When I heard that a food blogging conference was taking place in the state just next door, I was intrigued. When I heard that friend, cookbook author, and fellow blogger Kathy Hester was going to be there, I said “Sign me up!” So a couple of weeks ago, I drove the four hours to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend Food Blog South‘s second annual conference.
Though I don’t do blogging conferences very often, I’ve found that they’re a great way to recharge my batteries; having actual face-to-face conversations with people who share my enthusiasm for food, photography, and writing takes a lot of the isolation out of blogging. This particular conference left me super-charged because I was able to spend time not only with Kathy but also with two other vegan bloggers, Heather of Better With Veggies and Katie Cain of Bistro Katie. Dinner out with them at the vegan-friendly Bottletree Cafe was one of the highlights of the weekend.
Of course, the conference itself offered plenty of information and inspiration, but when you’re a food blogger, your main focus is on the food, and when you’re a vegan, that focus turns into concern, as in “Will there be anything for me to eat?” The answers in this case were “No, no, YES, and not really.” Neither the pre- and post-parties nor the breakfast offered much for a vegan to sink her teeth into other than pickled okra, but the lunch, provided by Shindigs Catering, featured a vegan, gluten-free main dish that turned out to be the second highlight of the conference: Spaghetti squash with tomato sauce and vegetable-based orbs that all of us vegans began calling Beetballs after conversations with the very gracious chef revealed that the ingredients included beets, almonds, chickpeas, smoked mushrooms, and smoked onions. I was sure that one, if not all, of us would wind up trying to recreate Beetballs.
Well, I may be the first, but I tested them enough for all four of us! In the course of a week, I made them four different ways, trying to get the consistency (firm yet crumbly when you cut into them) and the flavor (smoky yet not over-seasoned) just right. I didn’t have smoked onions or mushrooms, so I use dried porcini mushrooms for their deep, woodsy flavor and regular raw onions for all but one attempt, when I roasted the onions, beets, and garlic beforehand, making the texture very firm but not at all crumbly.
After my first attempt, using pecans, I decided to try using almonds and going for a more sausage-like flavor with fennel seeds, sage, and red pepper flakes. And of course I had to try a lower-fat version using quinoa instead of the nuts. Every variation I tried produced balls that held their shapes and tasted slightly meaty, but in the end the ingredients and seasonings I liked best are reflected in the recipe below. I expected the almond version to come out the winner, but overall I found that the pecans produced not only the best flavor but also the best texture–fitting for a recipe that originated at a Southern bloggers’ conference.
So what did I do with four batches of Beetballs? You would think I’d have so many that I would need to freeze some of them, but they disappeared very quickly. Besides a couple of Beetball and Spaghetti dinners (tofu shirataki noodles for me), both D and I enjoyed Beetball Sandwiches (pickles and loads of hot sauce on mine), and twice I made Beet-zzas–both regular and pita pizzas with Beetballs and assorted veggies. I think Beetballs could be used in just about any dish that calls for a meat substitute, though I don’t recommend cooking them in sauce. Heat them separately in the oven or microwave and then gently add the sauce just before serving–or do as I did for spaghetti and beetballs and pour the sauce over the beetballs.
Because they contain no gluten, corn starch, xanthan gum, or other “sticky” processed ingredients, they can’t take a lot of stirring or moisture without falling apart, so please handle your beetballs with care.
Beetballs: A Vegan, Gluten-Free, Soy-Free Sausage Recipe
- 1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
- 1 medium raw beet
- 1/2 cup raw pecans, almonds, or other nuts (see note for low-fat alternative)
- 1/2 medium red or yellow onion , coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic , chopped
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas
- 2 tablespoons ground flax seeds
- 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika (mild or spicy)
- 1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage
- 1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon hickory smoked salt or Liquid Smoke (optional)
- Place the mushrooms in a small saucepan and add 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the mushrooms with a slotted spoon and rinse them well and set aside. Strain the broth through a coffee filter or fine sieve and reserve it for later use. (Leftover mushroom broth can be used in any recipe that calls for vegetable broth.)
- While the mushrooms are cooking, put the nuts into a food processor and pulse to chop finely. Do not over-process--we want finely chopped nuts, not nut powder. Place the nuts in a large mixing bowl.
- Peel the beet and cut it into cubes. Add it to the food processor along with the reserved mushrooms, garlic, and onion and pulse to chop coarsely. Add the chickpeas and all remaining ingredients and pulse several times to chop the chickpeas, but do not turn it into a paste. All the individual ingredients should be recognizable.
- Add the processor contents to the nuts and stir well to combine. If the mixture seems dry, add a tablespoon of the reserved mushroom broth. Allow the mixture to rest while you preheat the oven to 350F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Using a tablespoon or cookie scoop, measure out a heaping tablespoon of "dough." Using damp hands, form it into a ball, squeezing lightly to compact it. If the dough seems too dry, add additional broth (this should not be necessary--you don't want the dough to be too wet). Place the ball on the lined baking sheet and repeat with remaining dough. You should be able to make about 18-22 balls. If you like, flatten some of the balls to use in sandwiches or on pizza.
- Bake until the balls are brown and slightly crisp on the outside, about 35 minutes. (Flattened balls will take a little less time.) Allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.
I prefer these with pecans, and almonds are my second choice, but for a lower-fat alternative, substitute cooked quinoa. The mixture will be moister, and you should not need to add any broth. If it's too moist, try adding another teaspoon of ground flaxseed and let it rest for a few minutes before handling.
Nutritional Info below is for the recipe using pecans. If using quinoa, the nutrition is as follows:
169 calories, 38 calories from fat, 4.5g total fat, 0mg cholesterol, 751.6mg sodium, 386.5mg potassium, 26.6g carbohydrates, 7.3g fiber, 4.2g sugar, 8.2g protein, 5 points.