Spaghetti and {Vegan} Meatballs! | With Spicy Tomato Sauce

I’ve admitted here before that for most of my life I’ve had a rather self-righteous disdain for the suburbs. When I lived downtown, before I had a baby, an unflattering stereotype of the suburbs existed in my brain: subdivision upon sprawling subdivision, bumper to bumper mini vans, Lulu Lemon-clad soccer moms with the carefully cultivated Kate Gosselin hairdos. It was the Big Box stores that bothered me the most, you know the ones – the Home Depots, the Bed Bath and Beyonds, the Best Buys, the chain restaurants. All suburbs seem homogenous in this regard – compare one around where I live to one in Ontario or to one in the American Midwest and you’ll likely see a nearly identical cross section of venues to spend your money.

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Despite the anti-suburbanite rancour of my pre-baby self, I’m now a suburban dweller – albeit a reluctant one. Now that I live here, most like for the long run, I’m trying to adopt what could be described in a when in Rome attitude toward the Big Box attractions in my neighbourhood. I’m not going anywhere, and neither are they, so we might as well try to get along, right? To this end, we dined at Olive Garden – the only one in BC, quite the distinction – last weekend. It’s situated in a strip mall, of course!

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When you eat at Olive Garden you don’t just get a meal – you get an experience. I’m talking hovering hordes of psychotically charismatic servers, basketfuls of free bread sticks, free wine samples, and bottomless soup and salad. Crazy! There was so much food, drink and general mirth being thrust in our direction as soon that I could hardly focus on making a selection from the menu. And the place was fully bumping –  we had to wait 45 minutes for a table; every inch of the restaurant’s thousands of square feet was packed with diners munching their way to Tuscan-style chain restaurant heaven. I ended up ordering a porcini mushroom ravioli, which was surprisingly delicious and far from the bland, coagulated muck I expected it to be. For dessert, a large slab of Tiramisu – also tasty!

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The food did have a mass-produced air about it, but as far as chain restaurants go – and apart from the boring bottomless salad, which was 90% iceberg lettuce – it was decent. I never thought a place like the Olive Garden would prompt me to break out of my pasta comfort zone and start experimenting in the kitchen, but it did. Not that I went home and started churning out my own fresh pasta noodles like an Italian nona, but I did whip up these vegan meatballs in an attempt to jazz up my spaghetti. I started with mashed cannellini beans and multigrain bread crumbs, and added in sauteed leeks, garlic, mushrooms, green onions and a flax egg. I then rolled them into balls and browned them in a skillet, then tossed them with spaghetti and a spicy tomato sauce. They turned out great! I don’t think you’ll see anything like this on the menu at Olive Garden any time soon, but it did get an enthusiastic thumbs-up from the household omnivore 🙂

Hey, Virtual Vegan Potluck is coming up on May 11! Are any of you participating? If so, what type of dish are you bringing? I’m bringing a dessert and am VERY excited about my recipe!

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Recipe: Spaghetti and {Vegan} Meatballs | With Spicy Tomato Sauce

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • About 200g spaghetti pasta (use gluten free pasta if you’re gluten sensitive)

Meatballs

  • 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 medium leek (white and light green parts only), minced
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 8 white or brown mushrooms, chopped into pea-sized pieces
  • 3 green onions (dark and light green parts only), minced
  • 2 pieces of whole grain bread, processed into crumbs (use gluten free bread if you’re gluten sensitive)
  • 398ml can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 flax egg (I used Bonzai Aphrodite’s flax egg recipe)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Tomato Sauce

  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 large gloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground dried oregano
  • 796ml can of good quality diced tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon of brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 tablespoon of good quality balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Prepare vegan meatballs

Makes 25-30 meatballs

  1. Prepare flax egg according to this recipe – this needs to be done 1 hour in advance.
  2. Place drained cannellini beans in a large bowl and mash using a fork or potato masher. Set aside until needed.
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat.
  4. Add leeks and saute until tender.
  5. Add garlic and saute just until golden brown.
  6. Add red pepper flakes, paprika and coriander and stir until spices coat other ingredients.
  7. Add mushrooms. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
  8. Cover skillet and let mushrooms reduce, stirring periodically.
  9. Fold in green onions.
  10. Remove from heat and transfer contents of skillet to your bowl with mashed cannellini beans.
  11. Add flax egg and bread crumbs and season lightly with salt and pepper.
  12. Stir until everything is well combined. I started with a wooden spoon then used my hands once mixture was cool enough.
  13. Using a 1 tablespoon scoop, roll mixture into balls and place on a plate. Tip: Keep your hands damp to prevent mixture from sticking.
  14. Place in fridge for 45-60 minutes to chill.
  15. Next you’ll brown your meatballs (do this in two batches to make it more manageable). Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat.
  16. Once oil is hot, add half of meatballs to skillet.
  17. Using a wooden spoon, keep meatballs moving until each side is golden brown.
  18. Repeat steps 13-15 with second half of meatballs.
  19. Keep meatballs warm in oven until ready to serve.

