August 27, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 4 - the finale!

It's the final week of meatless meatball reviews! Let's see how Quorn's Meatless Meatballs stack up. Also in this review, as promised, be sure to check out my Swedish meatball sauce recipe. It's super delicious, and I invented it myself!

On their website, Quorn brags that their meatballs are, "so flavorful and succulent that your meat-eating friends and family will not be able to tell the difference." This is the first Quorn product I've tried that isn't trying to be poultry… let's see how they do with beef!

Same routine for preparing them. Put them on a tray in the oven at 375 degrees for 10-ish minutes. (not precisely what the package says to do with them, but the idea is just to get them hot, which I accomplished) The first thing I have to say about these, is that they looked… not very meatball-like. Let's see… how can I put this delicately? Eh - I'll just say it - they looked like frozen dog poop. I mean, look at that picture! Would you want to put that in your mouth? Maybe if you cooked them in a sauce, they'd look more appetizing. But there you go. It is what it is.

We ate them anyway… let's hear from our guest reviewers:

April: Bit dry, good texture.
Dan: Poopy [I'm assuming he was describing the appearance], very nice texture, good seasoning taste.
Ginny: Most meatball-like; appearance: sunburned marshmallows. Springy; best with Swedish and BBQ; taste B+. Tastes better than it looks.
Anonymous: Good consistency and texture, best all around.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by these. They did have a very nice texture. They were definitely the most meat-like of anything else we ate that night, but I can't say for sure that I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between these and meat. By the time the night was over, I don't think I knew what meat was supposed to taste like anymore. So many different versions of meatless meatballs! I'd like to do a head-to-head at some point - perhaps a blind taste test? As far as sauces go, these were very good with both the BBQ sauce and the Swedish sauce, as Ginny said, but I didn't like it with the marinara. We'll stick with the Nate's meatballs for that one.

The experience:
Texture - Nicely chewy, pretty meat-like, as far as I could remember by the time we got to them
Flavor - Not much of a flavor to speak of on its own, but meatballs aren't usually eaten on their own, so that's okay.

Final grade for this attempt: A

I'd like to thank all of my guest reviewers for providing me with their insights for my meatless meatball month, and for being my most loyal readers for the past year. You guys are awesome! And now, the moment some of you have been eagerly waiting for…

Swedish Meatball Sauce
makes 2-3 cups of sauce

3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white wine
2 cups vegetable broth or stock
1 tsp dill, more or less to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 to 1 cup sour cream (I use light sour cream, but you use whatever you'd like)

First up, gather and measure out all your ingredients before you start - some of this goes pretty quickly, and you don't want to be scrambling for ingredients at the last second.

In a 2-qt saucepan over medium to medium-high heat, melt the butter, then stir in the flour. Use a whisk to combine them thoroughly, and use a rubber spatula to make sure none of the roux (that's cooked flour + butter, is pronounced "roo", and is used to thicken your forthcoming sauce) gets stuck along the edge of the bottom of the pan. Let it cook for just a minute or two, stirring either with the whisk or spatula, your call, to cook out the starchy taste a little. You don't want to brown it, since this is a white sauce.

Next up, pour in your wine. If you have objections to using wine, you can substitute 1/4 cup vegetable stock. This will bubble like crazy - just keep whisking! It'll get really thick really fast, sort of like a pudding-consistency. This is right. Don't worry. As soon as it's all combined, whisk in your vegetable stock. It'll go back to being soupy and maybe lumpy - just keep whisking. As soon as the temperature approaches a boil again, it'll thicken up. Once it's nicely thickened, you can add in your salt, pepper, and dill, and leave it alone to bubble away over very low heat until you get close to needing it. It'll thicken up more as it simmers, so keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally. It's okay if it gets a little thicker than you were planning, because you're still going to add the sour cream. I wouldn't leave it simmering for more than 20-30 minutes - if you need that long, definitely put a lid on it (that will slow down evaporation), and/or pull it off the heat until closer to the time when you need it. As long as we're not talking hours, it'll still be safe.

A couple minutes before you're ready for it, stir in the sour cream. I have a range there, because some people might want more, some people might want less. Start with a half cup and taste it, adding more if you'd like. Only heat it until the sour cream is hot - do not let the sour cream boil! It will curdle and look unpleasant. It'll still taste okay, but it won't be as pretty. Finally, re-season with salt and pepper if it needs it, and serve!

