Heirloom Tomato Penne Pasta with Veggie Meatballs

Heirloom Tomato Penne with Vegetarian Meatballs and Basil

This past Saturday Alex and I were having dinner with some new friends and, as these situations are wont to do, found ourselves on the topic of head traumas. Whenever this topic arises in conversation I always have a particularly pertinent (and traumatic!) story to share.

It happened many years ago, when Alex and I were Juniors in college and he had an especially bad case of light-headedness after standing up quickly. You know how that can happen where you see spots and perhaps get a little light-headed when you stand up quickly after sitting for a period of time? Recently, I’ve noticed this occasionally happening to me in yoga when moving fast from the floor to standing (though, it happens far less the more yoga I do). But this has always happened quite severely for Alex to the point that he can temporarily lose his sight and the world becomes black.

Heirloom Tomato Penne with Vegetarian Meatballs

So his head trauma went down like this. It was a hot summery day and after sitting at the computer for some time, he quickly jumped up and headed to the kitchen to prepare some lunch. At the time, I was in the bedroom and shortly after heard a loud thump from the kitchen—it sounded like something had fallen from the top of the refrigerator. “Did the waffle iron just commit small-appliance suicide?” I thought to myself. A brief second later, I heard Alex meekly call my name and I walked over to the kitchen to find him laying flat on the floor. Oh! That wasn’t the waffle iron, but a person! Before I could ask the question of how he ended up on the floor, he asked me what happened. In my own confusion, my best answer was “I think you fell on the floor and hit your head.” “Oh, ok,” he said. Then about five seconds later he asked the exact same question to which I replied the exact same way. After the third time of him asking the exact same question with no recollection that he had already asked me the same question three times, my panic meter started to rise. He sensed my panic and started to reassure me not to worry and that he was beginning to feel better. Whew! I calmed down a bit, but it was only a brief minute as the same words “What happened?” began to spew out of his mouth. At this point I called the ER and we headed to the hospital me fearing the worst—that he had endured a serious brain injury and may never be the same person again. If you’ve ever seen Memento, which I happened to watch in the theaters a week later (thank god it was not before!) this whole incident, Alex behaved exactly like the star of that film—his short-term memory was completely kaputt.

On the way to the hospital, I tested his long-term memory quizzing him as to who his parents and sister were, what his middle name was, where he grew up and, interestingly, all of that checked out fine. However, anything that happened within the past few minutes was wiped entirely from his memory shortly after it happened. Actually, I also recall asking him about the class he attended that morning and he had so much confusion about it responding with, “I’m taking a class?” So I guess his memory loss included other more immediate memories too.

Heirloom Tomato Penne with Veggie Meatballs

After spending 8 hours at the hospital and having countless head (and other body) tests performed, we slowly noticed Alex start to regain some of his short-term memory and by the end of the day he was pretty much back to normal. All of the tests checked out fine and it was concluded that his short-term memory loss was due to hitting his head (big surprise there).

Needless to say, the entire event was extremely traumatic for me and, while the ordeal only lasted a day it has impacted me years later to this very day. I no longer shrug off loud noises that happen in another room and sometimes find myself immediately jumping to the worst possible conclusion as to what produced the noise. Thankfully, this crazy reaction has lessened over the years as the distance from the event has grown.

TVP Meatball and Heirloom Tomato Penne

Anyways, I tell this story not just because it came up at dinner on Saturday, but also because it reminds me of today’s post and highlight, TVP. After Alex’s post-head-trauma drama, our unmedically substantiated diagnosis was that he needed to get more protein, which we later learned from the cardiologist was completely wrong as it turns out that salt and water are the antidote to combat that light-headed feeling.

But back to the protein solution. After doing some research and seeing TVP, textured vegetable protein, at our local co-op we concluded that it was the fastest and least expensive (we were college poor) way to consume high quantities of protein (Alex wasn’t even vegetarian at the time so it’s fascinating that he figured that out.) I remember him eating dried TVP in his yogurt like you’d put granola in your yogurt to pack in the protein and it wasn’t until a couple years later that we figured out how to make tasty food creations with it, like baco-bits and these super-delicious, could-pass-as-animal-flesh meatballs.

Not only are the meatballs in this dish amazing, but the abundance of fresh tomatoes seen in the markets right now are a perfect way to enjoy those fruits of summer as well. And here’s how to do it.

Measure and pour the two cups of TVP into a heat-proof dish and then pour 1 3/4 cups boiling water over it. Stir it well so that all of the TVP is moistened. Let it sit.

Then saute your onion in olive oil for 10 minutes and add it to the TVP. Mix well.

Add your spices, soy sauce, and flour. Again, stir to combine so that everything is well incorporated.

Form your balls. I measure mine in a small cookie scoop so that all of them are of equal size and firmly squeeze and roll them in my hands so that they don’t fall apart when you handle them.

This recipe made around 28 balls for me, but the number you make will, obviously, depend on the size of your balls. If you like larger balls, you’re not going to have as many of them.

