Thursday, September 4, 2014

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


Please welcome my friend & amazing home (& Instagram) chef, Chris. He decided to do the dirty work for us in finding the best veg meatball in all of the land. Welcome, Chris!

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I love meatballs.

I love vegetables too, and eat lots of them, but I’m a pretty committed omnivore. And I reserve a special place in hell for the commercial vegetarian burgers and meatballs that attempt to duplicate the taste of meat – usually with a list of unpronounceable chemicals. Why bother, when vegetables taste so great? Now if a veggie meatball can taste great without loading up on artificial flavorings, and come close to the texture and, well, meatballness of a real meatball, then we’re talking.

A friend alerted me to a wonderful blog post by Sarah Grey on the Serious Eats website. The post, Friday Night Meatballs: How to Change Your Life With Pasta describes her 9-month experiment with “Friday Night Meatballs” in which her family extends an open invitation to friends, relatives, social media contacts, and whoever to come by every Friday night for a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. It is a simple yet powerful idea; have company for a sit-down meal once a week, where those from all areas of your life meet and break bread, and take a regular break from your busy life and social isolation.

To keep it simple week after week, you need to serve something that (a) is easy to prepare in large quantity ahead of time, (b) you can specialize in and do well, and (c) almost everyone likes. Meatballs with pasta fits these requirements very nicely.

So my wife and I, with the cooperation and help from a few good friends, decided we wanted to try this. I’m hoping it changes our lives, just a bit.

This leaves a small but important dilemma. While I cook meatballs very well, a significant fraction of my friends are vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, and/or celiac. And both of my recipes feature copious amounts of meat, cheese and bread.

My turkey/spinach meatballs.
Needed an ironic photo for a vegetarian blog.

Hence, my search for the ultimate vegetarian meatball recipe.


My first consult for this quest was the host of this very blog, my friend Ann Marie. Who would know better? She, in turn, pointed me to several of her favorite blogs with recipes that I could try. And from there came the inspiration for this post – the great veggie meatball cookoff.

I’ve chosen three recipes to make, and my wife and I will judge them with the following criteria (because, science):
·         Preparation: How easy are they to prepare in quantity? How much time is required, and how many dishes?
·         Flavor: Do they taste good (Not, do they taste like meat)? Will they go well with a nice marinara and pasta (either wheat or soba)?
·         Texture: Do they have a “meat-like” bite when eaten? Is the mouth experience satisfying, or icky?
·         Sturdiness: Will they stay together while forming, cooking, and reheating in sauce in a slow cooker? Will they fall apart when touched with a fork?
·         And finally, Versatility: Can I prepare them in a gluten-free, dairy-free version and have them remain close to the original recipe in all of the above categories?

The contestants are from the following sources:
Recipe 1. Lentil and Mushroom Meatballs from Cookie and Kate, which is itself a variation of this recipe from Oh My Veggies.
Recipe 2. Spaghetti-Nos with Mini Lentil Meatballs from Post Punk Kitchen.
Recipe 3. Finally, Spaghetti and Vegan Meatballs from Whole Foods Market’s website.

In each case, I’m not making their sauce. We’ll use a marinara that we’ve made with our own garden tomatoes, since what I’m really interested in is comparing meatballs.

I chose these three recipes because they are fundamentally quite different. Recipe 1 is lentil and mushroom based with oats, Recipe 2 is lentils and bread crumbs only, and Recipe 3 uses mushrooms, black beans and rice.

I established these ground rules:
  • I’d make a half batch of each recipe (so as not to be buried in meatballs).
  • Within the limits of my kitchen equipment and common sense, I was going to follow each recipe exactly. This meant measuring everything (which I’m normally averse to except when breadmaking) and occasionally departing from my own “best practices” as a home chef.
  • I would first try them freshly made without sauce, and then refrigerate them for a while and try them reheated in my marinara, simmered for about ½ hour.

So first it’s off to market to pick up a few ingredients that I didn’t have lying around in my larder.



Next, it’s to the kitchen to prepare each recipe!


RECIPE 1

Description: This recipe uses cremini mushrooms and lentils as a base. It also includes oats, parsley, onion, and garlic and is flavored with oregano, red pepper flakes, thyme, tarragon, tamari soy sauce and red wine. It ultimately uses egg as a binder, and the meatballs are baked after forming.

