Saturday, November 1, 2008

Spaghetti and Beanballs - Bittman/Veganomicon Mashup

Looking for something quick I could make for lunch today in advance of an Obama volunteer training session, I settled on the Spaghetti and Beanballs recipe (p. 189).

Last night Iv asked me if I was going to ever cook a recipe from this cookbook as written -- do I really want to get attacked for not following the recipes exactly like that woman in Portland? Today I decided the answer was that I don't care about following recipes precisely, and I'm trusting my readers (whom I know to be few) not to flame me for trying to make good food. Because really, the Veganomicon is a great resource for fun and interesting ideas, and occasionally has some interesting techniques, but there are times that I just don't have an ingredient and can't be bothered, or that I just know that my way is better - and in those cases I'll tell you exactly what I did, and you can try it by the book, then try it my way, and tell me who's right.

In any case, both the lack of appropriate ingredients and ad hoc adjustment issues came into play with this recipe. The beanballs are supposed to be made with canned kidney beans. We have some dried ones, but I was under a tight enough deadline that I didn't have time to pressure-cook them, so instead I just thawed some chickpeas I had in the freezer.

You start by mashing the beans till they're mostly smooth, but still retain a bit of texture. Then dump in some garlic, soy sauce, olive oil, bread crumbs, wheat gluten, oregano, thyme, lemon zest. You're also supposed to add steak sauce or tomato paste. We didn't have either in the fridge, so I used ketchup.

After mixing all this up, you form them into balls. I ended up with 13.

This is where I started straying from the method. What the Veganomicon calls for is making a batch of their marinara sauce recipe, cooking the beanballs, then coating them with a half-cup of the sauce, and cooking for a while more, then just topping spaghetti with the marinara and beanballs.

While this method is adequate, I thought I'd try the method from How to Cook Everything (page 152), which works fantastically for real meatballs. The basics of this method are to brown the meatballs, remove them, then make a quick tomato and onion sauce, then drop the meatballs back in and cook for another 15 minutes. I thought there was little reason wouldn't work equally well for beanballs. One of the specific advantages I thought this would have is that braising the beanballs in the sauce would help the wheat gluten to seitanize a little bit, giving the beanballs a meatier texture.

So I browned the beanballs in the oil left over from the broccoli and millet croquettes for about 15 minutes. The texture while I was doing this was alarmingly mushy. I was a bit concerned that the beanballs wouldn't hold together, but I pressed on. The beanballs absorb the oil really well...this wasn't shaping up to be a low-fat dish.

Then I removed the beanballs and kept them on a plate in the warming drawer in the oven. Enter Bittman. I dropped in one medium chopped onion, and fried it for a few minutes until it was just turning brown. At the same time, I took a 28-oz can of whole tomatoes (undrained), and tore the tomatoes apart with my hands. Once the onions were slighty browned, I poured in the tomatoes with their juice, and simmered it for about five minutes, until the tomatoes were just starting to break down.

At that point, I added back the beanballs,and let them cook for 15 minutes, along with some salt and pepper, stirring just occasionally to make sure nothing was sticking. Meanwhile, I cooked the spaghetti. Once the spaghetti was drained, I removed the beanballs, and tossed the spaghetti and sauce together. I divided the spaghetti up among three plates, placing some beanballs atop each.

The verdict was positive. The sauce was great, and the beanballs were very flavorful. Fortunately my intuition about the effect of simmering the beanballs in the sauce was correct, and they did have better structural integrity than it appeared, though they were still smoother and mushier than I'd prefer...a bit like hummus balls, which would be an argument for definitely sticking with kidney beans next time. Some other traditional meatball ingredients, like parsley and finely chopped onions, might also help with this issue. I also suspect a temperature factor might have bean at play. Since I thawed the frozen chickpeas on the stovetop, the mixture was pretty warm when I started frying them, and starting with cool ingredients, or refrigerating the mixture before cooking, might also help.

All in all, the dish was a winner, though. Nice, hearty, and satisfying - not usually the sort of description associated with vegan cooking.

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