For quite some time, the ultimate vegetarian “meatball” recipe, which should possess great strong flavors and a sturdy texture that is slightly dense, eluded me. One or the other was easy to attain but finding the right combination that would not crumble or be as bland as a wet noodle meant many hours of testing and tasting.
I ate my way through many vegetarian restaurants (Plant Café, Greens and Sun Café to name a few) trying to hone in on their secret to a vegetarian “meatball” or even a meatless “meatloaf” that makes people smile.
My vegetarian vegetable patties fared better because of the larger surface area. Once they seared on one side, they were easy to move—so they held together. Typically, my patties are seasoned with Indian spices so the resulting flavor is bold and exciting.
My NotMeat-Balls, however, crumbled and refused to stay “glued” together. If I rolled them in breadcrumbs and fried them, they almost held together better but I did not want a fried NotMeat-Ball that was greasy or oily on the tongue.
On the rare occasion when the texture was spot-on, the flavor was drab and dreary. Without a strong ethnic flavoring, the complementary sauces overshadowed the poor things so that they seemed to lack any taste of their own.
Until this week, that is! Success! These babies are firm to the tooth carrying a light herbal aroma and a palate-pleasing flavor. They didn’t dissolve into chunks of vegetables when the sauce bathed them and they were easy to cut in half.
I learned that the process was integral to the success of these morsels. Roasting the eggplant/mushroom mixture first allowed the flavor level to heighten in the vegetables. Draining the mixture removed a lot of unwanted moisture lending more than a hint of success in the binding of the vegetables later in phase two of the recipe.
To ensure your success, I recommend that you read the recipe all the way through at least once before you begin. Nothing about this recipe is difficult. The phases are both easy but be aware of the timing of the steps so that you aren’t still cooking past your dinner hour.
Phase One: NotMeat-Ball Mixture
Before beginning the prep work, gather all your ingredients so that you can work smoothly though the both phases of this recipe. Read the recipe from start to finish so you can collect all your ingredients. Then separate them into two groups as they apply to either phase one or phase two of the work.
If you begin preheating the oven to 350° now, by the time your prep is finished, the oven will be ready.
Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. I use a 12”x17” pan.
Ingredients for Phase One:
1 medium eggplant, peeled and chopped (should yield about 3 cups pulp)
2 large Portobello mushrooms with stems, chopped (should yield about 3 cups)
1 large white onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 vegetarian chicken bouillon cubes (you can use low sodium chicken cubes if you prefer but the recipe won’t be vegetarian)
¼ cup + 1 Tbl. olive oil
2 tablespoons high quality balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Italian herb blend (best if you make your own)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon black pepper, fine grind
Chop each vegetable into pieces the size of a fine dice and pour each onto the prepared baking sheet when the size is right.
If you have a food processor, you can use it to chop the eggplant, mushroom and onion quickly and efficiently. Add the coarsely chopped eggplant to the bowl and pulse 4-6 times to create pieces that are about the size of a small dice. You do NOT want a paste! Dump the eggplant onto the parchment lined baking sheet.
Next, add the coarsely chopped mushrooms to the food processor bowl and pulse 4-6 times to create pieces the size of a small dice. Pour the mushroom pieces onto the baking sheet with the eggplant.
Finally add the chopped onion and garlic cloves to the food processor bowl and pulse until you have small pieces. Do not over-process or you will end up with onion juice that can make the vegetables too watery.
Crush or crumble the bouillon cubes and combine them with the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, Italian herbs, garlic powder and black pepper in a bowl and whish until it emulsifies. Alternatively use a salad dressing shaker bottle.
Drizzle the dressing over the vegetables. I use my hands to toss the mixture but if you prefer you can use two large spoons. Level the vegetables and spread them into a layer that almost covers the baking sheet. Roast the vegetables for 20 minutes.
When the mixture is ready, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool until you can easily handle it to pour the mixture into a colander placed over a large bowl. Allow the mixture to drain the excess moisture before you proceed. If you do not drain it, the meatballs will be too loose to hold together.
Phase Two: Making NotMeat-Balls
Ingredients for Phase Two:
NotMeat-Ball mixture from Phase One
1 cup homemade breadcrumbs (not fine breadcrumbs)
(The store- bought containers of breadcrumbs, like Progresso brand, are too fine for this recipe.)
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated (alternately, Asiago or Romano work well too)
2 large eggs, beaten
½ cup heavy cream (half-and-half will work too)
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, minced
3 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves, minced
1 teaspoon red chile pepper flakes (more if you like it hot)
¼ -½ cup homemade tomato sauce (store-bought works as long as it is thick)
In a large mixing bowl, assemble the NotMeat-Ball mixture, breadcrumbs, tomato paste, cheese, eggs, heavy cream, herbs and red pepper flakes. Let the mixture rest for about 20-30 minutes at room temperature. Waiting is important as it lets the mixture meld the flavors.
Near the end of the resting time, preheat the oven to 350°. Line the baking sheet with a clean sheet of parchment paper.
Using a round tablespoon or small ice cream scoop, portion the mixture into balls on the parchment lined baking sheet. Line them up close together to ensure that you will have enough space for them all. They do not swell during the baking so they can be very close as long as they aren’t touching each other.
Drizzle the NotMeat-Balls lightly with olive oil. Roast the balls at 350° for 10 minutes. Take the baking pan out of the oven and brush the balls with the tomato sauce to cover them. Roast the balls for another 10-12 minutes.
These can be eaten as a main course (I like a sundried tomato cream sauce drizzled over them) with a green salad and vegetable side. I have served them as an appetizer, drizzled with basil pesto, at parties, too, served on a small square of rustic Italian bread.
My favorite way to eat them, though, is with a thick homemade tomato sauce over penne pasta or fusilli, sprinkled lightly with additional cheese and red pepper flakes. They are great leftover also, if you have any left over. Sadly, we did not.