For the last few years, while the rest of our family is devouring the turkey at Thanksgiving or a leg of lamb at Easter, our vegetarian grandson has been treated to a main dish of macaroni and cheese. He likes mac and cheese, but I thought the time had come to make something a little more fancy for his plate at our holiday table.
I first thought about making vegetarian meatballs. There are dozens of recipes on line. However, since we buy the turkey and leg of lamb, I decided that I should not feel bad about buying the meatballs. The problem is finding them at the supermarket. I hated to do it, but I finally asked a clerk if the store had any.
I found out that I had been looking in the wrong frozen food section. Vegetarian meatballs are not shelved with the other vegetables where they belong. Instead, they are craftily concealed next to real meatballs made with honest-to-goodness beef and pork in packages disguised to look like packages of the real thing.
When I got home with the “Meatless Meatballs,” I read the cooking instructions on the package. The preferred method was to simmer the balls in sauce, which was just fine with me. All I had to do was to make a vegetarian sauce and cook some pasta to give Number One Grandson his special entrée for the dinner.
Of course I checked the web for vegetarian pasta sauce recipes and found dozens of them. Most called for adding vegetables. Adventurous cooks used squash, mushrooms, peppers, spinach, arugula, olives, celery, carrots and more esoteric ingredients to add different flavors.
Some of them looked quite interesting, but I was looking for something simple that I could make for one hungry teenager. There were simple recipes, but most called for puréeing the tomatoes and other ingredients to make a smooth sauce. I thought that a sauce with texture might be a better choice, so I decided to work up a vegetarian version of our regular spaghetti sauce sized for one or two servings.
Here is what I did.
1 T olive oil
1/4 cup onion
2 cloves garlic
3 or 4 Roma tomatoes
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1/4 – 1/3 tsp. fennel
1/4 tsp. oregano
1/4 tsp. basil
1/16 tsp. red chili flakes
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 – 1/2 cup green bell pepper
Clean and chop a fourth cup of onion into a quarter-inch dice. Remove the paper and stem ends from the garlic cloves and mince them. Coat the bottom of a saucepan with a tablespoon of olive oil and set the pan over low heat. Put the onion and garlic into the pan and stir the vegetables every minute or so.
Wash and remove the stem ends from the tomatoes and chop them into a quarter to half-inch dice. Add the tomatoes to the pan onion once the onion is translucent. Raise the heat slightly and cook the tomatoes for two or three minutes, then add the can of tomato sauce.
Put the fennel, oregano, basil, chili flakes, black pepper and salt into a mortar and grind them to medium. Stir the spices into the sauce along with a half teaspoon of sugar. Simmer the sauce for about ten minutes.
Wash the pepper, remove the stem and white membrane and chop the pepper into a quarter-inch dice. Stir it into the sauce, bring it to a simmer and cook for four to six minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Serve with meatballs (real or meatless) if you like or as is over ravioli, tortellini or any pasta cooked to al dente. Offer Parmesan cheese at the table.
NOTES: Obviously you can easily double or triple this recipe and also adjust the seasoning to your taste. Don’t succumb to the temptation to omit the chili flakes, as they give the sauce a little zip to contrast with the blandness of the pasta. If you don’t have chili flakes, you can use hot sauce or ground cayenne pepper. You can substitute any kind of sweet pepper if you don’t have a green bell pepper on hand.