A smashing good dish

These vegetarian version of meatballs are quite delicious,but why not go the whole hog and make them gluten free

 Carrot & Mint Cakes with Carrot Tabouleh. Photograph: Alan Betson

Carrot & Mint Cakes with Carrot Tabouleh. Photograph: Alan Betson


I like a challenge. And one of my favourites is to cook food that nudges committed carnivores gently but firmly towards eating less meat and more vegetables. And in Ireland, where a certain generation still shudders at childhood memories of saggy, sad vegetables and where our meat, let’s face it, is often superb, this is a challenge and a half.

And you know what? Cooking meat, chicken and fish can be quicker and easier to make than vegetarian dishes that could be described as “meaty”. I am not trying to provoke vegetarians out there – I’m not! – because we rarely eat meat at home and view it as a special treat rather than everyday necessity.

I cooked my favourite yoghurt chicken bake the other night – or rather got my teenager to do it – and it was easy, tasty, super-quick and everyone loved it. But with vegetarian dinners, you do have to sweat the asset a little bit more.

The other lovely thing about vegetarian food is that unless it’s drowning in cream and cheese, it’s generally lighter, and it leaves you feeling lighter too, which at this time of year seems to be what we are naturally hankering after.

And then there’s the feel-good factor that comes from ticking off your five a day and knowing you’re nourishing your immunity, skin and digestion with nutrient-dense foods that when cooked with a little love, punch well above their weight in the flavour stakes too.

This week’s recipes were inspired by a gorgeous new book, Smashing Plates, by Maria Elia. “Keftedes” are normally made with meat and are basically little meatballs. Her vegetarian version looked quite delicious, but we decided to go whole hog and make them gluten free also by replacing the breadcrumbs with ground almonds.

Instead of frying them, we did my favourite cheating trick of brushing with olive oil and baking them. If you aren’t interested in keeping the flour out, and prefer the more-ishness of fried food, then all you need to do is replace the 50g ground almonds with 50g flour and then shallow or deep-fry them instead of baking them.

Flavoured with cinnamon and dried mint, the carrot keftedes are incredibly moreish, lovely either hot or cold. Most men I know seem to have an aversion to cinnamon, so please do leave it out and instead season these with coriander seeds, fennel seeds or even some chilli flakes.

The accompanying carrot and courgette “tabouleh” is a clever way of replicating an old favourite but without the wheat; it’s just blitzed vegetables and some seasoning. Just be careful not to turn the carrots and courgettes to mush in the food processor, so have it on pulse rather than ‘on’.

For a little more colour, you could also very finely dice – or blitz – a red pepper and add a finely chopped red onion to the proceedings. I find raw onion tends to dominate everything, so sometimes prefer some diced spring onions if you’re looking for that kick. This would make a great salad for summer eating and makes a change from the usual suspects.

All you need to do then is get your carnivore pals around and woo them with such delights.

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