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By Emily Paster
Even if you don't have anyone with a food allergy or intolerance in your immediate family, chances are you will eventually have to cook for someone who does have one. Food allergies, special diets and serious conditions like celiac disease are increasingly common these days and we are thankfully more aware of them. Those of us who love to cook and entertain want everyone to feel welcome in our homes. Sometimes that means making a meal that takes into account a guest's dietary requirements. However, even for those of us with the best of intentions, cooking for someone with dietary restrictions can be intimidating or even scary.
As a mother of a child with food allergies, I was always extremely grateful when our hosts tried to accommodate Zuzu's allergies. Even if they didn't always get it exactly right, the fact that they tried was touching. Of course, it was even better when they actually made something that she could eat. That experience made me extra sensitive to the challenges of cooking for those with dietary restrictions. I remember once making a meal for a family at our temple who was dealing with a major health crisis. The mom in the family was gluten-free. I decided to make my chicken chili recipe to serve over rice. In the middle of cooking, it occurred to me that my recipe calls for a bottle of beer and I had a vague notion that most beer has gluten in it. I quickly substituted broth, but the close call was a reminder of how tricky it is to know what is and is not permitted for different diets.
Recently, I was again faced with making a meal for a family in which one of the members followed a special diet. A dear friend lost her dad — a terrible loss that I know only too well — and I wanted to make her family a meal in the classic Jewish way. But I also knew that my friend's husband followed a special no-carb diet for health reasons. What could I make that was safe for her husband to eat but that would also appeal to her two young kids? I decided to make meatballs in a tomato sauce. The kids could eat it over pasta and the adults could opt not to. To make the dish healthy, I used ground turkey instead of ground beef and substituted quinoa in place of bread crumbs in the meatballs.
By now most of you are probably familiar with quinoa, the ancient South American grain that has become very popular lately due to the fact that it is a complete protein — great for vegans — and gluten-free. Quinoa has become so popular in fact that it is now prohibitively expensive for rural South Americans who used to rely on it for protein, which just goes to show that there are no easy choices in the world of food. I had cooked with quinoa some in the past, especially before Zuzu outgrew her allergy to wheat, but never loved how the grain tasted or its slightly crunchy texture. As an ingredient in these meatballs, however, the quinoa blends in and becomes imperceptible.
I first tried the quinoa trick on my own kids to see if they could tell the difference. They did not detect a thing. My husband and I were also pleasantly surprised. The meatballs held together and were both tender and flavorful. The substitution of quinoa for bread crumbs not only makes this meatballs low-carb but it also makes them gluten-free – a handy trick to have in your back pocket. But you don't need to be gluten-free or on a low-carb diet to enjoy these meatballs. They're for everyone, which is what makes them special.
Turkey-Quinoa Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
For the sauce
2 TB olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 28 oz can whole tomatoes with their juice
1 TB sugar
1 tsp. each dried basil and oregano
A pinch red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
For the meatballs
1 lb. ground dark meat turkey
2 TB olive oil
1/2 cup cooked quinoa*
Salt and pepper to taste
To make the tomato sauce, heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large Dutch oven or sauce pot. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, adjusting the heat as necessary. Add the garlic and carrots and continue to sauté until the vegetables are tender but not brown. Season well with the dried herbs, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper. When the vegetables are soft enough, add the tomatoes, crushing the whole tomatoes with your hands or the back of a your spoon. Add the sugar and the bay leaf. Bring the sauce to a boil and then turn down the heat and simmer. To make the meatballs, heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium. In a large bowl, mix together the ground turkey, the egg and the cooked quinoa. Season well with salt and pepper. (Feel free to add a few TB of chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley if your children won't object. Mine will.) Wet hands slightly and form meat into a dozen or so golf ball-sized meatballs. Brown the meatballs on all sides, working in batches as necessary. Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce and simmer until cooked through, 10-15 minutes. Serve the meatballs and sauce on their own — removing the bay leaf before serving — or over your favorite pasta (regular or gluten-free) or grain.
*Cook the quinoa according to the package directions. For me, that meant adding 1/2 cup quinoa and 1 cup water to a small saucepot and bringing the mixture to a boil. I then covered the pot and turned the heat down to a simmer. The quinoa is done when the water is absorbed and the grain is translucent, about 10-15 minutes.