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Vegetarian Journal Mar/Apr 2001

Neatballs: The Vegan Answer to Meatballs

By Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

"Neatballs" are the vegan answer to meatballs. You don't have to kill a cow to fill a pita or top a pizza. Just turn to some simple ingredients and you'll be dishing up fabulous pasta and topping pizza in no time.

You'll see by the recipes that neatballs require "normal" ingredients and take very little kitchen expertise. Since they do take some time to make (as opposed to a sandwich), we recommend that you make double batches of your neatballs and freeze one batch. That way you'll have fast, convenient meals filed away until you need them.

If cooking from scratch is not always an option, there are several quick alternatives. We thawed some "burger" (as in soy burger) crumbles, mixed them well with chopped onions, bell pepper, garlic, and mashed firm tofu and came up with an excellent neatball which could be baked or fried. Falafel mix makes up great neatballs; after following the directions on the package, we added cooked corn and chopped red peppers to make a Mediterranean neatball. We served this with tabbouleh and couscous. Frozen veggie burgers can be thawed (in the refrigerator) and shaped into neatballs; top a neatball sandwich with barbecue sauce, mushroom sauce, or salsa and you have a great, quick lunch.

The key to neatballs is the "glue"—what makes a wonderfully flavored mixture stick together. We have found that moist ingredients, such as mashed potatoes, cooked brown rice or sticky, glutinous rice (found in Asian markets), cooked cereal (such as cream of rice), and cooked whole wheat, help to hold together dry ingredients, such as cooked, chopped beans or chopped veggies. Dry ingredients, such as breadcrumbs, whole wheat flour, and ground nuts, help to hold together moist ingredients, such as tofu, cooked corn, and chopped mushrooms. Refrigerating uncooked neatballs helps to hold them together for cooking as well.

If you find that your neatball mixture needs thinning out, use liquid that will add flavor and/or color, such as tomato, carrot, celery, or vegetable cocktail juice, vegetable stock, mushroom broth, and puréed vegetables (such as carrots, celery, broccoli, and peas). If your mixture needs thickening, reach for seasoned breadcrumbs, matzo meal (which can be seasoned with pepper, garlic powder, and onion powder), ground nuts (such as walnuts or almonds), mashed potato mix, and nut flours.

Neatballs can be as simple as rolled mashed potatoes stiffened with breadcrumbs, or tofu thickened with wheat germ and matzo meal. But you have to add more interesting ingredients so your diners won't go to sleep in the mashed potatoes. For crunch, think chopped, toasted nuts (such as pecans or pine nuts), seeds (such as sesame or pumpkin), or soy bits (such as soy nuts or "bacon" bits). Flavor can be "hot" (think chili powder, Tabasco, red pepper flakes, ginger, and chopped fresh or canned chilies), Asian (think soy sauce, tamari, miso, ginger, lemon grass), Indian (think turmeric, curry powder mixes, garam masala, coriander, fennel), Central American (think salsa, cilantro, chopped chilies, lemon or lime juice, chopped tomatoes), Mediterranean (think sun-dried tomatoes, basil, oregano, balsamic vinegar, parsley), or Southern French (think thyme, pepper, lavender, sage).

Sauces for neatballs run the gamut. Take a can of your favorite vegan soup (tomato or mushroom come to mind), add chopped veggies (such as tomatoes, carrots, and onions for tomato soup, or celery and onions for the mushroom), and dilute with puréed tofu. This will make a creamy gravy. Thicken vegetable or mushroom gravy with cornstarch for a homestyle gravy (we sometimes cheat and use mashed potato mix instead of cornstarch; it's faster and takes less concentration). Tomato sauce is fine out of the can or "spiked" with chopped canned or fresh tomatoes, fresh or canned mushrooms, fresh or dried basil and oregano, and fresh or dried garlic. For a creamy tomato sauce, stir in some puréed tofu or soy yogurt (unflavored). Barbecue sauce is also fine right out of the bottle, or create your own with tomato purée, catsup, mustard, and molasses.

Whether you serve your neatballs as an entrée or as sandwich stuffing, or stick toothpicks in them and offer them as an appetizer, the people around your table will enjoy them (and you, for creating such wonderful dishes).

