I believe that meatballs are a seriously underrated healthy food option. It's kind of tragic. I always had this idea that meatballs are these little fat-packed morsels that float amongst carby bowls of pasta, slathered in thick and salty sauces, smothered by mounds of fatty cheese. Now if that description got you salivating, I totally understand.....but take a second to think of how you feel after you finish that meal. Ugh. Those are the moments I want to take my tummy out and put it away on a very high shelf, feeding it only leafy greens and fruit until it rejuvenates.
I like to challenge the fatty meatball stereotype every chance I get. And on a very rainy and dreary summer day, a meatball felt long overdue. It's still summer, so a hot bowl of pasta may not sound very inviting. My solution: nix the pasta and bring on the polenta.
I fell in love with polenta when experimenting with healthy options for a friend with Celiac disease. Not being able to eat gluten in any form, he was delighted by this corn-based grain that could be eaten immediately after cooking when soft and smooth or cooled and grilled up the next day. We grew up eating fried polenta with maple syrup on top at my Mormor's house.....gotta love Grandma's farm breakfast recipes.
In this recipe, we top leftover polenta with reduced fat Swiss. These serve as perfect little foundations for roly-poly meatballs. No worrying about your meatballs rolling off of a mountain here, folks. Sneeze away!
Now a bit about these meatballs. They are ridiculously healthy, but don't taste like it at all. The hubs loves these things. At about 40 calories per meat ball, you can eat a half dozen and not feel guilty. Lean ground beef, whole wheat bread, egg whites, garlic and spices with a bit of Parmesan....nothing wrong in that ingredient list. And you can easily make these gluten free by substituting rice bread or crackers. Tried, tested and approved.
But let's not forget the finishing bit of any good Italian dish....the sauce.
Our personal favorites are homemade garlic & basil marinara (extra garlic, naturally), spicy marinara or fresh pesto. Bad breath and a fiery mouth....always terrific side effects after meal. Here I give you the spicy marinara sauce out of sheer laziness. It's only two ingredients, it's late, I'm full of meatballs and really want to watch Felicity on Netflix. But I promise this is fantastic with whatever type of sauce you most prefer. Be this an appetizer, side dish or dinner for three, you will most definitely enjoy these healthy little bites of Italy.
Kale Meatball & Polenta Bites with Spicy Marinara Dipping Sauce
For the Polenta:
- 1 c polenta
- 3 c chicken broth or water
- generous salt, basil and garlic powder
For the Kale Meatballs:
- 2 oz fresh kale
- 1 slice reduced calorie whole wheat bread
- 12 oz 90% lean ground beef
- 1 egg white
- 1/2 - 2 tbs garlic
- 1 1/2 tbs Herbes de Provence
- 1/3 c Parmesan cheese
- salt & pepper
For the Spicy Marinara:
- 1 c marinara sauce (store bought or homemade)
- 1/2 tsp red chili flakes
- 3 oz reduced fat Swiss cheese, sliced into thin strips
- additional Parmesan, to garnish
First, make your polenta. Cook according to package instructions. You can make it with just the cornmeal and water, but using the chicken broth and spices will provide more flavor depth. Cook the polenta, stirring well, until smooth and no longer grainy, adding more liquid if necessary.
Line a baking dish with plastic wrap (8x8 or bread pan work great). Transfer the polenta into the lined pan and spread evenly, finishing with a smooth top. Place in the refrigerator and allow to cool completely. You can even make this the day before if you like.
To prepare the meatballs, start by cooking the kale. Place a medium pan over medium heat, then finely chop the raw kale leaves. Spray the pan with non-stick and add the chopped kale. Cook until the kale is soft but still has a little bit of texture, about 4-5 minutes. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Next, lightly wet the slice of bread with water and mash into coarse granules on top of the kale in the bowl. Add the ground beef, egg white, garlic, Herbes de Provence and Parmesan to the kale and bread. Generously salt and pepper, then mix together well. Form into small balls, about a tablespoon each in size, and set aside.
Place a medium skillet over medium high heat. Slice the hardened polenta into long strips about 1/4 inch thick. Spray the skillet with non-stick and place the polenta strips in the pan. Cook, flipping once or twice, until polenta is lightly browned on both sides.
Place a large skillet over medium heat. When pan is hot, spray with non-stick and add the meatballs. Cook for 2 minutes until meatball is browned. Turn meatball and cook for an additional minute, until browned. Repeat browning and cooking until exterior of the meatballs are completely browned. Cover pan and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook for 2 minutes, then remove cover and turn off heat. Leave the meatballs in the pan to stay warm.
While meatballs and polenta are cooking, combine the marinara and chili flakes in a small microwaveable bowl. Heat on 50% until hot, stirring occasionally.
When the polenta is done, transfer to a cutting board. Lay Swiss cheese strips on top of the polenta, then slice the polenta and cheese into small squares about the same size as the meatballs. Place a meatball on the top of each square and skewer with a toothpick. Serve with additional Parmesan cheese and the spicy marinara. Excellent with a side of broccoli!