Prepare Spicy Tomato Sauce (this can be done while meatballs are firming in the fridge)

  1. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add garlic and saute just until golden brown.
  3. Add red pepper flakes, oregano and thyme and stir until spices coat garlic.
  4. Add diced tomatos and bring to a gentle boil.
  5. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  6. Using an immersion blender, puree sauce until mostly smooth (I like to leave a few tomato chunks). You can also use a conventional blender, then return sauce to skillet.
  7. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  8. Keep simmering sauce on low until ready to serve. Add a little water if sauce becomes too thick.

Prepare Pasta

  1. Cook pasta according to package instructions, or until al dente.
  2. Drain and rinse under cold water.

Finish

  1. Transfer cooked pasta to skillet containing tomato sauce and toss to combine.
  2. Serve, topping each portion with meatballs and freshly ground black pepper.
  3. Eat!

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Springtime French Green Lentil and Pearl Barley Soup

In my last post I detailed a few of the nefarious finds we’ve made at our new house: the elaborate spider’s nest in the wall, the sketchy crow bar marks on the front door, the kitschy linoleum underlying the lurid teal carpet in the bedroom, both of which are now on their way to the municipal waste station. The weirdness of this flooring situation didn’t hit me until last night. Why was there linoleum in the bedroom to begin with – was that a thing in the late 1960s? And was covering it with teal carpet really the best solution? Oh well, there’s no accounting for taste. That being said, the creative mind responsible for said carpet would likely be equally offended by my design sense .

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It’s not my intention to sound like a big old squeaky wheel about the house – believe me, I am more than relieved to be out of the RV even if it means dodging the odd Black Widow and seeing various shades of teal wherever I look. But there’s one last undesirable feature of the house I’d like to mention. The toilet. Yes, I bring up toilets way too often on this blog. But it’s worth mention that, in a cruel twist of fate – after 7 1/2 months of persevering with the clog-prone septic system in the RV – the toilet in the house is… well, I’ll be nice and say it has personality. Indeed, it makes disturbing gurgling sounds, its water surges threatening toward the rim, it flushes ‘normally’ only if you hold the lever down just so. I’m starting to think I must have been an incompetent plumber in a previous life, and am paying my due now via a series of faulty toilets.

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The house has also coughed up some pretty cool booty (as in stuff, not the other kind). My SO has actually owned this house for several years, but was renting it to his sister until we moved in last month. Evidently he’d used the cupboards in the laundry room as a dumping ground for miscellaneous junk before he moved out years ago, because when I went to clean out said cupboards I unearthed – amongst several pieces of ancient Tupperware – an ice cream maker straight from the 1980s (remember when these were all the rage?), an unused wok (score) and bafflingly, a single leather glove – which made me wonder if I had a piece of forensic evidence on my hands.

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Over the weekend we had a very welcome spate of warm, dry weather here in the Lower Mainland ,which prompted everyone to simultaneously shed their fleece and Gore-Tex and flee into the out-of-doors. This week, however, the Spring showers returned, putting me back in the mood for warm food. The seasonal ingredients that are beginning to make an appearance in grocery stores inspired me to whip up this easy springtime soup featuring French green lentils, pearl barley, sweet carrots, shallots, leeks, white mushrooms, spring onions, lemon and fresh basil! Apart from asparagus (which I’ve yet to come across unfortunately), nothing heralds the arrival of Spring like lemon and fresh herbs 🙂

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Recipe: Springtime French Green Lentil and Pearl Barley Soup

Makes 4-6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup french green lentils, uncooked
  • 1/4 cup pearl barley, uncooked (omit or substitute lentils if you’re GF)
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 medium leek, finely chopped (white and light green parts only)
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely sliced
  • 2 small carrots, diced into 1/4″ thick medallions
  • 1 small zucchini, diced
  • 5 cups vegetable stock (I used low sodium)
  • 2 green onions, chopped (dark and light green parts only), plus a bit more for garnish
  • 4-5 leaves of fresh basil, chopped
  • Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

1. Place dried lentils and barley in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Cover saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and let cook for 20-30 minutes or until lentils and barley are tender, but still firm. Drain and rinse under cold water. Set aside until needed.

2. In a large saucepan heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add shallots, leeks and carrots and saute until tender.

3. Add in garlic, red pepper flakes and paprika and stir just until garlic is golden brown.

3. Add in cooked lentils, barley and zucchini and stir until everything is combined.

4. Add vegetable stock and bring to a gentle boil.

5. Reduce heat to a simmer and let cook until zucchini is tender (or preferably longer to let flavours develop). Taste and season with salt and pepper.

