Monday, November 24, 2014

Guest Post: An Omnivore’s Quest for the Best Vegetarian “Meatball” - Part II

Welcome back, Chris! I look forward to one of your Friday Night Meatball get-togethers because these sound amazing.
You may recall back in September I wrote a guest post for this blog in which I compared three vegetarian meatball recipes, in the hope that one of them would be my go-to recipe for vegetarian friends at our version of Friday Night Meatballs. You may also recall that none of the three recipes completely captured my endorsement.I’m back now after more time in my secret subterranean meatball laboratory*, and I’m happy to report that I have a recipe for vege-meatballs that I can proudly serve my guests. The recipe is a modification of Whole Foods’ Spaghetti and Vegan Meatballs recipe. This recipe won my competition but had some flaws that I couldn’t tolerate. 

With a scale of 1 (hideous) to 5 (excellent), the original recipe scored as follows: 
Preparation 4.5, Flavor 3.5, Texture 4, Sturdiness 3, Versatility 5. 
This gave it an overall score of 4.0, and a clear win over the other two recipes.  My modifications needed to focus on flavor and sturdiness, hopefully without compromising the other characteristics too much.  Sturdiness, in particular, was a big problem – the Whole Foods meatballs could not be trusted not to turn to mush in my marinara.

The original recipe has a body of black beans, brown rice, cremini mushrooms, sunflower seeds and spinach.  It adds garlic, onions, basil and oregano for flavor.


For flavor, I’m going to kick it up a notch.  I’m adding some diced red pepper (a big hit with my turkey-spinach meatballs) and some tamari soy sauce (for a little more interest).  I’m also adding salt and black pepper, which were curiously missing from Whole Foods recipe. For sturdiness, I’m adding some rice flour and an egg, in the hopes that these will glue the mixture together better. This is my first big compromise; they will no longer be vegan, but will remain gluten free and dairy free. I cut the amount of sunflower seeds in half to reduce the graininess of the mixture. I’m also frying them instead of baking them; this will give them a tougher shell, develop some interesting flavors, and they’ll hopefully absorb a bit less liquid when they finish in marinara. I’m also cooking my own brown rice, rather than using frozen precooked rice as the recipe specified.  I’m hoping this will make the mix a little less goopy.

The first task was to cook the rice.  Since I could prep the rest of the ingredients in this time, this didn’t add much to the total preparation time, but it did add another pot to clean. The couple of additional ingredients added some active time, so my Preparation score was nicked a bit, too.  All recipes are compromises, right?

My ingredients are gathered. While the rice cooks on the stove top, out comes the cutting board and the ingredients are prepped. 

The onions, peppers, and garlic are sautéed. Spinach and chopped mushrooms are added and cooked for a bit. I added the salt and pepper at this stage.

The sunflower seeds are pulsed to a coarse grind in the food processor. After cooling, the vegetable mixture, tamari, spices and 2/3 of the black beans are added to the food processor and pulsed to a grainy texture.

Finally, I add the flour, egg, the rest of the black beans, and the rice for my mixture.  It’s chilled in the refrigerator for an hour.  I started with ¼ cup of rice flour; in the process of mixing, I upped this to almost 3/4 cup to cut down on the moisture.

After chilling, it’s time to form and fry them. This is the moment of truth – will they form into balls?  In this case, yes (phew!). Although they are more fragile than their meat-based cousins, and slumped a little in handing and cooking, with some care they make decent 1-1/2” balls that don’t sag too much. They are fried in olive oil, turning every minute or two until all sides are cooked. Yes, I could have used a smaller pan.

The “finished” meatball isn’t really finished – they will be undercooked in the center and won’t get fully cooked until they simmer in sauce for a while.  For my “without sauce” tasting, I cheated and microwaved a meatball for 35 seconds.

So now for my scoring:

Preparation: Total active time was 45 minutes (ingredient prep 30 minutes, frying 10 minutes). The inactive time was 1 hour 25 minutes (rice cooking 15 minutes over the ingredient prep time, vegetable cooling 10 minutes, mix refrigeration 1 hour).  This compares to 25 minutes active and 35 minutes inactive for the original recipe, a significant increase but not terribly important for me since I’ll make these ahead and freeze them in batches.  Also, in practice I’ll double the batch size.

Taste and Texture: Without sauce, a significant improvement over the original. The flavor was great – complex and savory with the peppers and tamari.  They were a bit on the salty side, but I’ve reduced the salt in the recipe accordingly. The mouth feel was much improved – more meaty than grainy, and leaving some of the beans whole in the mix adds some interest. In marinara, they were also great and remained whole (see below).

Sturdiness: The addition of egg and rice flour and frying vs. baking did the trick.  They stayed whole in sauce, retained the same mouth feel, and didn’t crumble to mush on a fork. 

Versatility: These are vegetarian, dairy free, and gluten free. If I have strictly vegan guests I can serve veggies over pasta with my marinara, which is vegan.

Score (1=poor, 5=great): 
Preparation 4, Flavor 4.5, Texture 4.5, Sturdiness 4, Versatility 4.5. Overall 4.3
(original was 4.0).

This is a vege-meatball that will go great with my homemade marinara over pasta, and one that I can be proud to serve my guests, whether vegetarian or omnivore. I’m looking forward to getting reviews from others trying this at home. I’m sure that I’ll continue to tweak the recipe (that’s what I do) but I’ve found my starting point.

The Recipe
Yield: about (9) 1-1/2 inch vege-meatballs. This recipe is gluten-free and dairy-free.

1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup cooked brown rice (1/2 cup dry with 1-1/4 cups water)
1 cup chopped yellow onion
1/2 cup chopped sweet pepper
4-5 cloves garlic
, finely diced
1 cup cremini (Italian brown) mushrooms, washed, dried, trimmed and rough chopped
1 cup (packed) fresh baby spinach
1/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
1 cup canned black bean
s, well rinsed, drained and divided
2/3 to 3/4 cup rice flour
1 tbsp tamari soy sauce
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
½ tsp kosher salt
1 egg
, beaten
1-1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Combine rice and water in a small pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Stir once, reduce to simmer, and cook covered for 40 minutes.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tsp oil over medium heat. Add onion and peppers. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes until softened. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds to one minute.
Turn the heat to medium-low. Add the mushrooms, spinach, salt and pepper. Stir once, cover and cook for about 5 minutes, until mushrooms are tender and spinach is wilted. Allow mixture to cool in the pan off heat for 10 minutes.
In a food processor, pulse the sunflower seeds until coarsely ground. Add the cooked vegetable mixture, 2/3 of the black beans , basil, oregano and tamari. Pulse until the mixture comes together.
In a large bowl, combine the mixture, egg, rice flour, the remaining beans and the rice. Mix by hand until well combined. Refrigerate the mixture, covered, for one hour.
Form the mixture into 1-1/2 inch balls and roll carefully by hand. Heat 1 tbsp of oil on medium-high heat.  Add balls to pan. Cook, turning about once per minute, until all sides are well browned. Place on paper towel to drain and cool.
Simmer in marinara for 30 minutes to complete cooking. If preparing ahead, freeze meatballs without sauce and thaw completely before simmering.

Bon appétit!  - Chris
Chris is a management consultant, foodie, serious home chef, and husband. He has his own blog that’s dying of inactivity but his foodporn can be viewed regularly on Instagram at ChrisMinMD and Twitter at @ChrisMinMD. He lives with one very tolerant wife and two unbelievably cute black cats in White Hall, Maryland.