Lentil ‘Meatballs’ and Molten Salted Caramel Chocolate Cakes

It only took 50+ days, but I achieved part of my new years resolution—the bulk of a meal made completely by following a new recipe! It started with an absolutely tempting dessert recipe that I stowed away for our first Valentines Day as a married couple. I was excited to surprise D, who may love salted caramel more than me, and stocked up on the ingredients subtly. And like the best laid plans, life got in the way and I got hit with the flu just before February 14th.

We decided to postpone V-Day until I was feeling better, which means this weekend was both Valentines Day and our 4-month wedding anniversary. Time has flown by, so I wanted to really take a night to celebrate us, celebrate the milestone of 1/3 of our newlywed year, and do something a little bit challenging to symbolize taking risks and growing together. What resulted was far better than I ever could have imagined.

We paired our 'meatballs' with a kale salad and garlic bread

We paired our ‘meatballs’ with a kale salad and garlic bread

Lentil ‘Meatballs’ with Homemade Marinara

Meatballs were never a huge appeal for me growing up–while they were always homemade, they just weren’t my favorite meal. Regardless, I have always loved Italian food, especially in the cooler months when comfort food is anything warm! Pasta has never been a big component in our diets, but I would honestly put D’s marinara on a flip flop, so these ‘meatballs’ seemed like a great way to satisfy all of our priorities while also trying something new. I am so proud to say that I followed the recipe exactly, with the exception of substituting fresh basil for the parsley that the recipe called for. We didn’t make the pesto that the recipe called for, but I preferred these with marinara because the texture and color actually makes them seem like turkey/chicken meatballs, which traditionally would be served with a red sauce. They were fun to make- we actually smashed everything together with a potato masher instead of the food processor! 

We invited some friends over to dinner and I was honestly nervous. Our friend E is as rough-and-rugged as it gets. He lives in the woods, stocks his freezer with freshly killed venison, and is a true man’s man. His wife R was vegetarian in college, so we knew she would give us honest feedback about how well these compared to the real deal.

OH.MY.GOODNESS. The herbs and the ricotta keep these rich and flavorful, the lentils give them great texture, and there’s nothing better than knowing these are honestly healthy! I also like that they’re ‘clean’ eating, not a ton of processed soy, which often people associate as the only alternative to meat. Drenched in some amazing marinara, all 4 of us were completely satiated. I took the leftovers for lunch today and put them over quinoa– what a fantastic pairing. Try these on a sub with melted mozzarella, atop your favorite pasta, or toss with pesto for a different iteration. I can’t wait to make a double batch and freeze them to have as needed for weeknight dinners- they are very versatile and so delicious!

Absolutely decadent!

Absolutely decadent!

Molten Chocolate Cake with Salted Caramel
The recipe that started it all…I love the meticulous nature of baking and knowing that as long as you follow steps A, B, and C that the end result will be what you expect. Life doesn’t always work out that way, nor do relationships, but you’ve got to take the risks to see if the end result is worthwhile.  While this recipe may be intimidating, just take it step by step and you’ll be fine. At the end, you’ll have an oozing chocolate and caramel reward. My only suggestion from the initial recipe is to add the caramel to the ramekins before you refrigerate them, because once the cake portion sets in the fridge, it’s hard to push the caramel into the cake and cover it back up with cake batter (you want it to be completely enclosed with the chocolate batter). We also made them in muffin tins because we didn’t plan well and the ramekins were in the dishwasher…so don’t make the same mistake we made. They were still amazing, but more difficult to get out of the pan due to the slight slope of the sides. No one seemed to mind the gooey mess that resulted because we were too busy licking our forks and trying to hold back from eating the leftover cakes.

If you’re too intimidated by the full recipe, here’s my suggestion for a way to adapt this to suit your level of comfort with baking. Make a double batch of the caramel and pour it atop your favorite brownie recipe (even if that’s a boxed mix!) Just bake the brownies completely and pour the caramel over while they’re still warm so that the chocolate and caramel get a chance to melt together a bit and cool together. This caramel is absolutely fantastic. It takes quite a while for the sugar to get to the golden level you need it to get to, but patience is a virtue and I promise you’ll find it worth the wait. The only downside of this recipe is now I’ve revealed my trump card and D expects salted caramel everything for every special occasion moving forward. We’ll see….

Sometimes taking a risk pays off. And this weekend, despite the delay in our special meal, every minute in the kitchen created one of the most amazing meals we’ve had in a while.

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Basil Spring Rolls

With a new year comes resolutions, and this year mine is one I know we are ALL going to enjoy. In 2014, I want to try new recipes that aren’t just freehanding whatever is in the house–I want to purposefully shop for specific ingredients needed for a specific fun, challenging, or innovative recipe. Of course, I’m sure we’ll modify things along the way, but I want to add more dishes to our repertoire – the perfect place to start are the recipes we got as a part of our wedding RSVPs. We’re specifically looking forward to a great shakshuka recipe, my aunt’s mujadara, and some new soups!