6. Just before serving, stir in lemon juice, green onions, and basil.

7. Serve, topping each portions with chopped green onions and lemon zest. Eat!

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White Bean and Leek Stew with Fresh Herbs | Served on Creamy Polenta

I can’t believe it, but the three of us have been holed up in our 30 ft. recreational vehicle for a full four months now. I’m not mathematically inclined, but I was paying enough attention in elementary school to know that that’s an entire third of a year, folks! Those who read my initial posts on this blog may recall my many anxieties about making an RV – and by extension a trailer park – our temporary home. For instance, I anticipated taking on the ways of my neighbours and making polyester caftans my preferred leisure wear. That hasn’t happened, although I do find myself forfeiting skinny jeans and other such restrictive articles of clothing for track pants with increasing frequency, which suits me just fine. I also had a disproportionate fear of having to ignite a pilot light in order to use the oven. This I now do with an expert flick of the Bic lighter, and without visions of a ball of flame spewing forth from the oven and singeing off my eyebrows.

There are, however, a few things about trailer park life I haven’t taken so kindly too. Right up at the top of the list – and I realize a food blog is hardly the place for toilet talk so I’ll keep this short – is the special (not in a good way) ‘quick dissolve’ toilet paper you have to use so as not to clog the RV’s plumbing system. It’s one-ply, and it’s rough (although the package claims otherwise), and it’s so thin that you can’t even get it off the roll without it tearing. It’s not like I demand a luxuriant lilac-scented 4-ply tissue to be happy, but this stuff is ridiculous. Think the bathroom at a gas station and the toilet paper they provide you with there – only WORSE. There, I’ve vented. Now I’ll move on.

Another thing I’ve had to adjust to is RV’s small hot water tank. I’ve never been one to dawdle or sing or engage in protracted contemplations in the shower, but before we moved into the RV I’d take it for granted that I could lather up, wash my hair and shave without running out of hot water. It was a nasty awakening the first time I showered in the RV and the thing went cold on me in the process of rinsing the shampoo out of my hair (so not impressed). It took a few tries but finally I managed to get it down to a science, which looks something like this: Turn water on, get wet all over. Turn water off, lather. Turn water on, wet hair. Turn water off and lather hair. Turn water on and rinse hair. Turn water off and shave. Turn water on and take a final rinse. Sometimes the water still runs out on me and it kind of sucks – and don’t even get me started on the crappy water pressure – but I’m coping.

There are other annoyances I’ve detailed in previous posts – the lack of storage space, the barely long enough bed, the cold floor. But hey, we knew it wouldn’t be perfect. What the RV does have in its favour is a fully functional – albeit miniscule – kitchenette, a place for me chop vegetables and dirty cookwear to my heart’s content. And that, at the end of the day, is keeping me occupied, if not entirely sane, while forced to live in a confined space. On that note – a few words about this dish. Or one word, really: polenta! This stuff is crazy delicious, and in the process of making it today I wondered why I don’t eat it like, all the time. Its smooth texture and mild flavour makes it the perfect creamy companion for the light, fresh flavours of the stew. I love cooking with fresh herbs; they go hand in hand with the leeks, shallots and tomatoes and really work wonders to brighten up the taste of the stew. Try this recipe if you want to inject a little Spring into your Fall. I’m sure at this point we all need a little bit of that!

What are your favourite dishes that use cornmeal? Please share your recipes and ideas!

Note: I made the polenta using a combination of dairy (parmesan) and nondairy (almond milk, vegan margarine) ingredients, but depending on your preference you can make it using exclusively vegan (or lacto-ovo) ingredients. I’ve outlined both options in the ingredient list below.

Recipe: White Bean and Leek Stew with Fresh Herbs | Served on Creamy Polenta

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

Creamy Polenta

  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 2 1/2 cups milk (or unsweetened almond milk)
  • 1 tablespoon butter (or vegan margarine)
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (or vegan parmesan), grated (plus a bit more for garnish)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

White Bean and Leek Stew with Fresh Herbs

  • 1/2 cup dried white beans (I used navy beans; great northern beans would work well too)
  • 2 leeks, diced (white and light green parts only)
  • 2 small shallots, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • Pinch of red chili flakes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 10-12 grape tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/2 cup vegetable stock (low sodium if preferred)
  • 1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

Prepare white beans: Soak beans for about 6 hours in a few cups of water. Drain beans and rinse thoroughly, then place in fridge until you’re ready to begin making the stew. To cook beans, place them in a medium saucepan with 3 cups of water (don’t add salt as it prevents the beans from cooking properly). Bring to a boil then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cover saucepan and cook until beans are tender but still firm, about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and drain. Set aside until needed.

Finish stew: Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon of butter (or vegan margarine) in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and shallots and saute until soft. Add garlic and saute just until golden brown. Add red chili flakes and coriander and stir until incorporated with other ingredients. Fold in tomatoes and white beans. Add vegetable broth and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and let stew simmer for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and fold in parsley and oregano. Taste and adjust with salt if necessary. Set aside and prepare polenta.

Prepare polenta: Bring milk (or almond milk) to a gentle simmer. Whisk in cornmeal then switch to a spoon and stir until liquid is fully absorbed. Remove from heat and stir in butter (or vegan margarine) and parmesan (or vegan parmesan). If polenta is too thick, stir in a bit more liquid. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

To serve, place a few spoonfuls of polenta in a bowl and top with stew (remember to remove bay leaf). Sprinkle with parmesan and freshly ground black pepper, then eat!