If you're going to prepare this ahead of time, that works just fine - just prepare as written, and then refrigerate. It'll keep for a good week or two - just reheat it when you need it!

August 20, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 3

Continuing meatless meatball month, we're on week three with another homemade meatless meatball. This week, we're testing out a recipe from this website. This is a lentil-ricotta meatless meatball. The creator of this recipe actually states: "It looks like a meatball…smells like a meatball…[and] most importantly, it tastes like a meatball." The pictures on the website definitely look like meatballs, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

First problem I had with the recipe - it just calls for lentils. I have never used lentils, so I did some research on what sorts of lentils were out there, and tried to figure out which one would be best to use. Since they were going to be pureed, I went with a red lentil, which I learned does not hold its shape well when cooked - I figured I'd just save myself some time and use an already-squishy lentil. This was a mistake, which I'll get to in a second. Side note, after printing out the recipe, I did not go back and look at the pictures until I was done cooking them, so I had no idea how wrong I was. The rest of the ingredients were pretty straightforward.

I cooked up my bright salmon-colored lentils, and then drained them, where I lost a bit of the mushy-lentil goo through the strainer. I couldn't leave it in the strainer too long, or it would have oozed out completely, I suspect, so I just got as much water out as I could, then dumped them into a bowl and finished mashing up the ones that hadn't yet disintegrated (not many). This, right here, I believe is the source of all the future problems I had with this recipe. Too much water, and too-mushy lentils. I forged ahead anyway (again - I hadn't looked at the pictures on the website in a day or two), adding the remaining ingredients. I tasted it, for seasoning purposes. This definitely did not taste anything like a meatball, but it tasted fairly good, so I decided not to abandon the project. I popped it in the fridge for the required two hours, hoping it would firm up a bit during that time.

When it came time to cook them, I got my pan of oil ready to go, then pulled the bowl of lentil-ricotta goo out of the fridge. It had firmed up slightly, but not nearly enough. Maybe with more time… In any case, I scooped spoonfuls of the goo into the pan of hot oil, and watched them totally flatten out. Again, looking at the pictures on the website now, that was very wrong. But it was way too late to do anything about it, so I continued. They browned nicely on the bottom, but then I had to flip them. They were really soft, which made them very difficult to flip. Probably also a result of too much moisture. I did my best, only ruining two or three in the process. That was okay, since, even though the recipe said it made 18, my batch made close to 30. I finished cooking up the lentil balls, and then froze them.

When meatless meatball party day arrived, I arranged the meatless meatballs patties on a tray with the other meatless meatballs, and baked them in the oven. That part went well. Nothing unexpected there. So let's get to the reactions:

April: Forgettable. (ouch!)
Dan: Cheesy, almost gritty, no real flavor, has potential.
Ginny: Delicious taste on own. Texture kinda mashed-potato-y with crunchy outside. Best on own - no sauce. Or Swedish. A little grainy.
Anonymous: Preferred potato pancake-like appearance. Dry, tastes of milled grain product.

I definitely agree that it had a mashed potato consistency on the inside. The exterior was nicely crispy. Texture-wise, this was pretty enjoyable, but nothing like a meat-filled meatball. Not even close. If I'd coated it in breadcrumbs before frying it, I could probably sneak it past someone by calling it a croquette. Which would be delicious. But we were going for a meatball experience here. And it tasted like lentils! Which wasn't bad, but it sure wasn't meat. And before anyone jumps down my throat, allow me to specify: it tasted like red lentils! Maybe whatever sort of lentils the original recipe poster used tasted more meaty. I'll have to try it again with different lentils and see if it's more meat-like. I'll get back to you on that.

The experience:
Texture - Crunchy outside, mashed-potato-y inside. Neither of those things are like a meatball.
Flavor - Lentil-y and cheesy. Neither of those things are like a meatball, either.

While these were tasty, I was promised a realistic meatball experience with no meat, so I had to give it a lower grade than I would have otherwise. But I'll try it again with different lentils and reassess.

Final grade for this attempt: B

Lentil Ricotta "Meatballs"
makes about 18
2 cups cooked lentils, pureed (warning - do not use red lentils, I guess)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Canola oil for frying
Marinara sauce, optional

Add all ingredients to a deep bowl. Mix very well, using hands or a wooden spoon. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, shape mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls. Heat about 1/2-inch of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add shaped "meatballs" and cook until browned all around, turning only once. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and let excess drain off. Add to simmering marinara sauce if serving immediately, or store in a tightly covered container up to three days.

