A few days ago, my father picked up a mixture of ground veal and pork from our local butcher. I suspect he had a hankering for either stuffed vegetables or spaghetti and meatballs, two of his favorites. He does that sometimes when he has cravings; like when he came back one day with tender pieces of lamb shoulder and breast for blanquette, except he forgot to purchase the cream and lemon and a host of key ingredients for the dish. I made a faux tagine instead. He liked it. This time, since I didn’t have the right vegetables on hand, and I was feeling somewhat creative, I looked for something a little less pedestrian and found Boles de Picolat, a traditional Catalan recipe of meatballs and olives simmered in a rich spicy sauce.

As always with these types of stews, there are many versions, which means you can play and be as flexible as you want. You can make it with ground beef and pork, or pork and veal, or any combinations of the three. You can even add sausage meat to the mix, depending on how lusty you want your dish to be. Cinnamon is an important seasoning according to Eliane Comelade, the foremost expert on French Catalan cooking — it adds great depth and complexity to the sauce. Just as important are dried hot peppers; they play nicely against the sweetness of the cinnamon and cut through the richness of the sauce. Dried cèpes or chanterelles are often added toward the end of cooking lending an extra layer of flavors. But some cooks prefer to add few pieces of dry-cured ham instead. Last, traditionally, and everybody agrees on this, Boles de Picolat is served with warm fresh shell beans tossed with olive oil and a hefty amount of minced garlic. I didn’t have any and used chickpeas as a subsistute. They worked perfectly.

Boles de Picolat
Adapted from La cuisine Secrète du Languedoc-Roussillon by André Soulier (Les Presses du Languedoc, 1997)

Serves six

  • ¾ cup dried cèpes
  • 1 ½ to 2 inches day-old piece of baguette
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 11/2 pounds ground veal and pork mixture
  • 2 small onions, finely minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • ¼ cup minced parsley
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 3 small dried chili peppers, or to taste, minced. You can also use hot pepper flakes, about ¼ teaspoon, more or less according to taste
  • 2/3 cup crushed plum tomatoes
  • ¾ cup pitted green olives

Soak the cèpes in hot water for 30 minutes. Drain.

In a bowl soak the bread in the milk for 10 minutes. Remove from the milk and squeeze out excess liquid.

In a mixing bowl, combine the meat mixture, 1 onion, 1 garlic clove, bread, parsley, egg and 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon. Season with salt and pepper and blend until well combined. Form mixture into medium-sized balls and set aside on a baking sheet.

Place the flour on a flat plate. Lightly coat the meatballs with the flour, shaking off the excess. Reserve any lefover flour. In a large heavy skillet, heat ½ cup of oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Fry the meatballs in batches without crowding, until deeply brown on all sides. Transfer the meatballs as they brown to paper towels to drain. Continue until all the meatballs are browned.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the remaining minced onion and garlic, and cook, stirring until lightly golden. Stir in the reserved flour from the dredging and cook for 1 minute, or until golden. Add the tomatoes, hot peppers and remaining cinnamon and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the meatballs and cover with about 3 cups of water. Season lightly with salt and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the olives; bring back to a strong boil and drain.

Add the olives and cèpes to the pot. If the sauce seems too thick, stir in a little water. Cover and continue simmering for another 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve with warm white beans or chickpeas tossed with garlic and olive oil on the side.