Oktoberfest Roulades (Sauerkraut and Tofu Balls in Mustard Sauce)
(Makes approximately 20 balls; 4 servings)

1/2 cup soymilk
3 Tablespoons prepared mustard
1 cup white wine or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 pound soft tofu, mashed

Mix all ingredients, except tofu, in a medium bowl until combined. Gradually add tofu and mix until thoroughly blended. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Tofu Balls:
Vegetable oil spray
11/2 pounds firm tofu, crumbled into very small pieces
1 cup diced onions
11/3 cups canned or fresh sauerkraut, well drained
1 teaspoon dried mustard
1/4 cup soymilk
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 Tablespoon paprika

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray frying pan with vegetable oil spray and sauté tofu, onions, sauerkraut, and mustard until onions are soft (about 5 minutes). Place sautéed mixture in a blender and add soymilk and tomato paste. Blend for one minute or until just combined. Add breadcrumbs and paprika and blend for 30 seconds or until just combined (if overblended, mixture will not hold shape). Roll mixture into about 20 balls. Spray baking sheet with oil; place balls in single layer on sheet and bake for 30 minutes or until browned. Pour half of sauce in the bottom of a casserole dish. Place tofu balls on sauce, and top with remaining sauce. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or until thoroughly heated.

Total calories per serving: 502 Fat:22 grams
Carbohydrates:44 gramsProtein:41 grams
Sodium: 1188 milligramsFiber: 9 grams
High in calcium, iron, and zinc

Mushroom and Hazelnut Snacking Balls
(Serves 6)

The dough from this recipe can be shaped into balls and served as a cold appetizer on a bed of baby greens or cold couscous, pressed into a loaf pan and sliced (as a vegan paté), or spread on veggies or crackers or used as a sandwich spread—your choice!

Vegetable oil spray
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 cup chopped fresh button mushrooms
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup whole hazelnuts (also called filberts)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons nutritional yeast (see note)
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

In a medium frying pan, spray vegetable oil and heat. Sauté onions, mushrooms, and garlic until soft (about 4 minutes). Place vegetables and all remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Mixture will be very thick. Form into small balls or patties and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Note: Red Star's Vegetarian Support Formula nutritional yeast is a good source of vitamin B12. Look for this product in your local natural foods store.

Total calories per serving: 134 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 59 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Walnut Lemon Balls
(Serves 8)

These "neatballs" go well with a tomato or pesto sauce, served over pasta, or used as a "neatball" sandwich in pita or on crusty French bread.

11/2 cups walnuts
3 cups cooked brown rice
2 cups drained and mashed firm tofu
1 cup dry breadcrumbs or matzo meal
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon thyme
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/8 cup lemon juice
1 Tablespoon miso

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange walnuts on an ungreased cookie sheet, place in oven, and allow to toast for about 5 minutes. When cool, place them in a food processor, blender, or food mill, and grind into a fine meal. In a medium-sized bowl, mix nut meal, rice, tofu, breadcrumbs, basil, and thyme until combined. In a small bowl, dissolve cornstarch in the lemon juice. Stir and add miso. Add cornstarch mixture to the main mixture. Use your hands to thoroughly moisten the dry ingredients; work with the mixture until it holds together. If the mixture is too dry or dense, add small amounts of water until the consistency will hold together, and is not too dry. Roll mixture into small balls and place on a cookie sheet (if not nonstick, line with baking parchment or spray with vegetable oil). Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until hot.

Note: This mixture can also be pressed into a small loaf pan and baked at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Allow to cool (about 9 minutes) before slicing.

Total calories per serving: 357 Fat: 19 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 17 grams
Sodium: 209 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams
High in iron

Veggie Balls
(Serves 6)

This is a great "pantry" recipe, as many of the ingredients should already be on your shelf. This is also a terrific way to use leftover veggies. Serve with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob for a hearty meal.

