The Thing in the Oven
Growing up in the South, I ate a lot of meat. A lot. As I’ve gotten older and a bit hipper to the harsh realities behind the food curtain, I’ve made attempts to cut down. It’s very hard to make such a fundamental change quickly! For a guy who can barely cook, meat offers this weird instant gratification, and the culture backs up the illusion so well. You grow up thinking that meat just comes from somewhere, and you only learn the truth about factory farms, crazy additives, mad cow disease, overfishing, etc if you want to. I’m eventually hoping to eat meat a lot more sparingly, and to restrict myself to things like free-range chicken and grass-fed beef. In the meantime, baby steps. Somewhere, Morrissey has a little smile on his face and he doesn’t know why, which must be very confusing for him.
If I don’t eat enough protein, I become a bad decision dinosaur. I’m sluggish, I lack clarity, and I’m angry for no particular reason. I’m not much use to myself or anyone else. So, the mission is keeping my body and brain happy without being any more murder-y than I have to. As such, I have been slowly trying to turn to vegetable sources for more of my protein, and I was tipped off to a lovely cooking blog called Stone Soup. All of the recipes there have a maximum of 5 ingredients and definitely look very easy for someone who knows what they’re doing. The recipe I decided to tackle was for meatless meatballs, revolving around lentils baked in tomato sauce. Ideally, this would be perfect for me, but for some reason, I totally wrecked this by scaling up the proportions. Let’s follow my mistakes and examine the outcome.
CONJURE THE ELEMENTS!
(It goes without saying these days, but just in case, please make the effort to source organic ingredients. It costs another buck or two, but here’s the thing. Food is getting really spooky, which is a great reason to make even failed recipes from scratch. Shop organic, and if nothing else, you can be assured that your food isn’t blatantly poisonous.)
Lentils. (2 cups dried, or probably a can of cooked ones. I wouldn’t rely on me for that information.)
They’re like peas, only flatter. Little flying saucers full of protein (30 percent of their mass!) The original recipe calls for mashing them lightly. I took this as a challenge.
I am pretty enamored of eggs. Compact, full of protein, and pocket-sized (Don’t put them in your pockets. Trust me on this.) How do you cook them? Any way you want! AMERICA. If you lack the necessary dexterity to make eggs into that weird meat cloth that omelettes are made of, you can just stir them around with some other crap in them, or if you’re as lazy as I am, you can even just put them in hot water and go do something else for a while. Did you know that boiled eggs were once considered a fine food for kings, because before hypodermic needles, you couldn’t poison them? This means two things. One, you can literally eat like a king for basically no money. Two, you should start checking your eggs for punctures if you are a jerk.
Grinding nuts. Fun to say, more fun to do. The original recipe said almonds but I’m out of those, and I had so many cashews. They are richer in protein than some of those lesser nuts, which is great because as I mentioned, protein deficiency makes me stupid and irritable. Also, they’re full of healthy fats and niacin, which is apparently an anti-depressant, and I need that whenever I cook.
Since we’re making quasi-Italian food, it’s logical that we use pseudo-sauce as well. You can make your own sauce, if you’re good at that. You probably should. The prefab stuff in jars still works, though. Thanks, Trader Joe’s!
When in doubt, CHEESE.
I am a seasoned klutz, but I have never been able to smash Pyrex. Also, I am secure enough in my masculinity to bake in a baby blue dish with flowers on it that I picked out myself at ye olde junque shoppe. You can use some other kind of dish, if you’re a pansy.
Well in my case, electrical resistance substituting for fire, which is not as cool at all. If you have a gas range, pat yourself on the back, champ.
This will alchemically balance the fire, of course. Actually, no, it’s just to boil lentils in.
If your lentils are canned, good job. You’re doing even less than I did. That’s impressive. If they’re dried, doomsday prepper style, you better go ahead and start cooking them. Two cups of water per cup of lentils. Like rice! Thank God.
Get your weapon of choice and grind up those cashews before you are tempted to put them all in your mouth. I have a spare coffee grinder that I like to use for nuts and seeds because it has a little cup you can dump out. This is so much better than trying to scrape powder out of a blender. You’re going to want to end up with like, 12 ounces. I don’t know. I eyeballed it. If you want to make meatballs, stop reading now and go read the other recipe.
Preheat the oven to 400, especially if you have a slow electric job.
After a while, check your lentils to see if they’re ready to smash. Drain and rinse them, and put them in a big bowl, Pyrex again if you are smart/accident prone. Mine has sunflowers on it because I am tough. Mash them up so that their innards will blend with the other ingredients and make the whole dish less, well, lentil-y. Get a hand mixer and use a low setting to fold in the cashew meal. Add a reasonable amount of salt and then add as much pepper, coriander, and cayenne as you want. Then add some more. Mix until you feel like it’s done. Intuition is your pal.
Fold in your lightly mixed raw eggs and hope it thickens well. If not, add some more cashew meal, but don’t get ridiculous. If you got the math right, you can proceed to making meatballs and abandon this now. Otherwise, press on.
Get your baking dish and pour in all the tomato sauce. Drizzle olive oil generously and add the mix from the bowl, using your mixer to create as even a consistency as possible. Don’t get too angry. It will be okay. Mix in a handful of grated Parmesan, then shave off big thin slices over the top to make a crust. I used a veggie peeler to do this, because I am really tired of cutting my hand open. I’m a genius.
Put that dish in there and let it bake for something like an hour. Start washing up now so you won’t have to look at it later, mocking you in the sink, when you’re full and can’t be bothered to wash anything. Check on that cheese every so often and take it out when it’s nicely browned but not all burnt up. Let it cool a minute before you eat it or you won’t taste anything until tomorrow.
SO WHAT IS THIS DAMNED THING?
Listen, every other cooking blog is going to show you a lovely, professional photograph here and make you feel like a bad person for not being a food architect. I’m not going to do that. You know damn well what melted cheese in a casserole dish looks like. I believe in the power of your imagination.
Since this concoction wound up more like a meat loaf than anything else, I dub this dish “Cheat Loaf.” It actually kind of reminds me of the meat loaf my mom used to make from cheap ground chuck and “fancy” ketchup. Thanks Mom.
WHAT’S THE VERDICT?
Well, actually, it ain’t bad. Once I got over the shame of not accomplishing meatballs, I was pretty pleased. The first helping made me feel like it needed more seasoning, but when I ate more that had been in the fridge a while, it was better. I still vote for more seasoning, but if your senses are intact, your initial estimates may be just fine. I think what happens is that the lentils are kinda bland already, and then you add the tomato paste and cashew meal for a 3-legged stable platform of Nothing Special in the Flavor Department. If you mixed in enough seasonings, and maybe added some sauteed onions or something, this will be fine for most people.
The texture is actually pretty convincing as meat loaf. It is satisfying and fills me up nicely. I ate a couple of reasonable helpings, and I feel full without feeling like I am going to die. I am vaguely sleepy, but that probably has more to do with staring into a screen. My digestive system is not protesting in any way so far. This pleases me. The final test will be to see how well it reheats. If you make enough of this to fill a casserole dish, you best be splitting it up!
All in all a filling, nutritious, cheap meal. Not good enough to feed to my lady, because she’s awesome at this stuff and deserves better. Still, more than sufficient to feed myself a few times from one effort. I classify this as Good Fuel. PASS!
WHAT DID WE LEARN TODAY?
When you are trying to follow a recipe, it is probably best to keep the original proportions. Once you have made a decent copy of something, THEN you can learn how to blow it up.
That’s it for today, folks. Stay tuned for future forays into the wonderful world of almost cooking!