That’s a spicy Neatball! Delicious and could help lower your BMI

What we eat makes a big difference in our health.

Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on a study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln agricultural economists who found that people who eat a plant-based diet have a lower BMI (Body Mass Index) than people who consume the same amount of calories, but from a meat-based diet. A high BMI increases our risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

These days I certainly don’t consume nearly as much meat and dairy as I did in prior decades. Besides improving my health, eating vegetables makes me feel good. Not only do plant-based meals help trim the waistline; they also trim the grocery bill.

The following recipe for vegan “meatballs” is a clever way to eat more vegetables. They’re full of flavor, nutrients and fiber.

ITALIAN NEATBALLS (Page 131)

1 onion, diced

Oil, for sauteing (optional)

8 ounces mushrooms, quartered

2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon chickpea miso or white miso

2 cups cooked brown rice

1 cup cooked lentils

¼ cup tomato paste

3 tablespoons nutritional yeast

4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced

1½ teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped, or ½ teaspoon dried rosemary

½ cup rolled oats

1 cup ground walnuts (grind in a food processor), or 1½ cups gluten-free or regular bread crumbs

2 to 3 tablespoons water (if using bread crumbs)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Heat a deep skillet over medium heat and cook the onions, dry (you can saute in oil as well, if you like), until they begin to stick a bit. Splash them with a bit of water to loosen them from the pan and continue cooking, adding a bit of water now and then to prevent sticking, until they are tender. Put the mushrooms into a food processor and pulse until they are finely minced but not reduced to a pulp. Add them to the onion and cook for several minutes, until browned. Stir in the tamari and miso.

Add the brown rice and lentils and mix well. Mix in the tomato paste, nutritional yeast, 4 cloves garlic (or more, depending on how garlicky you like it) and herbs. In a blender, process the oats briefly, but not to a flour, and add to the mixture.

Now, decide whether to use walnuts or bread crumbs – walnuts will make a richer meatball, but bread crumbs will yield a more traditional texture. If using bread crumbs, sprinkle them with the water to moisten first. Mix the walnuts or moistened bread crumbs into the mixture well and form into balls. This can be done efficiently using a small ice cream scoop. Place on the baking sheets with ½ inch of space between them, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until browned and they hold their shape. Italian Neatballs will keep or 1 week in the refrigerator.

Makes 36 balls.

Our assessment: First of all, you and your dining companions will have to get over the fact that these Neatballs don’t taste like beef. I asked my colleague, Michelle Lewis, to give them a try. She’s been a vegetarian for almost 20 years. “They were very flavorful and brought something different than I’m accustomed to having with store-bought options,” Michelle said. “The walnuts really enhanced the texture of the balls.”

The walnut version is also richer than the bread crumb version. For grins, I also experimented with panko crumbs and corn meal. The panko balls turned out a bit crunchy. The cornmeal balls had more texture and flavor. All versions keep well in the refrigerator and make good leftovers. Try them with spaghetti or even in a Neatball sandwich.

Some people complain that following a vegan diet is time-consuming. Washing and chopping vegetables does take more time than opening up a box of highly-refined ingredients. A couple shortcuts: substitute diced garlic that comes in a jar instead of fresh garlic and use frozen onions already diced. If you want to be able to make a quick dinner when you get home from a busy day, cook the rice and lentils either the previous night or in the morning before you go to work. Also, if you don’t want to make a special trip to a health food store for nutritional yeast, just omit it. This kind of deactivated yeast is very common in vegan dishes because it somewhat tastes remotely like cheese and provides a little protein. I don’t think it’s needed, especially if you’re using fresh rosemary.

From the book: “The Homemade Vegan Pantry: The Art of Making Your Own Staples” by Miyoko Schinner; 224 pages, $22.99. Publishing by Penguin Random House, 2015.

What you get: With this collection, you can put together a pantry and refrigerator of condiments, dairy- and egg-free alternatives, soups and stocks, meat alternatives, pastas and grains, and desserts.

In her own words: “This book isn’t just about the stables themselves. … It’s about a mind-set that lets you slow down enough to care about what is truly meaningful: the luscious joy of creating simple but beautiful things, things that sing in your mouth with their purity and honesty, and then sharing them with others.” – Miyoko Schinner

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