But for now, we started off 2014 with a familiar dish and one of our personal favorites. We met up with close friends for New Years Eve and given their small kitchen in their rental beach house, wanted to prepare something that didn’t need any last minute touches once we got to the party. These rolls are healthy, veggie-friendly, and light, but also filling and super tasty. Just like pancakes, the first few are a learning experience, but once you get the technique down they’re easy to assemble and fun to make- you’ll be the hit of your next party with these!

Look how pretty--why pay $6 at a Thai restaurant for these when you could make dozens at home!?

Look how pretty–why pay $6 at a Thai restaurant for 2 of these when you could make dozens at home!?

Basil Spring Rolls with Peanut Hoisin Sauce

-1 package of rice paper (approximately 9′ circles, in the Asian aisle at the grocery store, either Vietnamese or Thai, doesn’t matter) –should be dried/soaked in water before  using. We like 3 Ladies brand or one with a green dragon
-1 package thin bean curd noodles or rice vermicelli (angel-hair thickness)-cook according to the package (usually just soak in water and drain). Let them cool down before handling
-3 carrots, shredded. (Put together a bowl of Mirin and rice wine vinegar at a ratio of 3:1, then soak shredded carrots at least 30 minutes or until ready to assemble rolls) *see photo below*
-1/2 inch thick strips of tofu- marinated in your choice of seasoning. Sear all pieces and set aside. *see photo below*
-lettuce or Napa cabbage, cut into thin strips
-bean sprouts
-fresh basil (preferably Thai basil but Italian works well)
-1 bunch scallions, with the green part cut into 2-3 inch pieces. Save the remainder for the sauce below
For the dipping sauce (put in separate bowl for serving)
-peanut butter
-mirin
-hoisin
-rice wine vinegar
-sesame seeds
-thinly chopped scallions
-soy sauce
(taste-test until you get something creamy, a little sweet, and a little tangy-see photo below for our sauce)
To assemble the rolls:
Chop all of your vegetables and lay them out in separate bowls so they’re easily accessible. Be prepared to work in a circle–your warm water on one side and veggies on the other, with the dish towel in the center. This goes somewhat quickly, so have everything ready for assembly before you start.
Fill a large tupperware container (or bowl,  something with a flat bottom works best) with very warm water, but not boiling. Lay a clean, dry cloth dish towel on the counter.
Put 1 sheet of rice paper in the water to soak for about 30 seconds to a minute. When it’s flimsy and transparent, gently take it out and lay it flat on the towel. Smooth out any places where it’s folded over itself so it’s a flat circle. Bring the corners of the towel over top of the rice paper and blot off the excess water. Move somewhat quickly and be gentle–you won’t want to push it into the towel because it’ll make a mess. The rice paper should be a little sticky to the touch. The next step should happen pretty quickly before the rice paper dries ON the towel.
When the rice circle is flat and dry, put the toppings of your choice in the center of the circle. For a circle 7-9″ wide, you want about 3″ worth of fillings and to pile it about an inch high. There isn’t a science to it, but I start with a piece of basil (so that it shows through when you wrap it), then noodles, followed by carrots (the carrot marinade drips onto noodles and seasons them a bit) and then put 1-2 pieces of scallions, then cabbage/lettuce, then tofu and bean sprouts.
Fold the top of the rice paper circle (12o’clock) over top of the filling and kind of UNDER the filling. With one hand slightly pushing down on the filling, fold one side  (3 o’clock or 9 o’clock) over top of the filling, then do the opposite side. The only ‘loose’ paper should be at the bottom of the circle. Take the ‘roll’ and roll it towards you, being gentle but firm to push out the air and roll it tightly. The stickyness of the rice paper (after being soaked in the water) should make it attach to itself and have the whole thing stick together. This will look a lot like wrapping a burrito. The first few may give you difficulty as you determine how quickly you need to work and how to best hold your hands in relation to the roll to keep things together.
Set aside all rolls- they keep well in the fridge for a day or two, so feel free to make them in advance. I HIGHLY recommend wrapping them individually in plastic wrap or parchment paper to keep them from sticking to each other, because if the papers stick together they’ll rip. Dip in the sauce and enjoy the compliments!
These could easily be made with seared shrimp if you’re not veggie, but they’re just as good as they are (ironically vegan!) We were the only vegetarians in the group of 15 and they were gone in minutes–no one even mentioned the tofu! They have all of the flavors of a restaurant spring roll, but since you control what goes in them they’re healthier, cheaper, and far more satisfying! Give it a try and see what you think- could this be your ‘new recipe’ for 2014 that makes you the hit of every party?

Shredded carrots marinated in Mirin and rice wine vinegar give these an extra pop of flavor!

Shredded carrots marinated in Mirin and rice wine vinegar give these an extra pop of flavor!

Making Vegetarian Work

To a new vegetarian or just someone new to organizing their meals in advance, menu-planning can be daunting. I tend to find it reassuring– that I know exactly how I’m going to use the food in my fridge and pantry each week and I can ensure things don’t go to waste due to being forgotten in the back of the fridge (the type A in me comes out!). D is very helpful, but when he’s on grocery duty, he tends to buy things out of excitement and then we’re left to incorporate them into our meals! That isn’t to say we aren’t impulsive at times, but it’s harder to slip in some things than others before they go bad….trust me.