August 13, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 2

Welcome to part two of the month of meatless meatballs! This week, I'm reviewing one of the frozen products: Nate's Zesty Italian Meatless Meatballs. This is also where I shall reveal my secret recipe for amazing marinara sauce! Start getting excited now, people… it's really a great sauce.

But first, the review! Let's take a look at what the bag promised: "incredibly delicious flavor and a texture that rivals traditional meatballs", "try with pasta, stroganoff, Swedish meatball dishes, or goulash", "wholesome addition to gravies, tomato sauces, pesto, and sweet and sour sauces". Wow - this sounds like a great, all-purpose meatball. I had done a preliminary internet search for other people's opinions of these - overwhelmingly positive. But then again, the internet is full of mostly-positive reviews of fake meat. That's what I'm here for!

I'll tell you - right out of the bag, these looked very meatball-ish. I was pretty excited to cook them up and give them a taste. Again, I put them on a tray in the oven, un-sauced, at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Now, let's take a look at what my guest-reviewers thought:

April: Nice and crispy, poor flavor.
Dan: Nice crispness, but poor texture otherwise, flavor is weak.
Ginny: Crunchy, crusty outside - seems pretty bread-dough-like inside, texture-wise. Best with BBQ. Doesn't taste much like meat but pretty inoffensive taste.
Anonymous: Dry and crunchy, but good meatesque flavor. Like chewing meat hay. Most authentic appearance.

I thought the exterior was awesome - super crispy. The inside was definitely mushy, though. It was also very fragile - it didn't take much pressure to cause it to fall apart. One of the cooking directions suggested heating up the meatballs in the pot of sauce. I think this is a terrible idea. It would eliminate my favorite part of these (the crispy outside) and, I suspect, turn them into a big pot of mush mixed with sauce. It didn't have too much flavor on its own, which is why the package was able to suggest so many sauce possibilities - it's not going to fight with anything, so put whatever you want on it! I thought it tasted pretty great with the marinara sauce, only ok with the barbecue sauce, and it didn't really work with the Swedish meatball sauce. Possibly the Swedish sauce didn't have enough oomph to improve the meatless meatball. But again, great with the marinara, which is why I'm pairing this review with that recipe.

The experience:
Texture - crispy/crunchy on the outside, mushy in the middle
Flavor - not much going on there - nothing bad, but nothing good either

Final grade for this attempt: B+

Marinara Sauce (makes about 3 cups - enough to generously sauce a pound of pasta)

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
lots of minced garlic (I usually use more than most people would - I'd recommend starting with about a tablespoon (that's about three cloves) and work up from there until it is as garlicky as you'd like)
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
pinch or two of sugar, depending on how acidic your tomatoes are
salt and pepper, to taste
a pinch of red pepper flakes, if you like your sauce with a little kick (more flakes = more kick)

Just combine all the ingredients into a pot big enough to hold them all (I usually use my 2-quart saucepan, just to give it some room to bubble. Put it over low heat and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Let it simmer long enough for the flavors to meld, which should take at least 20 minutes, and then keep it over very low heat until the rest of your food is ready. If you're going to serve it with pasta, start the sauce first, then put your pot of water on for the pasta while the sauce is simmering.

This sauce also freezes well, so feel free to make a huge pot of it, and freeze the sauce in plastic bags (or whatever you'd like to freeze the sauce in) in serving-size quantities, then thaw as needed later. So simple, yet so tasty! You can also use fresh herbs, if that's your thing, but I find that dried is easier. You can also dice up some onion and saute that in a little bit of olive oil in the saucepan before adding the tomatoes, if you like onions. Really, this is just a basic starting point. Go crazy with it!

August 6, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 1

I started writing this blog nearly a year ago (first review posted August 24th, 2009), and I wanted to do something special to celebrate. So, welcome to the first installment of a four-part series of meatless meatballs! I got some friends together a few weeks ago, made them all eat a bunch of fake meat meatballs, and then take notes for me. So, not only will you get a bunch of meatball reviews, including two homemade meatballs (yes, you'll get the recipes!), I'm throwing in a couple meatball sauce recipes, and you'll get to hear opinions from people other than just me for once! I still get final word, though. It is my blog, after all.

