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Meatless food for meat eaters

meatballsMy family has been eating a lot less meat over the past few years. Oh, we still get nice steaks to throw on the grill, and when they show up on the table with oven-roasted potatoes and a mound of dressed arugula, the meal is cause for celebration. But more often than not, dinner will be an amply tricked-out salad with a loaf of bread, a bowl of farro topped with vegetables and a fried egg, or a spicy tofu stir-fry with rice.

Maybe we’ve evolved. Maybe we’ve just changed. We don’t eat this way because we’re trying to cut meat out of our diets; partial vegetarianism is our new normal.

So I’m guessing we no longer qualify as “meat lovers” in the traditional sense. We’re certainly nothing like the fictional “Mr. Sausage” whom my friend Kim O’Donnel had in mind when she wrote “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations: Year-Round Vegetarian Feasts” (De Capo Lifelong Books, $18.99). Mr. Sausage is that dude who would laugh if you even mentioned the words “kale salad.” As I envision him, he eats like Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation” and he talks like Rocky Balboa.

The book is a follow-up to O’Donnel’s 2010 book “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour,” which was a cornerstone text for people who climbed on board the “Meatless Monday” train.

O’Donnel — a former Washington Post columnist who routinely posted Meatless Monday menus on that paper’s website — was in town to teach a class at The Cook’s Warehouse, so I invited her over to the house to spend the afternoon shopping at Your DeKalb Farmers Market and cooking from her book.

The book is geared toward festive meals and get togethers. There are some simple recipes but many more that rise to the occasion, whether it’s a Super Bowl party, Thanksgiving or an Easter dinner. They can take a little more time than, say, that salad I dump everything into.

We decide to modify her recipe for lentil “meatball” subs — losing the hoagie rolls and cheese, but keeping the “meatballs” and marinara sauce.

It’s a good thing we had the afternoon, because the meatballs are a bit of a project, albeit an easy and fun one. You cook brown rice and lentils separately, let them cool and mash them together with all the typical meatballs seasonings. You then shape and refrigerate the balls, fry them in batches, then keep them warm in the oven while you assemble the meal. You end up with a tender, full-of-flavor meatball with a fantastic crisp crust.

And when these “meatballs” come to the table, they taste nothing like clean-out-the-fridge tofu surprise. They are cause for celebration. Ron Swanson, I’m inviting you over.

Lentil “Meatballs” with Marinara

(adapted from “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” by Kim O’Donnel)
Total time: About 2 hours
Hands on: 45 minutes
Servings: 6
  • 6 3/4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup uncooked medium or long-grain brown rice
  • 1 cup dried brown or green lentils
  • 5 garlic cloves — 2 whole, 3 minced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil plus 1/2 cup for panfrying
  • 3/4 cup onion that has been very finely minced or grated using a box grater (about 1 medium sized onion)
  • 3 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 (23- to 28-ounce) container tomato puree
  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (or pecorino)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup unseasoned medium-grind breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

Bring 3/4 cup of the water to a boil, then add the rice. Return to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, 40-45 minutes. Off the heat, keep the rice covered for 5 minutes. Measure out 1/2 cup of the cooked rice and transfer to a baking sheet or plate to cool completely. Refrigerate the remaining 1 cup of rice for another use.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the lentils. Place the lentils in a large saucepan, along with the 2 whole garlic cloves and the remaining 6 cups of the water. Over high heat, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium. Cook the lentils until tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain thoroughly so that the lentils are dry. Allow to cool completely.

While the lentils cook, prepare the marinara sauce. In a medium-size saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat, then add 1/4 cup of the onion and the 3 minced garlic cloves, cooking until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of the dried oregano and stir occasionally to minimize sticking.

Add the tomato puree and stir to combine the mixture. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the sauce can simmer. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Place the cooled lentils and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the lentils are mashed. (Or use a potato masher.) Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl, then add the cooled rice, the remaining 1/2 cup of onion, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oregano, and the grated cheese, salt, black pepper, bread crumbs and egg.

With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir the mixture until well mixed.

