Last year I sort of hit bottom doing the Grand Tasting at the New York Food and Wine Fest, which is sponsored by the Food Network. You can read all about it here, but as far as doing these massive events go it was pretty much the end for me. I felt like an animal in a cage being prodded with a chair to perform. It was exhausting, and sort of a bummer. After swearing, "Never again!" this year, I'm doing the Food and Wine Festival again. Say what?!? The difference is, instead of doing the Grand Tasting I was invited to participate in Meatball Madness, which is the big meatball cookoff and one of the major events at this year's fest. Right now, everywhere you look, it's meatballs, meatballs, meatballs, so my ego was flattered to be invited.
The only problem? It's Meatballs. I don't cook meat. I only cook vegetables.
At first, chaos reigned. I accepted the invitation and then a few weeks later I got an email from the organizers saying that I hadn't put in my order with LaFrieda Meats. They're the sponsor of the event and you're supposed to use their meat for your meatballs. I appreciated the reminder, but I sent them back an email saying that I'm a vegetable restaurant so I wouldn't be using any meat, from anyone. Well, came their next email to me, then you can't be an official competitor in Meatball Madness. But...but you invited me. It's not a secret that Dirt Candy is a vegetable restaurant, why the sudden cold feet? If you're not using meat from our sponsor, I was told, then you won't be part of the competition. We went back and forth like this for a while and finally we settled with: I could be at the event, I could make meatballs, people could eat them, but I couldn't be included in the judging. I would basically be an exhibition sport of one. At that point, I was a little weary and so I agreed. So now I'm the token non-meat meatball off in a special area on my own.
My meatballs use mushrooms...a lot of mushrooms.
Why on earth did I accept the invitation in the first place? I think it was the challenge. The idea of figuring out how to make a vegetable version of a meatball was too much fun to resist. So the first thing I did was start going through all the recipes I could find for vegetarian meatballs, and I quickly realized that this was going to be harder than I anticipated. All the existent recipes were giving me meatballs that were either watery mushroom-and-bean balls or super-heavy, leaden nut-balls.
So I set out to make a better ball. I don't eat meatballs and I wasn't about to start now, so I started interviewing people who did, asking them what they looked for in a meatball. The thing I discovered was that more than any kind of magical ingredients, more than the size, more than even the actual taste of the meat, what people liked most was the texture of meatballs. That was what popped into people's heads, first and foremost: the lightness, the fattiness, the greasy, luscious chew of the meatball. The problem with this was that texture was going to be the hardest thing to recreate, especially since it was so dependent on fat. Getting fat into a vegetable dish is next to impossible because vegetables just do not have any fat. It doesn't exist.
Prepping the thousands of mushrooms.
I also realized that I couldn't compete with the meatball restaurants. There are restaurants competing that have been doing this for years and they are the experts at the red sauce, Italian meatball thing and if I went head-to-head with them I was just going to come up short. So I decided to do an end run around the Italian meatball part of the challenge and deliver something that played to Dirt Candy's strengths, and was in the form of a meatball but tasted really different, while still delivering that fatty chewiness.
The first thing I did was I started smoking King Oyster mushrooms. Lots of them. I learned that if I did it just right and if I did it for long enough, I wound up with mushrooms that weren't watery but that had a really sexy gaminess that I hadn't tasted before. Then I started experimenting with the typical vegetarian arsenal of ingredients to impart chewiness - tempeh, seitan, beans. I finally found something that worked (which I'm keeping a secret), but I was still missing fattiness and I was missing heft. I don't know from meatballs, but I do know matzo balls, and I figured that matzo meal would be a good binding agent that would keep my meatballs together, keep them fluffy and keep them from drying out.
I literally bought out the Matzo Meal section of a local supermarket to get enough Matzo for my meatballs.
What was missing was the fat...so I had to make some. What I came up with in the lab is now referred to at Dirt Candy as "fat," and it's one of the strangest things I've ever made and it took forever to figure out how to make it. I needed something that wasn't going to cook off right away but that would do for my meatballs what fat does for meat-based meatballs. I could have used coconut oil, but that melts really quickly. I started playing around with the portobello mousse I serve at Dirt Candy and after a lot of trial and error I made a kind of white "fat" that's a very tweaked, amped up, modified version of the mousse. It has no taste, but it's got a rich, luscious mouth feel and goes down waaaay better than it sounds.
Some of the massive amount of onions that have to be caramelized for the dish.
Because the meatballs themselves have a sort of lamb-like gaminess from the smoked mushrooms I thought it would be fun to serve them with mint and preserved lemons, along with some grilled kale and labneh to give it a Middle Eastern edge. Instead of making an Italian red sauce I went for a citrus-heavy tomato sauce. I wanted to serve it on bread, but because Dirt Candy has to do everything the hard way, I wanted to serve it on a tomato brioche that took a long time to get together. I don't do a ton of baking at Dirt Candy and we're going to have to make 600 servings of this meatball dish so we're taking over the kitchen of I Coppi, the restaurant next door, to use their giant mixers to make all the bread dough I need.
20 pounds of onions, caramelized.
What I've wound up with is a dish that's a real explosion of a bunch of different flavors, but at the center is this deep, smoky, chewy vegetable meatball. I don't think it's going to taste better than some of those giant, big, fat meat meatballs that other folks will be turning out, but I'm really proud that I was able to come up with something that tastes this good. It's chewy, it's different, and as far as I'm concerned the Dirt Candy "meat"balls are what's bringing the madness to Meatball Madness.