herbed chicken & pancetta meatballs with black pepper parmesan polenta squares (and why you can + should grind your own chicken)

How was your New Year’s Eve? Was it wild and crazy? Chock full of bubbly, a fancy new dress, and wee-morning-hour bedtimes? Or was it far more tame? Spent at home in sweatpants, with your husband/boyfriend/kids/cats, and perhaps with a few plastic delivery containers of Pad Thai and pork dumplings?


This will probably come as no surprise, but my big old New Years Eve bash consisted of an actually super pleasant medley of listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band while leisurely cooking supper, binge watching episodes of Making a Murderer (which you along with the rest of the internets have obviously watched already, amIright?), and then falling into a blissful slumber on the couch and under a pile of cozy blankets far before that glittery ball even thought about dropping.


I wore no sparkles, sequins, or sky-high heels, instead opting for a really stretchy pair of yoga pants, bare (swollen) feet, and the only sweatshirt left in my house that I can manage to wrangle over the ginormous bump I have affixed to my frontside that currently houses a tiny baby with what I presume is the World’s Pointiest Set of knees and elbows.

Seriously ouch, my friends.


Twenty fifteen was a very good one for us. A busy, wild, and crazy one — but a damn good one, nonetheless. We moved (ahem – AGAIN!), James delved into his MBA program headfirst and with an admirable gusto, I started teaching Pure Barre, and somewhere in the midst of all of that I discovered I was pregnant. I’ve spent most of the year growing a human baby, which has been equal parts exhilarating (Weeeee we’re having a baby!) and terrifying (ERMIGERRRDWE’RE HAVING A BABY!), and now that it’s down to the last few weeks with just James and myself, spending our final New Year’s Eve as a party of two quietly and at home just felt right.


Plus I have no issue at all in admitting that at 34 weeks pregnant the thought of spending a night mashed in the middle of a bunch of strangers who’ve had far too many glasses of merry sounded downright dreadful, but I digress.


We made this simple dinner of chicken meatballs and polenta, but tried to make it just a bit more special by grinding the chicken ourselves, spiking the meatballs with crisped up bits of pancetta, and gussying the polenta up with a lashing of Parmesan cheese and black pepper. It was perfect; absolutely delicious, slightly festive, and did not require too much effort on my part, which is always appreciated when one’s gait can only be described as a pathetic waddle, at best.


Ok I can just hear you now — ‘What the hell is wrong with you Cory?! You seriously want me to grind my own chicken?!’ Ain’t nobody got time for that!”  Alas, yes. Yes I do. And I promise that it is not as wild and crazy of a notion as it sounds. Grinding chicken at home is dead easy, if you have a food processor. Simply chop the (raw) chicken up into bite sized pieces, freeze said pieces for 30 minutes to get them nice and firm, then pulse them in the processor until you have a texture that will be only slightly more rustic and uneven than what you’re used to seeing in pre-packaged ground meat or poultry. This method works with beef, turkey, pork, and lamb, and I’ll add here that as a rule, I no longer buy mass-produced pre-packed ground meat of any type. I’ll absolutely purchase it directly from my butcher’s counter if I know the cuts of meat they use and that they grind it fresh and in-store every day, but I’m of the opinion that you should run (swiftly) in the other direction of anything cello-wrapped that came from a factory (I’ll spare you the details of why, but Google is a fantastic resource if you’re curious). It’s a super simple process, and one that I promise will make your final product taste just so, so, much better.


For these meatballs, the freshly ground chicken (go ahead – pat yourself on the back!) is mixed with a huge helping of fresh herbs, garlic, and that crispy pancetta, and is formed into meatballs that are baked till cooked through but still totally juicy. The polenta is cooked and cooled and cut into squares, before being baked one last time just to warm the squares through and tinge the edges a light golden brown. A simple and plain red sauce is draped over the top, shards of Parmesan gild the proverbial lily, and you’re left with a supper that was pretty easy to pull together but that would also be right at home on your dinner party table.


The recipe, as I’ve written it, makes enough for six people, but I can attest to the fact that it keeps incredibly well in the fridge, and having leftovers that you simply need to reheat and serve makes dinner the rest of the week an absolute breeze (always a plus, right?).


