The last time I cooked my family’s Toori Dal in the Le Creuset French Oven, we spoke about how great it is for building flavours in your pan slowly. Its heavy-duty cast-iron built with an enamel coating inside also happens to be really great for browning or developing flavourful crusts on the outside of things. Cast iron gets evenly hot and distributes heat very well across the surface of the pan, which also makes it the ideal choice for frying things. Think about burger patties for a second—the deep caramelisation of the meat patty on both sides is much better if you’re using a cast iron pan obviously- burger patties are delicious when cooked fast and flipping to aid the formation of a crust and seal the meat’s juices inside. It’s similar when making meatballs too. If you start on a kheema or mince dish with little meatballs and brown them on all sides before breaking them up and cooking them slowly, it turns out to be intensely flavourful. This is not just the case with minced meat, but also with little veggie polpettes.
I chanced upon these aubergine and nut balls in Milan last year and I’ve been obsessed with making them again. The recipe starts off as a baingan bharta of sorts where you roast the aubergine on an open flame. Then you take the skin off and squeeze any excess moisture from the aubergine. After that, it’s like a meatball mixture where you combine it with breadcrumbs and nuts, tons of flavour, which in this case can just be pesto from a jar and shape into balls. If you were to shallow-fry these balls in your Le Creuset French Oven, you’d be able to develop a lovely crunchy exterior on all sides of the meatball. Any remaining fat can then be used to start on your special marinara sauce. Alternately, you can also deep-fry in a French Oven, again over medium-high flame. Test a smidgen of your meatball batter to tell if the oil is hot enough, or with wooden chopsticks. If the inserted end of the chopsticks starts to bubble, you know your oil is ready.
The 18cm French Oven is a very useful pan to have if you’re cooking meals fuss-free because instead of getting multiple pans out for different functions, one pan does all. It can fry the polpettes, make the marinara sauce, and even cook some spaghetti later. Add to that the fact that you can finish your pasta in this pan too. No need to switch pans to something else. Simply toss away real quickly and serve in the pan itself. It’s pretty enough to impress friends coming over and you won’t have to excuse yourself to start cleaning the kitchen because you’ve barely removed any pots and pans. Always have fewer but more sturdy pans in your kitchen. You don’t need a hundred pans lounging around in your kitchen cabinet gathering dust because you don’t use it enough. You only need a few, and this Le Creuset French Oven is a very good purchase. If you’re not sold on just that, it also happens to be a doddle to clean later.
Recipe variation: Instead of serving these with spaghetti, you could pick up a pack of ready zoodles from any gourmet food store and toss with your tomato sauce and polpettes at the end for two minutes.
Veggie Pesto Polpettes With Marinara Sauce
Yield 4-6 servings
The polpettes use breadcrumbs and eggs to bind, but you could using cornflour to bind them instead of the eggs if you wish. Store-bought pesto is great for this recipe, so use a brand you like, or make some fresh.
For The Veggie Pesto Polpettes
Aubergines 2, roasted on an open fire till charred, then peeled and gently squeezed over a sieve to get any excess liquid out
Basil Pesto 5-6 tablespoons
Garlic 2 cloves
Green chillies 3, slit lengthwise and finely chopped
Eggs 2, lightly beaten (to make this completely vegetarian, just keep the eggs out)
Salt and pepper to season
For The Marinara sauce-
Olive oil 1/4 cup
Onion 1 medium-sized, finely chopped
Garlic 6 cloves, chopped
Tomatoes 750g, grated and peels discarded
Tomato puree 100ml
Sugar 1 tbsp
Salt and pepper
Butter 2 tbsp
Basil leaves to finish
Spaghetti 500g (or another pasta like linguine), cooked according to packet instructions
Parmesan cheese to finish
Start on the marinara sauce, which can sit and even freeze well, so you can make it well in advance.
In the 18cm Le Creuset French Oven, heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil over a medium flame. When the oil is hot, add the onions and keeping the flame on a medium-low, toss the onions around with a spatula, but don’t colour them. Once the onions are soft, still stirring, add the garlic cloves and continue to cook till the garlic is soft as well, but not brown.
Add the tomatoes to the Le Creuset French Oven along with the puree and the sugar. Season the tomatoes and bring everything up to a bubble. Reduce the heat to low, put the lid on the French Oven and let the tomatoes continue to cook for about an hour.
After an hour is up, check the taste of the tomatoes and adjust seasoning and consistency if necessary. Finish the tomato sauce with the butter and take it off the flame and throw in the basil leaves and stir. Transfer the tomato sauce to a bowl and give the French Oven a quick wash.
Combine the aubergines that have been drained of any excess liquid with the pesto, garlic, green chillies, eggs and almonds together. Add the breadcrumbs half first and then adjust till the mixture comes together in a loose ball. Only stir briefly using just your bear claw. If using the cornflour instead of the eggs, add some cornflour into a separate plate and season lightly. Make little balls (polpettes) using your palm and set aside.
You can get the pasta water rolling at this stage to save time, or just wait till the polpettes are done to use the same pan to make the spaghetti in as well. Cook the spaghetti in lots of salted boiling water till al dente.
Heat some vegetable oil at the bottom of your 18cm Le Creuset French Oven for shallow-frying over medium heat. Heat the oil till shimmering. Add the balls one by one into the hot oil and brown on all sides briefly, about a minute on each side, till golden. Drain the polpettes on paper towels. If not using the eggs, dust the balls in the cornflour and add to the pan to shallow-fry.
Once the polpettes are out of the hot fat, drain any remaining oil at the bottom of the pan, except for one tablespoon. Return the tomato sauce to the French Oven and add about 1/3 cup of the pasta water along with the pasta and toss everything together quickly over medium heat till the sauce coats every strand of the pasta. Shave over some parmesan and serve immediately with basil leaves scattered on top.