Thursday, February 3, 2011

Spaghetti and Meat(less)Balls - Italian comfort food for the Vegetarian

Wow..that seems like quite a verbose title! But I am excited since I finally came up with an alternative for meatballs that is high protein, made from whole/natural ingredients ( No TVP here), lower in fat, does not come from a grocery store freezer etc. etc. and is Tasty to boot. These 'meat'balls are steamed, so the frying is eliminated and also the baking step in the oven for those who are not fortunate enough to have one. The 'meat'balls are quite robust and do not break apart even after soaking in sauce for a long time, even overnight.

So what are the ingredients of this wonder food? And how did I stumble upon them? Quite by chance, honestly.. I have always regretted not being able to partake of the universally loved spaghetti and meatballs, since the meatballs are almost always made with meat that I did not eat. Even though I don't really know how a meatball does and should taste, I have seen numerous shows on tv and the usual spices are used. I can only assume that any 'typical' taste comes from the meat. Since this is not an option for me, or any other vegetarian, my main aim was to have a base of robust ingredients and then typical spices such as garlic, pepper etc.

Many recipes I found on the internet use only walnuts, or tofu, or mostly breadcrumbs etc. I am using Mung Dal - the yellow one. I couldn't praise this humble dal/lentil enough. Mung is easy on the tummy, high in protein and is even revered in Ayurveda for boosting metabolism. I used almond as my nut, only because I had them, but walnuts will also be great here. I use milk powder, which is commonly available in India, to add some more richness or sweetness and to tone down the strong flavour of the mung dal. This is in lieu of parmesan cheese, which is not too readily available to me right now, and is almost always expensive( the good kind is). I roast the dal and the nuts initially to get a toasty aroma. I use freshly ground black pepper which is Very Important to get a strong flavour. Just dumping some of your mcCormick powder will not really do it. The secret ingredient here is fennel seed or saunf. The only reason I used it is because I Like it so much. I could have gone with the typical dried Italian spices such as basil or oregano, but I wanted something different and the fennel always seems exotic to me. Plus this gives a kind of Italian sausagy flavour which went with the whole concept.

You can serve these as mini meatballs on skewers with a dipping sauce as appetizers, or just with some tomato sauce, or over some nice spaghetti. I used a jar of ragu for the sauce, but you can use any tomato sauce you want for this. 365 Organic has some nice pasta sauces which are economical as well as fresh tasting. The detailed recipe is as follows -

Ingredients -

1 cup yellow Mung Dal

0.5 cup whole almonds or walnuts

35g or 1 oz. milk powder

2 Tbsp dehydrated garlic or fresh chopped/grated

1 Tbsp black peppercorns

1 Tbsp fennel seeds or 'saunf'

1 Tbsp EVOO any brand

salt to taste

1 tsp crushed red pepper

2 slices whole grain bread

1 jar tomato sauce/pasta sauce

pinch baking powder optional

pasta -

spaghetti cooked per instruction

2-3 splashes milk


Method -

1) Dry roast the Mung dal on a low flame in a non-stick pan until it gives a toasty aroma. We do not want to burn it or even want it to change colour a lot.

2) Roast the almonds/walnuts similarly until they are nicely toasted and set aside.

3) Dry roast the pepper corns and the fennel seeds as above.

4) After all the ingredients have cooled, use a dry grinder jar or a spice grinder to powder the above. You might need multiple batches if you are using a spice grinder, but it will do the job. I am not sure how effective a food processor will be to do this job. We want to powder this almost fine - slightly coarse is fine but it should not be too coarse.

5) If you are using dried or dehydrated garlic, powder it with the rest of the stuff.

6) Combine all the powdered stuff in a shallow dish or mixing bowl. Add salt, crushed red pepper and milk poweder.

7) Pulse the two bread slices to make fresh bread crumbs and set aside. Use these Only if required in the next step.

8) Add water slowly to the mixture in the bowl and mix together to form a thick dough like a tortilla or pastry dough. Be very careful in adding water. Add a pinch of baking powder here. This will make the 'meat'balls lighter when they cook.

9) As the dough comes together, add the EVOO or olive oil, and knead lightly with your hands. If you feel the dough is soggy, add the breadcrumbs, a little at a time until you are able to form small balls with the dough.

10) Form small 'meat'balls of desired size and set aside on a platter. I roughly made them the size of a ping pong ball.

11) Heat a steamer with lots of water in the bottom bowl. You can use a bamboo steamer or similar. I have this contraption that is like a double boiler. You fill water in the bottom vessel. The one that goes on top has a perforated bottom and a tight fitting lid. You keep your food on the perforated bottom, close the lid and it gets steamed pretty efficiently.

12)Spray the steamer botttom with some oil or just lightly oil it with your hand or a wad of paper.

13) Place the 'meat'balls or meatlessballs on the perforated bottom without crowding them.

14) Steam for 10-12 minutes until the 'meat'balls are cooked through. Use multiple batches depending on the size of your steamer.

15) Heat tomato sauce in a saucepan. Add the steamed meatballs to the bubbling sauce.

16) For the pasta - Boil pasta per package directions. I used whole wheat pasta and I think I could have used up even two bottles of sauce. You can use any pasta of choice, linguni will also go well with this one, or bucatini will too.

17) Toss the pasta with half the sauce. Add a few splashes of milk if needed. This reduces the acid in the tomatoes, and also takes the edge off certain whole grain pastas which can sometimes taste too 'earthy'.

18) To serve, place a generous amount of pasta in a dish. Ladle 2 or 3 meatballs along with some sauce on top. Garnish with fresh black pepper and fresh basil leaves. Drizzle with olive oil. Or go bonkers, and sprinkle some parmesan on top. Break the 'meat'balls with a fork and integrate with the sauce and pasta.

19) Dig In!! The weather is cloudy with a Definite chance of Meatballs :)

This recipe made about 16 ping pong ball sized 'meat'balls. They were very filling and sumptuous and it was difficult to eat more than two or three at a time. The fennel and peppercorns flavoured the dish beautifully. This is a very healthy and tasty recipe that you should definitely try especially if you are a vegetarian. This can be easily veganized by omitting the milk powder and adding something similar such as nutritional yeast.

You can try several variations such as different spices, adding sauteed spinach, using a different kind of lentil etc. You can totally ditch the pasta and eat these only with the sauce and a salad for a very filling low carb feast. The oil used here is minimal and only for flavour. Overall, with the risk of sounding like a braggart, this dish is a winner!

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