Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Green Kitchen: Easy Meatballs and an Ethical Quandary

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

Transitioning to the omnivore lifestyle from thirteen years as a vegetarian is not easy. Well, okay, in some ways it is fabulously easy – ordering at restaurants is a delight, and getting enough protein is a breeze. But, of course, there are complications.

My vegetarian menu was pretty ethically uncomplicated – I shopped local when I could, cooked for myself from mostly unprocessed foods, and bought my eggs from farmers I could chat with about the chickens. I wasn’t striving for sainthood, just trying to make the best choices I could. But with meat, those choices are much more complicated. And the implications are much more intense.

It crystallized the other night in the local supermarket aisle. My boyfriend and I were picking up a few things for dinner – we had kale in the fridge, so the main question was, my propensity for bowls of cheesy kale aside, what else we would eat. “What about meatballs?” he asked. “I liked those meatballs you made the other night. I can buy the meat”

The other night I’d come home with a bounty of on-sale local, grass-fed beef from Whole Foods. Now, under the C-Town fluorescent lights, I looked toward the meat case and paled.

“I have some of the Whole Foods beef in the freezer still. I can thaw that out.”

“But you bought that, that’s yours. Let me buy some for tonight.”

We walked over to the meat case. The ground beef told us it was Made in the USA, but not much more. The local butcher shop, where I get my miraculously cheap local, organic chicken, was closed.

I’ve ordered meat in restaurants. I’ve eaten chicken and beef and pork that lived who-knows-how. I know ethically-minded omnivores who eat no meat in restaurants, a restraint I’ve felt guilty for not having. But in that supermarket aisle, I found my personal line. We went home with a carrot, and I took the last of my grass-fed beef out to defrost.

This super-sale grass-fed beef was $5/lb (discounted from $8). Ground beef in the supermarket costs less than half that. I can’t always afford that. Paired with a nice pile of cheap, filling vegetables like onions and kale, you can still get a good serving of meat for under two bucks, which I didn’t even realize until I wrote up this recipe, and which I will remind myself next time my chest gets tight for budget’s sake when my boyfriend goes back for seconds.

The sale at Whole Foods ($5 for what costs $2 at the supermarket) is going on a little longer, and we’re going to stock up while we can. Beef I feel okay about eating is kinda expensive, but it’s also really, really tasty. (In case you pale at the slightly high fat count, by the way, keep in mind that grass-fed beef is much higher in super-healthy Omega-3s, that [nutrition nerd alert!!] the link between saturated fat and heart disease is in fact kinda dodgy, and that the nutrition counts are for uncooked beef – plenty of fat stays behind in the pan.)


If these look good, you will surely enjoy:

(serves 3)

3/4 lb ground beef (grass-fed/pastured if you can)
1/4 medium yellow onion
1/4 medium carrot
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
a few shakes/grinds of pepper
dash of paprika
1 1/2 teaspoon olive oil

1) Preheat your oven to 300. Line a baking sheet (or 9x12 dish) with aluminum foil and set aside.

2) Dice 1/4 onion and 1/4 carrot very finely.

3) Put ground beef in a bowl. Add onion, carrot, ketchup, marjoram, thyme, basil, oregano, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and paprika. Mix with your hands.

4) Shape the meat mixture into balls, about an inch in diameter. Don’t squish them – just gently shape them with your hands. Place these on a plate.

5) Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once it’s hot, add the meatballs – without crowding – you may have to do this in batches – to brown. DO NOT TOUCH THEM. (That’s how you get a nice brown crust.) Once the bottoms are browned, after a minute or two, turn the meatballs over to brown the other side. Once that’s done, brown a third side, if you can get them to balance.

6) Remove the browned meatballs to the foil-lined sheet, and stick that in the oven. Repeat with the rest of the meatballs, if necessary.

7) Cook the meatballs until they’re done – not pink inside any more. This time hugely varies for me, depending on how long the meatballs were in the pan, from 2-10 minutes.

8) If you’re cooking vegetables for your meatballs to nest in – I like kale and onions – cook those in the leftover meatball/olive oil, for extra deliciousness.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving: 
250 calories, 17.5g fat, 0.8g fiber, 19g protein, $1.26

¾ lb ground grass-fed beef (85% lean): 640 calories, 45.3g fat, 0g fiber, 56g protein, $3.33
¼ medium yellow onion: 9 calories, 0g fat, 0.4g fiber, 0.3g protein, $0.07
¼ medium carrot: 7 calories, 0g fat, 0.4g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.10
1 T ketchup: 15 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0.3g protein, $0.05
1 t dried marjoram: 2 calories, 0g fat, 0.2g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.04
1 t dried thyme: 4 calories, 0g fat, 0.6g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.03
1 t dried basil: 2 calories, 0g fat, 0.3g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.03
½ t garlic powder: 5 calories, 0g fat, 0.3g fiber, 0.2g protein, $0.02
½ t dried oregano: 3 calories, 0.1g fat, 0.4g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.02
¼ t salt: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.01
a few shakes/grinds of pepper: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.01
dash of paprika: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.02
1½ t olive oil: 63 calories, 7g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.05
TOTAL: 750 calories, 52.4g fat, 2.3g fiber, 57.2g protein, $3.78
PER SERVING (TOTAL/3): 250 calories, 17.5g fat, 0.8g fiber, 19g protein, $1.26

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cardamomandcastiron said...