As I’ve said, being vegetarian isn’t usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lifestyle. It necessitates planning and careful thought putting together a balanced meal that will be satisfying, filling, and taste DELICIOUS– being vegetarian doesn’t mean sacrificing flavor, and in fact, I think I enjoy eating more now that meat is out of my diet than I did when I was a carnivore because I pay attention to the ingredients and where my food comes from!

Starting your weekly planning necessitates looking at the days to come and what your schedule looks like. For us, that’s taking into consideration which days we have night events (meetings for work, D’s comedy shows, or just time with friends) and which nights we’re home to eat. Time to eat doesn’t always mean time to COOK though, especially if we want to eat before 9pm, so we plan our menu in advance to ensure things are as easy as possible midweek.

Once you know what your week looks like, think about some recipes in your repertoire and plug them into your week. (If you are a beginning home-cook, find some recipes that entice you in a cookbook or online and pay attention to the prep time— it’s put on there for a reason!) You’ll want to consider different cuisines, protein sources, and how much time you have that day— here’s what we did for this week (the summer is unique because D is home most of the day, but the general concept applies):

June 10-14 calendar:

Monday: S gets home around 5:30pm

Tuesday: S gets home around 5, D helps a friend move at 6pm

Wednesday: S gets home at 6:15pm, D leaves at 6:45pm for comedy show

Thursday: S home around 5:30pm

Friday: S and D have dinner at a friend’s home– it’s a potluck and we’re bringing a Mediterranean side dish!

food options:

Gnocchi with marinara (our marinara has tempeh in it)

Quinoa with balsalmic tofu and a green salad with pesto

Tofu stir-fry with vegetables and rice noodles

We had Italian for dinner on Sunday night out at a local restaurant, so we wanted to do the gnocchi later in the week to spread out how frequently we were having pasta. Homemade gnocchi is quick and easy to throw together (stick with me to the end for our recipe) so we put that on Tuesday’s menu, enabling D to work on making fresh sauce throughout the day and then putting together the dish quickly before he had to leave. Since we had the most time to cook on Monday of this week, we decided on the tofu stir-fry, since there’s a good amount of prep-work involved in chopping vegetables and I didn’t want to leave all of that to D (and I secretly love chopping veggies–the monotony is therapeutic)! Wednesday we’re planning to fend for ourselves since it’ll be a revolving door, and Thursday will be a delicious balsamic marinated tofu over quinoa with a fresh green salad. With this basic menu, we can then make a grocery list to head to the store prepared and less influenced by enticements and things we don’t need right now. Since tofu needs time to marinate, it’s also important to think ahead actually take advantage of your newly planned menu! Don’t worry about things not always working as planned– life happens.

Excuse the half-empty bowl--I wasn't patient enough to take a photo before I dug in!

Excuse the half-empty bowl–I wasn’t patient enough to take a photo before I dug in!

Gnocchi with Tempeh Marinara

1 onion, diced

2 large cloves garlic

Italian seasoning (dry oregano, basil, red pepper flakes)

4-6 oz of tempeh (we buy ours at Trader Joes)

28 oz of San Marzano crushed tomatoes (Costco in SC carries them periodically but so does Harris Teeter—they’re more expensive than the national brands but totally worth it)

fresh basil– easy to grow at home or buy fresh in a package from the grocery store or a local garden store

Parmesan rind–available in the fresh cheese section of the grocery store–it’s literally the rind they cut away from the cheese when selling chunks of Parm and you can get it for cheap to enhance your sauces)

Sweat the onions and garlic in a saute pan with dried basil, oregano, salt, pepper, and a dash of red pepper flakes. Grate in the tempeh and add another round of the same seasonings–combine and cook for about 5 minutes . Pour in the tomatoes and some basil, then Parmesan rind. Cook for as long as possible— at least 20 minutes– but sitting on the stove on low for hours is best. Remove the Parmesan rind before serving–it’ll be flexible and gummy—just throw away.

We make our homemade gnocchi as needed, because it’s incredibly easy to make one weekend or even a weeknight and then freeze until needed. We follow Michael Symon’s recipe but just make the gnocchi and add it to our own sauces— put them on a cookie sheet and stick in the freezer until they’re not soft anymore, then transfer to a plastic bag or plastic container until you’re ready to cook. To prepare, boil water like for pasta and drop in the frozen gnocchi– when they float (3-5 minutes) they’re ready! Fish them out with a slotted spoon or spider and toss with the marinara– then grate fresh Parmesan over the top.

I promise you won’t miss the ground beef in this sauce and it’ll keep you full and satiated without being too heavy like potato gnocchi can be! The gnocchi are creamy, soft, and literally little pillows of flavor cradling the sweet and tart marinara, as well as the spicy and nutty basil. MMMMMM–what do YOU think?