Total time: 1 hour || Active time: 1 hour (Maybe longer the first time you make it)
My palate has a great memory. If it’s something like my mom’s birthday or paying rent I’m guaranteed to forget, but a slice of pizza I had during the Clinton administration will linger forever. And so it is with Spaghetti-os and our sordid history. Children, cover your eyes, this recipe will reveal quite a few things:
I don’t mind a couple of short cut ingredients when they get the job done.
I’m not above ordering food on the internet.
I was a juvenile delinquent.
I should have a job at the national vegan council for naming things.
As a 14 year old goth in the age before cellphones, my friends and I would do that thing of staying up all night being idiots, hanging out on the beach or at the park or whatever (I swear it was mostly innocent.) Since we told our moms we were sleeping at each other’s houses, we couldn’t really go home until it was light out. So we’d go the corner store and pop a couple of Spaghetti-O cans for breakfast, thanks to that easy pull-off lid. We’d pretty much sit on the street, black eyeliner streaming down our faces, ripped fishnets ripping even more, getting Spaghetti-o sauce all over our Salvation Army velvet dresses while we waited for the sun to rise. And, seriously, for shame, those Spaghetti-Os were good.
Sort of mushy rings of pasta swimming in a sweet, cheesy sauce tomato sauce. And don’t forget the meatballs! Chewy orbs that made you want to keep biting into them, even though you didn’t exactly know why – it could have been voodoo or MSG. I had two basic strategies for extending their little meatball lives – slicing them in half or saving them for the end. You totally won if your last bite was a meatball.
Well, sometimes my palate hits me with a strange craving, and I don’t know if Sisters Of Mercy popped up on VH1 classics or what, but I had a nagging for vegan Spaghetti-os. The first order of business was to see if the O-shaped pasta could be found, which brought me to the Wikipedia list of pastas and eventually to Amazon where I purchased three bags of Anellini.
I thought that the meatballs would work well with either tempeh or lentils (of course I had to ask Twitter first), but since I was out of tempeh, that answered that. And because I wanted mushy, but not TOO mushy, I added a little bit of vital wheat gluten. To make them addictive, some seasoned breadcrumbs and, since it’s like catnip for vegans, a touch of nutritional yeast.
The sauce was made velvety and cheesy with some cashews and nutritional yeast, but not too much. Instead of high fructose corn syrup, a bit of brown sugar caramelized with the onions gives the sauce a satisfying sweetness and cuts the bitterness of canned tomatoes. I also used crushed tomatoes with basil, for another dimension of sweetness.
The end result hit all the right notes for me. The lentils ended up being the perfect choice for the chewy texture I wanted and their naturally meaty made for excellent meatballs. I really think kids of all ages will dig this. What kid won’t want to eat something called Spaghetti-Nos? And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’m pretty sure they taste better than their inspiration. Maybe I didn’t run outside and sit on the sidewalk to eat them, but I did wear a lot of black eyeshadow that evening. Coincidence?
~If you can’t find seasoned store bought breadcrumbs for the meatballs, add a pinch each of basil, oregano and thyme. Homemade bread crumbs won’t work as well (too soft), but cracker crumbs might fare a bit better if you must.
~If you can’t find crushed tomatoes with basil, just use a pinch or two of dried basil.
~If you don’t have a food processor, you can still get the job done (although you’ll need some sort of blender for the sauce.) Just get the onion grated and mash the lentils into a puree. If you warm them up a bit first they’ll mush up a lot easier.
~To soak cashews, just submerge them in water for at least an hour and up to overnight. This softens them up and enables them to get really creamy.
~The recipe makes a lot! Feel free to halve it. And if you’re short on time, just make the pasta or make the meatballs with regular sauce on regular pasta. It’s fun to do the whole shebang, but all of the elements would be good solo players as well.
~Lastly, while it isn’t difficult, this recipe does use quite a few pots and pans, so consider yourself warned! For time management purposes, start the sauce first and once it’s simmering, begin the meatballs. That should get everything done within an hour.
For the Cheesy Tomato Sauce:
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
Fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 24 oz. cans crushed tomato with basil
1/4 cup cashews, soaked (see note)
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
For the Mini Meatballs:
1 clove garlic
1 small onion, peeled (tangerine sized or equivalent)
1 1/2 cups cooked green or brown lentils, rinsed, drained (a 15 oz can is fine)
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons vital wheat gluten flour
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup seasoned store-bought breadcrumbs
For everything else:
1 lb anellini pasta (or small pasta of your choice)
Olive oil for pan frying
To make the sauce:
Preheat a 4 quart pot over medium heat. Sautee onions in olive oil with a pinch of salt until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic about a minute more, then mix in the black pepper, oregano, salt and brown sugar. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the sugar is melted. Add the tomato sauce, cashews and nutritional yeast, cover and cook for about 20 minutes.
Now puree the sauce until smooth. It’s easiest to use an immersion blender. You can also use a blender or food processor, blending in batches. Once it’s smooth, keep warm in the pot until ready to use.
To make the mini meatballs:
We’re going to use the food processor fit with a metal S blade for most of the work here, so it should come together pretty quickly. First toss in the garlic and pulse until finely chopped. Now add the onion and pulse until minced. You don’t want any big pieces or they will ruin the texture of the meatball.
With a plastic spatula, transfer the onion/garlic mixture to a mixing bowl and set aside. It’s okay if some remnants are left, just try to get most of it.
Now in the food processor, pulse the lentils, nutritional yeast, wheat gluten, soy sauce, tomato paste, olive oil and water. Once everything gets mixed well, puree them until totally smooth, scraping down the sides to make sure you get everything.
Combine this mixture with the onion mixture and add in the breadcrumbs. Mix really well with your hands for about 2 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Roll the meatballs into cherry sized balls, I got 32 meatballs out of this. This goes very fast if you keep your hands clean and dry (I was averaging one meat ball every 10 seconds.) Preheat a large skillet over medium heat and pour in a thin layer of olive oil. You don’t want to crowd the pan, so pan fry in two batches. You should be able to tilt the pan and have all the meatballs roll around and get coated in oil, cooking until browned (no more than 5 minutes.)
Transfer first batch to a baking pan, cook the second batch, and transfer all meatballs to the baking pan. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, shaking the pan every once in awhile to toss the balls so that they cook evenly.
Boil the pasta while the meatballs are cooking. Drain pasta, and add to the sauce. When meatballs are ready, add them to the sauce as well. Toss carefully with a wooden spoon, being careful not to break the meatballs. Serve!