Introducing your guest reviewers for the month:

April: My lovely wife, of course. She'll also be occasionally posting on here as my resident statistician, so be on the lookout for that.
Dan: My best friend from way back when he invited himself to my wedding in 2005. Not a vegetarian, but sometimes eats fake meat just for fun.
Ginny: One of my awesome pescetarian friends who inspired this project. She hasn't yet lost touch with the meat-eating experience, so I trust her judgment as far as whether things taste "like meat" or not.
Anonymous: Yes - one of my friends refused to let me use his name. I'm going to assume that it won't compromise his anonymity too much for me to say that he is also a pescetarian. If he would like to add anything to this, he can feel free to comment (or otherwise contact me) with whatever else he feels might be relevant here.

Alright, let's get to it! First installment is going to be a homemade meatless meatball. I got the recipe from this page. It's called Meatless BBQ Balls, but I did it a little differently, to suit my purposes. Disclaimer: the original recipe poster said that these do not taste like meat, and that wasn't her plan, but that "they are savory and rich and would make a good 'meat' part of a meal."

I guess I should explain my meatless meatball tasting party format. I cooked up four different types of meatless meatballs, and also prepared three different dipping sauces, just to get a full range of experiences. The three sauces I made were a basic marinara sauce, a homemade barbecue sauce, and a Swedish meatball sauce. I am not at liberty to share the barbecue sauce recipe, but I can definitely share the other two. Because I had three different sauces to test out, I cooked these balls with no sauce. Since I modified the recipe a little bit, I included my version below.

Something else that might be important to know is that I prepared these a few days ahead of time and then froze them after the first 20 minutes of baking time. I figured it wouldn't be terribly fair to serve two frozen meatballs alongside two freshly cooked meatballs, so I froze the two homemade meatballs to even the playing field, and also to make the meatball party run a bit smoother, with fewer stuff for me to put together last-minute.

This meatless meatball was pretty easy to put together. I didn't really run into any problems while preparing them, which is a little unusual for me. The… dough, I guess? had a really nice easy-to-work-with consistency that I think most people would be able to duplicate. I was really hoping they'd taste good, too. I wrapped them up in the foil, accidentally deforming some of them in the process, and put them in the oven. Twenty minutes later, I pulled them out, carefully extracted them from the foil, and froze them.

On meatless meatball party night, I put them on a tray with the others, and baked them for roughly 10-15 minutes in a 350 degree oven and served them up with the sauces. I'll let my guests weigh in first:

April: Mushy and gluten-y with a wheaty flavor. Tastes like stuffing.
Dan: Very bready. Tastes very pleasing.
Ginny: Bready. Stuffing-y in taste and texture. Best with Swedish sauce, pretty good with marinara.
Anonymous: Texture of stuffing. Tasty stuffing. Best with Swedish meatball sauce, which is like gravy.

My own impressions were pretty similar, at least texture-wise. They were definitely mushy. I wonder if they maybe didn't get cooked enough in the foil versus the parchment that the recipe originally called for (but is just stupid-expensive and I don't keep around). The principle is still the same - it's basically steaming the balls, whether using foil or parchment, so I'm assuming it just needed more time. But maybe they would have been mushy anyway. Hard to say. I didn't think of a stuffing flavor until everyone else said it - it mostly tasted like onion to me, which is not a bad thing. I do agree, though, that the Swedish meatball sauce was the best, with the barbecue being also fairly good. I thought the marinara was a bad combo, though. Just didn't work for me.

All in all, these were definitely not meat-like, but they weren't supposed to be, so they shouldn't be punished for that. On their own merits, these were a little tough to eat, being so mushy, but not unpleasantly flavored.

The experience:
Texture - very mushy
Flavor - like eating onion bread balls (or stuffing, if you're anyone else)

I wonder what these would be like with some actual stuffing flavorings - get some sage and thyme in there. Perhaps a future experiment is in order...

Final grade for this attempt: B

Meatless Pumpkin Balls

1 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 cup vital wheat gluten
2/3 medium onion, finely chopped (or to taste)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 cup breadcrumbs
about 1/2 cup of desired sauce, if you're using any

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare two fairly large pieces of aluminum foil. Mix all ingredients in a bowl--the mixture will be very thick. Shape into 18 balls and place half of them on each piece of the foil.

Fold edges of foil tightly to seal in the balls. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Unwrap and coat in sauce (if using) and allow to bake uncovered for 8 minutes. Add additional sauce if you think it needs more after you bake it a bit longer, and serve hot.