Using a 1/8-cup measure, shape into balls. They will be slightly sticky to the touch. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Over medium-high heat, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet until the oil shimmers. Gently lower the balls into the hot oil, cooking in batches and making sure not to crowd the pan, as they are somewhat delicate and benefit from space. Lower the heat to medium and panfry on first side for about 3 minutes. Turn (or gently nudge) to second side and cook for 2 minutes.

Transfer the first batch to a baking sheet add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil to the skillet for subsequent batches and cook in the same manner. Transfer the balls to the oven to finish cooking about 5 minutes; the balls will still be somewhat soft to the touch but will have dried out a bit and will have a slightly crispy coating.

Place the warm marinara in the bottom of a wide bowl and arrange the “meatballs” on top.

Per serving: 482 calories (percent of calories from fat, 48), 17 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams fiber, 27 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 41 milligrams cholesterol, 968 milligrams sodium.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

17 comments Add your comment

Michelle from Dunwoody

April 2nd, 2013
3:00 pm

Be sure to cook the onions. Otherwise, the onions may cause you and your family to experience gas pain and flatulence.


April 2nd, 2013
4:30 pm

I think I would rather eat falafel.


April 2nd, 2013
4:59 pm

I like footlong hot dogs w/ Skyline (Cincinnati) chili.


April 2nd, 2013
5:51 pm

I am going to try this soon. Just need to get to Whole Foods for the lentils and rice. Fingers crossed. I actually enjoy meatless meals occasionally and John published a chickpea stew with kale years ago that I made today.


April 2nd, 2013
10:30 pm

If interested, Google the recipe for The Meatball Shop vegetarian balls. They are lentil based too, but with a few more items, including walnuts, which add to both heartiness and flavor. No rice.

Best veg ballz I’ve ever tried.

John Kessler

April 3rd, 2013
7:37 am

thanks for the tip. May need to try a veg ballz off.


April 3rd, 2013
9:37 am

Welcome to the Vegetable Kingdom John, somewhat…


April 3rd, 2013
9:42 am

That’s really inspiring – that your family has become part-time vegetarians! If everyone did that, it would be the equivalent of half the country becoming vegetarian!


April 3rd, 2013
10:18 am

I have jumped on this bandwagon. including a lot more beans, lentils, quinoa. I didnt even realize it until i was making my meal plan/grocery list and realized that the last 3 weeks i hadnt really bought any meat. Breakfast always includes eggs, but I get it from the Cafe at work. Lunch is often a salad with arugula, feta, chick peas, artichoke hearts, baby corn… whatever i have on hand. Dinner has been stuff like black bean burritos with guacamole. It’s been awesome. Will try the lentil meatball recipe.


April 3rd, 2013
12:53 pm

I have also gone the part-time vegetarian route. I will eat meat perhaps once a week, especially when I dine out. But my home meals primarily are vegetarian, now. I doubt I would ever go pure vegetarian, but moderating my intake of meats (I much prefer those places that serve responsibly-raised meat products) seems an ideal fit for me. Recipes like these meatballs are fantastic, bring ‘em on!


April 3rd, 2013
1:07 pm

I am going to try this recipe. I love lentil soup. So for me at least, it has potential.


April 3rd, 2013
1:16 pm

Check out Get Vegucated on Netflix ( Great movie and good reasons to reduce your meat consumption. Farming in America is inhumane, unsanitary, and unsustainable.


April 3rd, 2013
1:17 pm

Meant farming animals… although the pesticides they put on veggies isn’t all that good. Buy local!


April 3rd, 2013
2:06 pm

Just saw this on my Forno Bravo email today – broccoli “pepperoni” pizza.


April 5th, 2013
5:41 pm

Vegucated…….farming animals has been sustainable since Jamestown & St Augustine. That seems to be a reasonable amount of time for farmers to make it work, don’t you think? And what is inhumane about feeding your family? You folks can go over the top in a heart beat.


April 5th, 2013
10:14 pm

This sounds good. I am going to try it. We are part-time vegetarians also, when we eat at home and also when dining out.

In one of the paragraphs in the article, I think you meant to write 2 teaspoons of oregano rather than 2 tablespoons, as teaspoons are listed in the ingredient list.

Lisa, thanks for mentioning the Chickpea stew with Kale. I just Googled and found that recipe, too.

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