'Meatballs' great way to eat meatless

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My family has been eating a lot less meat over the past few years. Oh, we still get nice steaks to throw on the grill, and when they show up on the table with oven-roasted potatoes and a mound of dressed arugula, the meal is cause for celebration. But more often than not, dinner will be an amply tricked-out salad with a loaf of bread, a bowl of farro topped with vegetables and a fried egg, or a spicy tofu stir-fry with rice.

Maybe we've evolved. We don't eat this way because we're trying to cut meat out of our diets; partial vegetarianism is our new normal.

So I'm guessing we no longer qualify as "meat lovers" in the traditional sense. We're certainly nothing like the fictional "Mr. Sausage" whom my friend Kim O'Donnel had in mind when she wrote "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations: Year-Round Vegetarian Feasts" (De Capo Lifelong Books, $18.99). Mr. Sausage is that dude who would laugh if you even mentioned the words "kale salad." As I envision him, he eats like Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation" and he talks like Rocky Balboa.

O'Donnel — a former Washington Post columnist — was in town to teach a class at The Cook's Warehouse, so I invited her over to the house to spend the afternoon shopping at Your DeKalb Farmers Market and cooking from her book.

We decide to modify her recipe for lentil "meatball" subs — losing the hoagie rolls and cheese, but keeping the "meatballs" and marinara sauce.

It's a good thing we had the afternoon, because the meatballs are a bit of a project, albeit an easy and fun one.

And when these "meatballs" come to the table, they are cause for celebration. Ron Swanson, I'm inviting you over.

‘Meat’balls with Marinara

Total time: About 2 hours; Hands on: 45 minutes; Servings: 6

Adapted from “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” by Kim O’Donnel)

6¾ cups water

½ cup uncooked medium or long-grain brown rice

1 cup dried brown or green lentils

5 garlic cloves - 2 whole, 3 minced

2 tablespoons olive oil plus ½ cup for pan-frying

¾ cup onion that has been very finely minced or grated using a box grater (about 1 medium sized onion)

3 teaspoons dried oregano

1 (23- to 28-ounce) tomato puree

½ cup finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (or pecorino)

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup unseasoned medium-grind breadcrumbs

1 egg, lightly beaten

Bring ¾ cup of the water to a boil, then add the rice. Return to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover and cook until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, 40-45 minutes. Off the heat, keep the rice covered for 5 minutes. Measure out ½ cup of the cooked rice and transfer to a baking sheet or plate to cool completely. Refrigerate the remaining 1 cup of rice for another use.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the lentils. Place the lentils in a large saucepan, along with the 2 whole garlic cloves and the remaining 6 cups of the water. Over high heat, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium. Cook the lentils until tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain thoroughly so that the lentils are dry. Allow to cool completely.

While the lentils cook, prepare the marinara sauce. In a medium-size saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat, then add ¼ cup of the onion and the 3 minced garlic cloves, cooking until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of the dried oregano and stir occasionally to minimize sticking.

Add the tomato puree and stir to combine the mixture. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the sauce can simmer. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Place the cooled lentils and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the lentils are mashed. (Or use a potato masher.) Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl, then add the cooled rice, the remaining ½ cup of onion, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oregano, and the grated cheese, salt, black pepper, bread crumbs and egg.

With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir the mixture until well mixed.

Using a 1/8-cup measure, shape into balls. They will be slightly sticky to the touch. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Over medium-high heat, heat ¼ cup of the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet until the oil shimmers. Gently lower the balls into the hot oil, cooking in batches and making sure not to crowd the pan, as they are somewhat delicate and benefit from space. Lower the heat to medium and panfry on first side for about 3 minutes. Turn (or gently nudge) to second side and cook for 2 minutes.

Transfer the first batch to a baking sheet, add the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil to the skillet for subsequent batches and cook in the same manner. Transfer the balls to the oven to finish cooking about 5 minutes; the balls will still be somewhat soft to the touch but will have dried out a bit and will have a slightly crispy coating.

Place the warm marinara in the bottom of a wide bowl and arrange the “meatballs” on top.

Per serving: 482 calories (percent of calories from fat, 48), 17 grams protein, 47 grams carbohydrates, 13 grams fiber, 27 grams fat (5 grams saturated), 41 milligrams cholesterol, 968 milligrams sodium.