I’m a sceptic when it comes to Paleo-fying the dishes we “give up” when diving head first into the primal lifestyle. For the most part, especially when it comes to baked goods, the result is a pale imitation of the original that leaves me unsatisfied. If I want a piece of cake or pizza badly enough I suck it up, whip up the wheat and sugar laden darling, bask in warm glow of the indigestion that inevitably follows, and return humbly to my primal life. I am not one of the die-hards that must be paleo 100% of the time or not all. Life is good…paleo is good…cake is good…and I can make room for it all, just like I can make room in my crowded closet for these Fluevogs.
That being said, there are some dishes that Paleo-fy extremely well and it is my mission to find them, tweak them and make them as good, if not better than their forebears. My project this month has been the tweaking of the standard zucchini “spaghetti” and meatballs, and the result is a dish I’d pick over my old pasta based dish any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
The basis of the dish is the zucchini, the challenge is the water content and the pitfall is the nightmare of the soggy “noodle” complete with watery sauce pooling on the plate. I HATE watery puddles of sauce, so drying out the zucchini is priority number one. I tried oven drying, salting, sautéing, nuking and found the best method was to wrap the zucchini strips in a loosely rolled tea towel, refrigerate for at least 24 hours, then microwave in an uncovered bowl lined with paper towel. Above all, DO NOT salt the zucchini…it will only make it mushy. It took a few tries to find the perfect cooking time for al dente zucchini, but 90 sec at high worked for me. Oh, and do yourself a favour by buying a julienne peeler. You can knock off mountains of julienned veg in no time at all without the danger of losing a finger on your mandolin – thank you to NomNomPaleo for this awesome tip.
The meatballs and sauce were equally tricky. I like my sauce to be full of rich meaty flavour but not to the point of losing the freshness and acidity of the tomatoes. The solution was not to brown the meatballs before hand, rather to poach them in the tomatoes so they impart their umami goodness slowly and delicately. If you’re springing for grass-fed meats this method has the added bonus of allowing all those good fats to seep in, flavouring the sauce and balancing out the acidic tomatoes with little or no need for sugar or baking soda. In fact, I often need to add lemon juice or balsamic vinegar to the final sauce.
Let’s do this!
Ingredients, serves 5-6:
5 medium zucchini
500g ground beef (I use lean)
500g ground pork or pork sausage (sweet italian works well)
2 tbsp granulated onion
2 tsp granulated garlic
1 small bunch parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp toasted fennel seed, ground (optional if you are using unseasoned ground pork)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 bay leaf
3/4 cup red or white wine
1 large can (~ 500ml) plum tomatoes
Baking soda, lemon juice or balsamic vinegar (optional)
Small bunch of fresh basil leaves, chiffonade
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan or pecorino cheese for serving
1. Julienne the zucchini into long strips, stopping when you reach the seeds and reserving the zucchini “cores” for the sauce. Wrap loosely in a thin tea towel and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. Just before serving, cook uncovered in a paper towel lined bowl for 90 sec at high power in the microwave. Start checking at 60 sec and stop when veg is just barely cooked and still firm. Discard paper towel.
2. Mix meat (if using pork sausage, remove from casing), onion and garlic powders, parsley, fennel (if not using italian pork sausage) and a few grinds of salt and pepper. Using your hands aggressively knead and mix the meat. Channel your inner play-dough-loving child by grabbing a fistful and squeezing it until it spews through your fingers, this is important for the texture of the meatballs. Salt and pepper to taste, and I highly recommend frying a bit in a pan to test for seasoning. There is nothing worse than under seasoned meatballs, so take the time to test. If you’re using seasoned pork sausage, you will naturally be adding less salt to the final product. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours to let the flavours meld.
3. In a wide and shallow pan, sauté onion in olive oil on medium low heat until just starting to go translucent, add bay leaf and garlic, then cook a few minutes longer until aromatic. Add the wine (I prefer to use white, but red is good too) and reduce for a few minutes to burn off the alcohol. Drain off the juice of the canned tomatoes into the pan and continue to reduce while prepping the tomatoes.
4. Chop up the zucchini cores you reserved and add them to the drained tomatoes. I leave them in the can and use and immersion blender to blend them together. You don’t want large chunks but you don’t want a thin soup either…think of the texture of cooked oatmeal (paleo sacrilege, but it’s only pretend.) If you don’t have an immersion blender you can use a regular blender or a mouli. Add to the sauce and simmer uncovered until thickened.
5. Roll meat mixture into small meatballs the size of a large grape and drop into a single layer in the tomato sauce, leaving space between meatballs. Cover and cook at barely a simmer for 5-10 min, stirring gently once at the 5 min mark. Meatballs should be cooked through but still tender. If your pan is small, you may need to remove the cooked meatballs with a slotted spoon and add another batch of raw meatballs.
6. Once meatballs are cooked check the thickness of the sauce; it may need to be reduced again as the meatballs have released a good deal of tasty juice and fat. If you need to thicken, remove the last batch of meatballs (drain any liquid from the cooked meatballs back into the pan) and reduce at an rapid simmer.
7. When the desired thickness is reached test for seasoning, add salt, pepper and if too acidic add a pinch of baking soda. If not acidic enough add the lemon juice or balsamic vinegar to taste. Remove from heat and stir in a handful of basil chiffonade, as well as the cooked meatballs. Serve over the zucchini with a shaving of parmesan/percorino cheese if you allow cheese into your paleo plan.
I am a household of one so when I make this dish, I keep everything in the fridge, including the tea towel wrapped julienned zucchini and eat it over the course of 3 or 4 days, nuking the zucchini as I need it. Naturally, it just gets better and better with time.