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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8 Responses to Heirloom Tomato Penne Pasta with Veggie Meatballs

  1. Robin says:

    This sounds fantastic! I generally avoid soy products that aren’t fermented, but once in a while doesn’t hurt. I’ll have to give this a try soon. I made spaghetti with eggplant meatballs earlier this week. The eggplant meatballs were tasty, but the texture just wasn’t the same as a real meatball.

    • Christina says:

      Haha! Yes, I will confirm that once in a while doesn’t hurt 😉

      And those eggplant meatballs sound interesting, Robin! I’ve done mushroom ones before as well, and they were tasty in their own right, but definitely didn’t have the meatball-y texture the ways these do. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts if you ever give these ones a try.

  2. OH ME OH MY! I just ate dinner and this post has got me wanting to eat AGAIN! =P

  3. Dana says:

    What a scary story with Alex’s head injury! I’m sooooo glad you saw Memento after the incident and not before. That would have made things WAY worse!

    This sounds like a dish I’ll have to try making for Marty. I usually steer far clear of any faux-meat, but he likes a good “meat”ball every now and then. 🙂

    • Christina says:

      Yeah, it was so freaking scary, Dana! And you’re so right—I can’t imagine how much more panic I would have had about the whole thing had I seen Memento prior to it. *shudder*

      I too rarely do faux meats, but sometimes there is a place for them like these meatballs. I especially enjoy the fact that they’re not the heavily processed faux meats you purchase at the store. I’d be curious to hear Marty’s thoughts on them if you do ever give them a try.

  4. Amanda says:

    looks awesome – i almost want to head to the store just for TVP!

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