Tip #4:”Less” does not mean “none”

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Almost all of the cooking magazines I subscribe to are sending the same message: eat less meat. Many people would say, “You need to subscribe to different magazines,” but I love vegetables, so this does not sound like the beginning of the end of the world to me. I know I am not in the majority here.

I get it. I really do. The addition of meat to a dish gives it texture, taste, and satiety that it can seem truly hard to get from other ingredients. And given the fact that we have half a pig, a quarter of a cow, and about three chicken’s worth in our freezers right now, it would seem like I am the last person to be writing this post. The thing is, that meat will last us a year, even if we each eat a serving (4 ounces) every day.

“Less meat” does not mean “no meat.”  But what might less look like?

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In October, in an effort to stretch a pound of beef–we buy locally-raised, grass-fed, absolutely delicious meat, which is expensive, which means I like to stretch it out–I played around with the idea of the “meaty” texture of eggplant (you could also use mushrooms). I had just pulled the last of the eggplant and bell peppers from the garden and needed to use them, and I wondered if I could get both meatballs and stuffed peppers from that single pound. The answer is a delicious yes (duh…otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this).

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Both eggplant and mushrooms have a lot of water, and when you cook that out you are left with a texture that is chewy like meat–you have to use your molars to really break it down. Combined with a ground meat, either or both of them will give you meaty-but-tender meatballs, meatloaf, and meat patties. (If you have ever eaten the doorstops that all of those recipes can be when handled less than gently, you might appreciate that “tender” bit.)

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I started with the eggplant, onion, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper. The salt is not only to flavor, but to help draw out the moisture in the eggplant. When the eggplant had given up most of its liquid, I added some fresh hot red chili peppers, (which you could replace with about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp of red pepper flakes). Once the pan looked a little dry and everything was softened, I took out half of the eggplant mixture, added half of the ground beef, half a cup of tomato sauce, a splash of water and some herbs and cooked it through. I mixed this with cooked orzo, stuffed it into bell peppers, sprinkled on a little mozzarella and parmesan and baked them, covered, at 350 until the peppers were tender, about 45 minutes. There was enough to fill five medium bell peppers (10 halves), which for us was four dinner servings plus lunch. They freeze really well, which is a bonus.

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The rest of the eggplant mixture was combined with the other half pound of ground beef, herbs, parmesan cheese and an egg, and messily rolled into meatballs. They were delicate and had to be handled with care, but fried up just fine. Once they were browned I made a tomato-pepper sauce and let them simmer so they cooked through. We ate them over pasta and pronounced them delicious. Tender, totally meaty, herby and cheesy, all on 1/2 a pound of ground beef.

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Eggplant and Beef Meatballs (makes about 12)

olive oil (just keep the bottle handy)
1/2 lb eggplant, unpeeled and chopped into 1/4-1/2 inch dice (whatever…make it kind of small)
2 tsp garlic, minced and divided
1 cup onion, diced, divided
1 small fresh red chili, diced OR 1/4-1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or both if you’re a chili-head)
3/4-1 tsp dried marjoram or oregano, divided
1/2-3/4 tsp dried basil, divided
1/2 lb ground beef, pork or veal (I used beef)

1 egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, plus more for serving, if desired
1 1/2-2 cups red bell pepper, diced
1-1/2 cups tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper

  1. In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium. Add the half of the onion and garlic, the eggplant, 1/4 tsp each of salt and black pepper and stir to coat with the oil. Cook, stirring, until the eggplant has given up its liquid and the pan is starting to look dry. Add a splash of olive oil, half of the herbs, and the red chili peppers and cook another 2-3 minutes or until everything is softened and glistening a bit with the oil.
  2. Transfer the eggplant mixture (reserve the skillet) to a large bowl and add the beef, egg, cheese, and a 1/4 tsp each salt and pepper. Use your hands to gently combine everything, tossing lightly. When everything is combined, scoop heaping tablespoons (mine were somewhere between a walnut and a golf ball) and roll gently into meatball shape and place on a plate.
  3. Wash your  hands. 🙂 Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in the reserved skillet over medium. Gently add the meatballs (you may have to do this in two batches) and cook, turning really carefully, until browned on all sides, about 8-10 minutes. Some of them will fall apart a bit. It’s okay. Remove the meatballs to a plate (I used the same one, because the meatballs were going to simmer, being turned occasionally, in the sauce for a while. If that makes you squeamish, use a clean plate.)
  4. Add 1 tbsp olive oil (if necessary–there may be enough fat in the pan), the other half of the onion, garlic, herbs, 1/4 tsp salt and all of the bell peppers to the skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all of the vegetables are softened. Add the tomato sauce and a 1/2 cup of water and bring to a simmer. Return the meatballs to the pan and cook, turning the meatballs occasionally, until the sauce thickens and the olive oil glistens on the top, 10-15 minutes. Serve.

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