The meatballs look great!

I hear you with the ethical questions. I started eating meat again several months ago and have come to the conclusion that my personal line is probably a lot more on the cautious side than most people's... but it's all a personal thing. I've found it's almost harder to be an ethical meat-eater than it was reading labels for sneaky animal ingredients when I was vegetarian. I'm glad you found your personal line. :)

Sara said...

We buy a side of beef each spring from a local farmer. A small stand up freezer will hold a quarter of a cow without a problem.

Sandra said...

Researching CAFOs and chicken production made me a vegetarian a few years ago until my son suggested I find people raising animals humanely and patronize them so they could afford to continue doing it. Now I, too, am a vegetarian when I eat in restaurants or anywhere I can't be sure the animal had a good life before it died to feed me. I've found folks locally who raise cows and pigs in pastures on grass (and I buy in bulk to stock a large freezer in the basement), but I’ve avoided chickens until the pig producer's chickens are available this spring. I'm not as conscientious about eggs because I've found true free-range eggs are hard to find year-round, and I eat a lot of eggs, but I keep looking. Even though I’ve found "happy cows and pigs", I still tend to ration the frozen meat even though there's more than enough downstairs and the prices really aren't that bad. I guess deep down I'm still not thrilled with sentient animals dying to feed me and those few years of no-meat gave me lots of grain and vegetable options.

Jenna said...

Every time I read one of these posts, I get pushed closer and closer to possibly embarrassing my local butcher with a huge public bearhug.

Grassfed beef, locally and humanely raised... and I get my ground chunk from $2.89-$3.69. I can get nice roasts at the $3.69lb mark as well.

I can't go back to mainstream factory raised beef - but I don't know how folks manage in areas where the price is so shockingly high! Maybe I need to start offering bus tours through my part of Northern Ohio with stops at the good butcher shops, farmer's markets, and cheese makers!

ilikecoffee said...

We are moving toward a more clean, ethical diet, but I also struggle with the price v. ethical debate when it comes to meat, mainly chicken. I wish I had a miraculously, cheap butcher with cheap, happy chickens! We did, though, buy a quarter of a grass-fed happy cow for $3/lb. If you have the space and the upfront money, it's a great deal plus the peace of mind is worth it. :)

Kate said...

I struggle with the same issue. My grocery budget is pretty tight, but so is my time budget (grad school'l do that to ya...) so I can't usually justify making many grocery trips per week. So I can get happy milk and sometimes eggs, and I buy meat at the local store once a month or so, and eat vegetarian the rest of the time.

If I want to cook something specific on a whim I'll break down and buy the supermarket meat though...usually when I want to cook for someone else. Luckily the boy doesn't mind eating veggie.

eatclosetohome said...

For even more bang for you buck, stretch those meatballs with rolled oats, cooked rice, or breadcrumbs! I bake mine on a cookie sheet, too, which cooks and browns in one step.

Iz said...

Completely agree re. the ethical dilemma. So many times we've reached for the takeaway menu only to think "?" about the "meat" curry or the provenance of the chook in the "chicken tikka". And eating out of "politeness" or at a work function with a catered lunch with "?" chicken sandwiches - very difficult. A lot of people, most people it seems, just don't care.

Caitlin said...

I loved this post, because having been a vegetarian also for a decade now and feeling the budget and time crunch as I enter graduate school, I wonder about my options in the omnivore world, if I ever dare enter it again. May I ask why you left the veggie kingdom? How was it to switch to cooking meat? How was your stomach's reaction to eating meat again?

Jaime said...

Wow, thanks for the responses, everyone. It's great to hear that other people are going through this, too.

@Caitlin, A few months ago I was just getting really, really bored with my veggie diet. I mostly avoid grains, so my options were really limited. I know there's ethical meat out there, and I decided to jump in. (I started eating vegetarian just to see if I could, as a teenager. Over time the morals got tacked on.)

My stomach's been fine, I think because I went reeeeaaaally gradually - starting with just a bite at a time. Cooking meat's been really fun for me - a whole new adventure. I mean, as a cook, it's just been exciting, all this new stuff.

caitlin said...

i could have written this post! i also shop the sales at whole foods - i currently have 4 'happy' chickens hanging out in my freezer.

another thing to keep in mind is that ground beef can be more expensive and of dubious provenance than whole pieces of beef. i am in love with the grinder attachment for my kitchenaid mixer, but if you don't want to go all-in you can use a food processor to grind beef.