This was a perfect dish to close out the year with…and who knows, I might even make it again next year — but let’s be honest: probably still barefooted and in sweatpants, and with a baby on my hip. Squee!

herbed chicken & pancetta meatballs with black pepper parmesan polenta squares (and why you can + should grind your own chicken)
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Grinding your own chicken thighs is easy using a food processor and makes all the difference in these ultra flavorful herbed chicken meatballs.
Serves: 6 servings
  • 3lbs (or slightly less) boneless skinless chicken thighs (alternately you can use store bought ground chicken from a reputable butcher)
  • very large handful parsley leaves and stems, very finely chopped
  • very large handful cilantro leaves and stems, very finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, grated or minced
  • 4 oz pancetta, chopped finely and sautéed until crisp and cooked through
  • kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
  • 1½ cups polenta (finely ground cornmeal)
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • generous grinding of black pepper (at least 1½ tsp plus more to taste)
  • generous pinch kosher salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 - 28oz can of good quality tomato puree (I prefer San Marzano brand)
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
to finish
  • shards of Parmesan cheese
  • fresh parsley leaves
  1. First, grind your meat. Cut the chicken thighs into 1" pieces, and place them on a tray or plate. Freeze until the chicken is firm but not frozen solid, 35-45 minutes. This will help a great deal with the grinding process.
  2. While the chicken chills, make your polenta. Bring the water along with a generous pinch of salt to a boil over high heat, and carefully and slowly stir in the polenta. Do this by adding the polenta in a steady stream while stirring the water to avoid creating any lumps (nobody likes lumpy polenta). When the polenta is added, keep cooking over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the polenta is cooked (if your polenta is finely ground this should take 10-12 minutes). When the polenta is tender, stir in the Parmesan cheese and ground pepper. Taste and adjust salt to your liking (remember Parmesan cheese is salty, so taste this before you go adding too much extra salt).
  3. Prepare a 9x13" baking sheet by lightly oiling it, and pour the polenta into the pan. Let the polenta sit at room temperature until set, 30-45 minutes (I speed this process up by placing the tray in the freezer for 10-12 minutes). When the polenta is set, carefully turn it out onto a cutting board and cut it into 6 large and even squares.
  4. Preheat your oven to 425F - time to make the meatballs!
  5. When the chicken is firm and working in batches, place the chicken chunks in your food processor and pulse to grind the meat, 5-6 times for 5 second intervals, or until you have a nice rustically textured ground chicken (be careful not to puree too long or let the chicken become chicken mush). You've got some wiggle room here for error so don't worry too much about this - just do your best. Re-process any errant large chunks of chicken that remain in the next batch.
  6. Add your ground chicken to a large bowl along with the chopped fresh cilantro and parsley, grated garlic, cooked pancetta, and a large pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper. Using your hands, carefully toss and combine the mixture until it is very well incorporated. Divide the mixture into 12 equal sized portions, and carefully shape each portion into a nice round meatball.
  7. Cook the tomato puree in a saucepan over medium high heat until it is warm and bubbly; stir in the garlic and onion powder, and season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
  8. Place the meatballs onto a sheet pan and dollop the top of each meatball with a bit of the seasoned tomato puree. Bake the meatballs just until they are cooked through, 12-15 minutes. Take care not to overcook them, and remember that dark thigh meat will still look a little pink - just be sure that they are not translucent at all in the center.
  9. When the meatballs are almost cooked through, place the polenta squares onto a sheet tray and place them in the oven with the meatballs to warm the squares through. You can also pop them under the broiler for a minute or two to brown them up - just keep a very close eye on them to keep them from burning.
  10. Place a polenta square on each plate and top it with a few spoonfuls of sauce. Place 3 meatballs on top of each square, and drape with a bit more sauce. Scatter Parmesan shards and fresh parsley on top of the meatballs, and eat immediately.
Good to Know
If you like, you can make the meatball mixture and the polenta in advance. Simply form the (raw) meatballs and refrigerate them until you are ready to bake them off, up till 36 hours before you are ready to eat. The polenta can be cooked, set into squares, cooled, and chilled until you are ready to use it, up to 48 hours in advance.


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