Preparation: The lentils are cooked (undercooked some so they don’t turn to mush) and the ingredients, save for the onion and garlic, are pulsed in a food processor until pulverized.  I did my best to match the photo on the website for how pulverized they should be. The onions and garlic are briefly sautéed, the pulverized ingredients are added and cooked in the skillet, and the soy and red wine are then added and cooked until absorbed by the mixture. Finally, the beaten egg is added as a binder, they are formed, and then baked.


Everything went pretty well until forming time. I let the mixture cool for 20 minutes and the consistency of the mix was very good until the egg was added, and then there was no way this goopy, grainy mess was going to form into balls. I refrigerated the mixture for a half hour and that did the trick, although the mix was still much more inclined to stick to my hands than to itself and couldn’t be rolled like a conventional meatball. I formed them carefully with my fingers into some semblance of a sphere. I got 6 golf-ball sized meatballs and probably left a half meatball on my hands.
I also ended up using a LOT of dishes and time.  

Active Time 50 minutes.  
Inactive Time 1 hour 25 minutes (cooling 20 minutes, refrigeration 30 minutes, baking 35 minutes)

Taste and Texture: Without sauce, these tasted rather nice, but were quite dry, and the red pepper added flavor but also a bit of bitterness. The flavor of the mushrooms still came through and overall the taste was very acceptable. However, the texture and bite left a lot to be desired. Overall, the texture was very grainy, rather than meatlike. After simmering, they took up little sauce but the flavor was still overpowered.
Sturdiness: The balls held their shape well through baking, storage and reheating. They did tend to come apart a bit when eaten with a fork.
Versatility: As prepared, these were gluten-free and dairy free; a big plus. I think the flavor would have been improved with some parmesan cheese, but that would do away with dairy-free. They could also be made vegan, but I’m not sure what I’d use as a binder in the absence of egg.
Overall Impressions and Lessons: I think the mixture should have been pulsed finer to remove some of the graininess, and I’d try to add less egg, although I’d be scared that they wouldn’t hold together after baking. Portobello mushrooms (rather than cremini) might add some flavor.
Score (1=poor, 5=great): Preparation 3, Flavor 3.5, Texture 2, Sturdiness 3, Versatility 5. Overall 3.3

RECIPE 2

Description: This recipe uses lentils alone as the base, and adds a few ingredients that I don’t use often: vital wheat gluten and nutritional yeast. It also includes seasoned bread crumbs, garlic, and onion, and is flavored with some soy sauce and a bit of tomato paste. It’s designed to replicate the small meatballs in Spaghetti-Os, so they are formed small (described as cherry-sized). The nominal yield for half the recipe was 16 meatballs; I got 18.
Preparation: The lentils are cooked (not specified for how long, so I undercooked a bit as for Recipe 1). The onion and garlic are minced in a food processor and then removed before the other ingredients are added. I don’t recommend this; a processor containing only a small onion and a clove of garlic will not mince them well; I do a much better job, and fairly quickly, with a knife. 
The onion and garlic are then removed and the remaining ingredients, plus a bit of water and olive oil, are “pureed” in the food processor. The onion and garlic are then added back for the final mixture.
This mixture was much more workable than with Recipe 1. I could form the small balls easily and roll them between my palms like conventional meatballs. The mix was almost too dry but they held together well through the next steps, sautéing to brown and baking to finish.


I still used quite a few dishes – food processor, skillet and baking sheet, along with mixing bowl, but this was quicker and easier to prepare than the first recipe.