Then you want to fry them in oil for several minutes on each side. Make sure you slide a spatula underneath each of them (or a fork, if you’re into that). That sad, broken ball in the middle was a result of not rolling it around enough, so it ended up sticking to the pan. Make sure you give them lots of attention, because nobody likes sticky balls. My second batch was much better with zero casualties after making sure none of them were sticking while cooking.

While my meatballs were cooking (thus the divided attention and sad meatball incident) I started to prepare my sauce. I first chopped my basil in chiffonade style where you stack several leaves on top of each other, roll them and then slice. You end up with these pretty curls that you see in the below photo.

After chopping my basil, I diced my tomatoes and minced my garlic. I poured the 1/4 cup of olive oil into a large saute pan and heated it over medium heat. When it was hot, I added the garlic and cooked it for about 3-5 minutes—just until it started to brown a little.

Then I added the tomatoes and cooked them until they were heated through. Oh, I forgot to mention that while I was doing all of that, I put a pot of water on to boil and cooked penne pasta so that finished cooking just as my sauce was done. I poured the strained pasta on top of the tomato sauce and mixed them all together.

I then added my spices; fresh basil and dried oregano and mixed it all together.

Heirloom Tomato Penne with TVP Meatballs

I served it on large soup dish with 4 meatballs and topped it with fresh basil chiffonade.

Heirloom Tomato Penne Pasta with TVP Meatballs

Makes 4-6 entree-size servings

TVP Meatballs

  • 2 cups dry textured vegetable protein (TVP)
  • 1 3/4 cups boiling water
  • 1 small onion, diced finely
  • 2 tablespoons oil (canola, vegetable, or olive)
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce (or wheat free tamari to make it gluten-free)
  • 1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup white flour (or sub gluten-free flour)

Tomato Sauce

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 7 garlic cloves minced
  • 5 large tomatoes (preferably heirloom), diced
  • 1 cup basil chiffonade, plus another 1/2 cup for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • salt and pepper, to taste (season with these two at the very end)

Penne Pasta

  • 1 12 ounce package of penne pasta (use gluten-free pasta to make the entire dish gluten-free)

Make Meatballs: Pour boiling water over TVP and let it soak for 10 minutes. Saute the onion in the olive oil for 10 minutes (until soft and translucent), and then add it to the TVP along with the chili powder, garlic powder, pepper, salt, oregano, soy sauce, and flour. Stir until well-mixed. Mold this mixture into balls and be sure to press them together firmly so that they don’t fall apart when handling or frying. Fry in oil until crispy (several minutes on each side.) And don’t forget to run a fork or spatula underneath them while they’re cooking to prevent them from sticking to the pan.

Cook Pasta: Put a large saucepan filled with water on high heat and add the entire package of dried pasta when it begins to boil. Cook for 10 minutes or until al dente, then drain the water.

Tomato Sauce: In a very large saute pan, heat the 1/4 cup of olive oil over medium-high heat and when it’s hot add the minced garlic. Cook for 3-5 minutes or until it just begins to brown. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 3-5 minutes until they’re heated through.

Put it Together: Add the cooked pasta to the tomato sauce and mix well. Add 1 cup of the basil and the teaspoon of oregano. Stir to combine. Lastly, add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve in a large bowl or plate with the meatballs and fresh basil on top and get ready to pop them in your mouth!

Heirloom Tomato Penne with Veggie Meatballs

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Review: Gentle Gourmet Cafe — Paris, France

Did I say I was going to get better about my posting frequency? Because, clearly, that was a lie. A busy few work weeks coupled with an equally busy social calendar has resulted in some serious blogging deficencies. And it’s particularly tragic because I have a slough of recipe ideas running through my head burning my brains with the desire to send me to the kitchen, but no time to dive into food experiments. Such an unfortunate conflict that perhaps others can identify with? So, for now, I will leave you with this review of a gourmet vegan restaurant we dined at in Paris a few weeks back.

It’s called Gentle Gourmet Cafe and it’s entirely vegan. Yes, in the land of butter and cream it’s actually possible to find a restaurant that serves neither of those. As the name suggests, it’s a gourmet restaurant serving exemplary food creations. Every dish we tried was stellar and my only regret is that we weren’t able to go there multiple times to try more of their creative, fresh, and incredibly tasty food.

As an appetizer, I started with this lovely cold cucumber avocado soup. It was light and refreshing just like cucumber avocado soup should be. To be honest, though, you’d have to be a pretty terrible cook to mess up this dish as I’ve made my own version of it at home and as long as you know how to plug in your blender you can pretty much nail it. However, I give them major presentation points as the sliced radishes, edible flower, and chili flakes were a beautiful visual touch and my tastebuds were not disappointed.

For my entree, I had a raw lasagne. I ordered it on the waitress’s suggestion, but I was hesitant because my past raw “noodle” experiences have been a major letdown. But not this dish! I LOVED this dish. I loved it so much I would strip my clothes and swim in a huge vat of it with my mouth wide open so that I could consume it in quantities in far excess of this dainty serving. What I most loved about it was the “ricotta” filling that tasted so strikingly similar to actual ricotta, yet the cashew base left me feeling so light in the tummy. The zuchini and tomato layers were also amazing along with the well-dressed greens on top. An all-around fantastic dish!

