to eat some healthy spinach thereby. I suppose the idea behind the spinacina is that this patty is so delicious, the kid will love it even if it doesn’t like spinach.
I went through a phase myself where I thought it normal to buy ready-to-cook or frozen foods for my young children: chicken cordon bleu, fish fingers, or frozen crispy pancakes (called ‘sofficini’ in Italian) but I don’t remember ever buying these spinacini. I did, once, go to the bother of making a chicken cordon bleu at home for the sake of my favourite son, now grown up (https://myhomefoodthatsamore.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/thoreau-and-a-chicken-cordon-bleu/) and so when I came across a recipe for making spinacine the other day, I thought to myself: well why not? what it boils down to, basically, is chicken and spinach polpette. And my favourite daughter, who loves spinach, is bound to like ’em.
What I can say, having tasted one, is that they are definitely worth the effort and not hard to make at all. The ones I made were fried in plenty of very hot vegetable oil and I know a lot of people hate to fry. The alternative is to place the spinacine on a well-oiled sheet of parchment paper and cook them in the oven. If they turn out a bit dry, you can always serve them with some kind of sauce or …. ssssh … ketchup.
Have a go!
Ingredients: 400g minced/ground chicken (I used chicken thighs and got my butcher to mince the meat for me); 150g fresh spinach leaves; 40-60g grated parmesan: 1 egg for the mix and 2 eggs for the eggwash; 2 serving spoons of Italian breadcrumbs (otherwise use panko) plus more for breading; salt and pepper, some freshly grated nutmeg. Oil for frying: I used groundnut/peanut oil which has an excellent smoke point.
This will be enough to serve six moderately hungry people and four rather hungry ones.
Do not wilt the spinach, no need. But do wash it, naturally, and pat dry.
Place the spinach on the bottom of the food processor. Sprinkle salt and pepper and the nutmeg.
Then add one egg and the parmesan.
And finally the breadcrumbs and the chicken.
Pulse the ingredients until you get the texture you prefer and everything is well combined.
Here is one huge spinach and chicken polpetta ! So the thing to do is divide it into six parts.
Cut it in half and then cut each half into three parts and roll them into polpette – six polpette in all.
Once you have the six polpette, flatten them into an oblong shape with rounded edges.
It’s actually quite fun, moulding these spinacine.
They should be about 1.5cm thick … i.e. not too thick otherwise they won’t cook properly in the middle, and you don’t want to eat raw chicken.
Time to bread the spinacine.
Two beaten eggs in one bowl, and the breadcrumbs in the other.
Dip the spinacina into the eggwash first …
And then bread it. Press firmly.
At this point, if you wanted, you could freeze the spinacine, to eat on another day.
Instead, I put them in the fridge for half an hour, so that they would firm up a bit.
Time to fry the spinacine.
Heat the oil in a large and deep enough frying pan.
Get yourself ready. Have a plate with plenty of kitchen paper on it nearby.
Use a slotted spoon.
Use the slotted spoon to slide the spinacine into the hot oil.
Let the spinacine cook on one side for about two minutes.
Then, because they are quite ‘heavy’, use two spoons or two forks to turn the spinacine over on the other side.
See how nice and golden the already fried side is. Cook the other side for less time – about one minute will do. Use the slotted spoon, again, to transfer the cooked spinacine to the plate.
Here they are … resting on the kitchen paper, any excess oil being absorbed by it.
But to be honest, they really weren’t greasy at all. And that is because I followed the golden rules of frying: the oil must be at least two inches deep, or deep enough for the food to ‘swim’ in it, and the oil must be hot enough when you put the food into it. If you haven’t got a thermometer, and I don’t often bother with one, you can know that the oil is hot enough if, when you put the thin end of a wooden spoon inside the frying pan, the oil ‘bubbles’ cheerfully around it. Last, do not cook all at once. Every time you lower food into the frying pan, the temperature naturally goes down – so fry the foods a little at a time.
I had spinach leftover which I wilted. I put it on the plate, cold and pressed, together with some nice tomatoes and some mozzarella. Seasoned with olive oil and salt.
It was a very nice combination. I sprinkled some salt over the spinacina and a few drops of lemon juice too.
I cut the spinacina in half to show you what it looks like inside.
Anyway, just for the record, favourite daughter happened to be home and had these for dinner last night and pronounced them very good. She took the remaining two to work with her today.
P.S. The recipe I read called for 40g grated parmesan. I think that a wee big more is advisable, which is why under ‘ingredients’ I wrote: 40-60g grated parmesan.