Active Time 35 minutes. 
Inactive Time 40 minutes (cooling lentils 20 minutes, baking 20 minutes)

Taste and Texture: Without sauce, these had a much more pleasant texture and mouth feel, but they were exceedingly dry. Past the nicely browned outside, the overall impression was very breadlike, not unlike a hushpuppy. Not quite meatball-like, but an improvement over the first recipe.
The flavor was pleasant but quite bland; most flavor was from the outer crust where they were sautéed in olive oil. The only seasoning besides a small amount of soy and tomato was that included in the bread crumbs. Oddly, the recipe did not call for any salt or pepper and, harking back to my ground rules, I dutifully left them out.
After simmering in sauce, they were much improved. They soaked up some sauce but were still dry in the center, and the texture for the most part remained more cereal-like than meaty.
Sturdiness: No problems here. They held up very well to sauté and baking and they cut with a knife or fork without losing their structure.
Versatility: These were vegan and dairy free, but would be difficult to duplicate in a gluten free version. I could perhaps substitute oats for the bread crumbs, but that may make them even dryer and more cereal-like.
Overall Impressions and Lessons: These were in dire need of more seasoning and moisture. The texture was an improvement over the first recipe but the dryness and lack of flavor need correcting. Spices and some more liquid, perhaps more tomato paste and/or some mushroom, would certainly help. And by all means, some salt and pepper!
Score (1=poor, 5=great): Preparation 4, Flavor 3, Texture 3.5, Sturdiness 5, Versatility 2.  Overall 3.6


RECIPE 3

Description: No lentils! This recipe uses lots of ingredients - black beans, brown rice, cremini mushrooms, sunflower seeds and spinach - for the body, but required very little advance preparation. It adds onion, garlic, oregano, and basil.
Preparation: The onion and garlic are diced and sautéed, spinach and mushrooms added and cooked for a bit, and this mixture and half the black beans are added to chopped sunflower seeds in the food processor. After mixing, the remaining black beans and rice are added and the meatballs are formed and baked. I had neglected to pick up baby spinach, so I thawed some frozen chopped spinach and dried it as well as I could.
I thought it odd that half the black beans weren’t subject to the food processor, but it worked well. The final mix was fairly easy to form into 1-1/2” balls (yield was 5) and could be hand rolled, very gently. Again, the oddity of no salt or pepper specified crept in. Given that this was a Whole Foods recipe, I thought perhaps this should have been thought out better; perhaps they just thought it was too obvious.
This was the easiest recipe to put together but still used the trinity of food processor, skillet and oven to prepare.


Active Time 25 minutes.   
Inactive Time 35 minutes (baking 35 minutes)


Taste and Texture: Without sauce, these were the clear winner of the three recipes. Most of the flavor was derived from the spinach, and they really screamed for salt in the recipe. The mouth feel was good; less grainy than Recipe 1, moister than Recipe 2. It was a bit loose and still lacked a “meat bite” but it was pleasant and appropriate.
In marinara, the flavor was a wonderful complement to my marinara, but the texture was, well, not really there (see below).
Sturdiness: These were not very robust. Each left a bit of shell behind when lifted from the (oiled) baking sheet, and they fell apart some when cut with a fork or knife. In sauce, they soaked up a bit of liquid and near self-destructed. What was left was “mushballs”, not “meatballs”; not really suitable for serving over pasta.
Versatility: These are vegan and dairy free, and gluten free as long as ingredients are sourced appropriately.
Overall Impressions and Lessons: These needed more seasoning (certainly salt and pepper) and could have used a bit more moisture. The texture was the best of the three. They absolutely need a binder of some sort, and egg could be used at the expense of being vegan. I’m thinking the addition of salt, pepper, perhaps some tamari, some chopped sweet pepper and refrigerating the mixture before forming (to allow for the egg addition) may do the trick.  Also I would consider broiling them before baking (as I do with my turkey meatballs) to give them a tougher “shell”.
Score (1=poor, 5=great): Preparation 4.5, Flavor 3.5, Texture 4, Sturdiness 3, Versatility 5. Overall 4.0

AND THE WINNER IS:
So I haven’t yet found my ultimate vegetarian meatball, but among these three, our favorite is clearly Recipe 3, the Whole Foods recipe. 

In the process, though, I’ve learned a lot about how to seek veggie meatball nirvana. Each recipe has strengths from which to draw. I’ll be experimenting with some combinations of the great parts of these recipes over the next week or two and I’ll see if I can come up with my own recipe that will delight both my guests and myself. If Ann Marie grants me another guest blogger spot (editor's note: YES YES YES!), I’ll be happy to share the results, and one more meatball recipe, with her readers.

Bon appétit!  - Chris

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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.