Weeknight Vegetarian: When eggplant mocks meat

Marge Ely/For The Washington Post - Eggplant “Meatballs” in Tomato Sauce; they beat those mock meats that come out of a package.

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I’ve always had mixed feelings about mock meats, especially the highly processed ones that include unpronounceable ingredients. I appreciate the need for meatless sources of protein, but why eat something made with, say, hydrolyzed vegetable protein when you can get your protein from the vegetables — and nuts and grains — themselves?

It’s a mistake, though, to think all attempts to replicate the taste and/or texture of meat are newfangled, the result of our dependence on manufactured rather than natural foods. In 7th-century China, Buddhist monks and nuns rinsed and kneaded wheat flour by hand to produce something malleable enough to play the part of meat; that’s what later became seitan.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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Still, I was surprised to see Eggplant “Meatballs” in Tomato Sauce in Domenica Marchetti’s lovely new cookbook, “The Glorious Vegetables of Italy” (Chronicle), because it hadn’t occurred to me that Italians thought of eggplant as a meat substitute. They have for centuries, Marchetti writes — not out of religious abstention, like the Buddhists, but because for the longest time, meat cost too much to take center stage on the table. On a peninsula with such a long growing season, though, vegetables abounded.

“There is magic in eggplant,” Marchetti writes, and not only when it’s made into balls: “Dipped in flour, egg, and bread crumbs and panfried, sliced eggplant does a great job of mimicking veal or chicken cutlets.”

It would be a disservice to her celebration of vegetables to act as if meat imitation were in any way the focus of her latest work. She writes a paean to the Italian kitchen’s great and important contributions to the world of vegetable cookery, and in most of her recipes the vegetables don’t get disguised anywhere nearly as completely as the eggplant does in those meatballs. Roasted mushrooms are stirred into risottos, green beans are roasted, then tossed with feta and herbs, fennel becomes the topping for a white pizza. The book isn’t vegetarian per se, but most of its dishes qualify or could be adapted, and it might be worth the cover price just for its Vegetable Essential primer.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist that magical eggplant preparation, partly because I knew Marchetti’s recipe would be as foolproof as usual and also because my boyfriend, Carl, isn’t exactly an eggplant fan. He raised an eyebrow and shook his head when he saw me roast it, scoop out the flesh, combine it with bread crumbs, egg, cheese, herbs and garlic and form it into balls. But once I fried them and stewed them with a simple tomato sauce (also from Marchetti’s book), he happily dug in.

It wasn’t the quickest route to a meatless meatball, but it beat the heck out of anything I could get from a package. And I knew exactly what was in it.

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