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Although they sound like a contradiction in terms, vegan meatballs are popular food choices for those who refrain from eating meat. Vegan meatballs come in different types that are made out of a mixture of vegan foods such as beans or soy, vegetables and grains and that are seasoned to taste like various types of meat. Available ready-made in supermarkets and health food stores as well as in vegan restaurants, vegan meatballs can provide a vegan eater with a good alternative to traditional meatballs. They can also provide an ample amount of protein, an important consideration when eating a meat-free diet. Vegan meatballs can be substituted in dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs, Swedish meatballs and even koftas, a Middle Eastern style meatball usually made from ground lamb.
People who follow a vegan diet not only shun meat, they also refrain from eating fish, eggs and all dairy products. Consequently, true vegan meatballs will not contain any of those ingredients but might contain vegan substitutes, such as nondairy vegan cheese or egg alternatives. Usually made mostly from legumes such as soy, lentils, beans or even nuts, vegan meatballs can be flavored with herbs and spices as well as imitation beef, turkey or chicken flavors. Combined with other vegetable-based ingredients as well as grains and breadcrumbs to help the mixture bind together, these “meatless” meatballs often mimic both the texture and taste of “real” meatballs.
The majority of vegan meatballs are made primarily from soy protein isolate, a derivative of defatted soy flour that is soluble in water. It is used not only for its neutral flavor but also because it adds texture to the meatballs as well as acting as an emulsifier, something an egg addition would normally do. Soy protein concentrates also are a common ingredient. Both types are easily digested and have relatively high levels of protein (90 percent and 70 percent, respectively).
Other types of vegan meatballs are made from cooked legumes, including lentils and peas, and are not unlike falafel balls or patties, a popular Middle Eastern dish made from chickpeas and served in a pita pocket. These varieties, as well as those made from beans such as kidney, cannelloni or black beans, have a higher concentration of carbohydrates than soy-based meatballs and might be more difficult to digest, but they still offer a good proportion of protein for the vegan diet. Meatballs made from ground nuts as their base also are good sources of protein but normally will have a higher fat content and usually are combined with rice or other types of grains. Another popular addition is ground flax seeds, also known as flaxmeal, which creates a moister result and contributes both protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
For those who enjoy vegan cooking, there are a number of recipes and cookbooks available that call for a variety of meat-free ingredients to make vegan meatballs at home. Cooking methods vary from frying to sautéing to gently simmering in a sauce such as an Italian tomato marinara. Vegan meatballs freeze extremely well and can be cooked from frozen or after thawing in the refrigerator.