One 16-ounce can (or 11/2 cups) sliced carrots, drained (reserve liquid)
One 16-ounce can (or 11/2 cups) cut green beans, drained
11/2 cups cooked pinto or red beans
21/2 cups dry breadcrumbs
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil or melted vegan margarine
1 Tablespoon dried parsley
1/2 cup ketchup or chili sauce
2 Tablespoons silken tofu
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon onion powder

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place carrots, green beans, and pinto beans in a blender or food processor, and purée until almost smooth. Put mixture in a large bowl. Stir in remaining ingredients until well combined. If mixture is too thick, add some of the reserved carrot liquid; if it is too thin, add additional breadcrumbs. Roll mixture into small balls and place on nonstick cookie sheet (or spray with vegetable oil spray). Bake at 325 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until heated and lightly browned.

Note: This mixture can be pressed into a small loaf pan and baked at 325 degrees for 20 minutes or pressed into patties and fried or baked as burgers.

Total calories per serving: 316 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 53 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 1170 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams
High in iron

Whole Wheat Neatballs
(Serves 8)

This recipe requires some prep time, as the wheat needs to sit for at least 6 hours. They can be fried in a small amount of oil or baked in the oven. These go well with pasta as an entrée, can be crumbled and used as a pizza topping, or chopped and served with barbecue sauce as a sloppy joe. Make an extra batch and freeze for later use.

1 cup uncooked whole wheat
1/2 cup peeled, diced potato (uncooked)
1/2 cup peeled, sliced carrots (uncooked)
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup cooked corn
1/4 cup chopped radishes
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 clove garlic, minced
Oil for frying (about 1/4 cup)

Combine whole wheat with 2 cups of boiling water. Cover and let sit for at least 6 hours. You can make extra wheat and store it in the fridge to use as a side dish or as a cereal. Measure out 2 cups of cooked whole wheat for this recipe. In a food processor, blender or food mill, grind the wheat, potatoes, carrots, onions, corn, and radishes together until smooth. Stir in onion powder and garlic. Form into small balls and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Either heat the oil in a frying pan and fry balls until heated and browned, or place on a greased cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until browned.

Note: For a Southwestern flavor, add 2 Tablespoons chopped chilies to the wheat mixture and garnish with salsa; serve with steamed tortillas and rice. If whole wheat grain is not available, you can substitute bulgur and reduce the soaking time to 1 hour.

Total calories per serving fried: 161 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 5 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Total calories per serving baked: 101 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 5 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Tofu Balls
(Serves 5)

These crunchy, toasty balls also make good burgers. You have the option of frying or baking. Make a double batch and freeze one batch; this makes a great quick dinner. Just heat the tofu balls in tomato or mushroom sauce and serve with rice or pasta or in pita, tortillas, or rolls as a hot "neatball" sandwich.

2 cups drained and crumbled firm tofu
1 clove garlic, minced
1/8 cup minced onions
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup minced celery
1/4 cup chopped bell peppers
1/4 cup water or 1/4 cup carrot juice
Oil for frying (about 1/8 cup)

In a large bowl mash tofu until almost smooth. Add all ingredients except water and combine until well mixed. Slowly add water or juice until mixture is thick enough to form balls. Form into small balls and re-frigerate for 30 minutes. Fry in oil until browned or bake (at 350 de-grees) for 20 minutes, until heated and browned.

Total calories per serving fried: 290 Fat: 16 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 21 grams
Sodium: 321 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Total calories per serving baked: 242 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 20 grams Protein: 21 grams
Sodium: 321 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Good and gooey Peanut Butter Balls
(Makes about 25 balls)

I couldn't resist putting in a sweet ball recipe. This requires no cooking, so whip up a batch while your other neatballs are baking.

1/2 pound chunky peanut butter (almond or soy butter can also be used)
1/3 cup ground cold cereal (such as corn or bran flakes)
2 Tablespoons wheat germ
2 Tablespoons maple syrup
11/2 Tablespoons chopped raisins
1 Tablespoon chopped nuts (such as peanuts or walnuts)

In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Combine until stiff and well mixed. Roll into 25 small balls and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

Note: If desired, balls can be coated (by rolling) with sesame seeds, more chopped nuts, chopped dried fruit, or more ground cereal.

Total calories per ball: 65 Fat: 5 grams
Carbohydrates: 4 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 49 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram
High in calcium, iron, and zinc

Nancy Berkoff is a chef and VRG's Food Service Advisor.

Excerpts from the Mar/Apr 2001 Issue

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

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January 16, 2001

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