Every table had these pretty flowers that matched the rest of the restaurant’s decor. Actually, that’s another notable part of this restaurant. The ambiance and decor are beautiful and have an upscale vibe so if you’re looking for a “nice” dinner in Paris this is where to go.

French Fries Gentle Gourmet Cafe

All lightness that I felt in my belly was gone after these fries were served. You may be surprised to learn that I actually love fries. I really do! With one exception. They have to be the thick, hearty steak fries version to win my affection. We decided to order them because they’re French, right? And we’re in France so they should be good. And, yep, no complaints from me on these tasty little deep-fried potato batons. My mouth saw nearly all of the fries on this plate, but don’t worry, I did manage to save a couple for Alex.

After the cooks got word from our waitress that Alex had a nut allergy they went above and beyond to make sure that he was served a dish that not only had zero nuts in it, but also had no chance of any cross-contamination. We tried reassuring them that his allergy was not that severe and they shouldn’t worry about such insignificant quantities, but they couldn’t shake themselves of past anaphylactic shock experiences and were insistent on creating an off-the-menu salad for him. And this is what they came up with—the veggies on the bottom were briefly blanched and then bathed in an olive oil-based marinade. The mixed greens had a tasty dressing and the avocado with marinated cherry tomatoes were all a lovely combination. Overall, it was a very well-prepared salad.

Gentle Gourmet Cafe Paris France

Here is Gentle Gourmet Cafe from the curb. We sat near the windows, but the seating actually goes quite deep into the building. I love the very Parisian black/grey, pink and white color scheme.

As a side note, after lunch we spent hours crawling the city trying to find vegan croissants only to find that the one place noted online was closed that day! However, after doing a bit more research, it appears that Gentle Gourmet Cafe actually serves amazing vegan croissants. UGH! I can only imagine how perfect their croissants would be considering how fantastic the rest of their food was. Such a missed opportunity.

Overall we had an amazing dining experience here and I really wish that we could have sampled more items from their menu. So, please, everyone who visits Paris go there and order everything on the menu so that this restaurant can survive and I can go there the next time I’m in Paris!!

Corn, Summer Squash & Watercress Salad with Thyme

Summer Squash Corn Watercress Salad with Thyme

I love this time of the year! I particularly love how farmer’s markets are brimming with such a variety of produce. And even though we Californians are lucky to see fresh produce (like strawberries) year-round, there is still seasonality to a lot of what shows up in the markets. Two specifically summer veggies that caught my eye this week were fresh corn on the cob and bright yellow summer squash. I decided to pair them together along with bright green watercress and flavorful thyme to create this light, summery, side dish. It turned out awesomely and I’m thinking it would be a great dish to bring to a 4th of July potluck this Wednesday. Hmmm… now I just need a potluck to be invited to.

To start, place a large saucepan full of water over high heat, cover, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, shuck your corn and gently place each ear in the boiling water being careful not to burn yourself. Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook the corn for 10 minutes, partially covered.

While the corn is cooking, chop your summer squash and heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium high heat. When the oil is hot add the squash and saute for 5-7 minutes.

While the corn is cooking and squash is sauteeing, de-stem and rinse your watercress in cold water and roughly chop it.

When the corn is finished cooking, cut the kernels from the cob. Add the sauteed squash, chopped watercress and stir well to combine. Measure your dried thyme, place it in the palm of your hand and crush it between your fingers or hands before adding it in the bowl. Add salt and combine everything again. And that’s all there is to this easy, delicious summer side-dish!

Summer Squash Corn Watercress Salad with Thyme

I really love how all of the flavors go so well together. I especially love how the slight pepperyness of the watercress plays off of the super sweetness of the corn.

Summer Squash Corn Watercress Salad with Thyme

Corn, Summer Squash & Watercress Salad with Thyme

Ingredients

makes 6 side-dish servings

  • 4 ears of corn
  • 1 1/2 lbs. of yellow summer squash (this was 3 medium ones for me)
  • 1 bunch of watercress
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • salt to taste

Corn: Fill a large stockpot with water and place it on high heat; cover with a lid and bring to boil. Meanwhile, shuck all 4 ears of corn and gently place them in the boiling water.

Squash: Chop your summer squash into small dice. Add the extra virgin olive oil to a medium saute pan and heat it over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the summer squash and saute for 5-7 minutes.

Watercress: De-stem and wash your watercress in cold water and then roughly chop it.

Put it all together: In a large bowl slice off the kernels of corn from the cob (as demonstrated in the third photo from the top), add the summer squash, and watercress. Stir well until all is combined. Measure the dried thyme and then rub it between the palms of your hands so that it the flavors are brought out as it falls into the dish. Add salt and then stir until everything is combined.

Summer Squash Corn Watercress Salad with Thyme