By Mir
January 31, 2011

I know a few people who think I’m a fantastic cook. Those people should put down the crack pipe. Somewhat similarly, I seem to know a lot of people who think cooking is “hard.” Personally, I tend to believe in my mother’s oft-repeated adage, which is that if you can read, you can cook. Improvising on recipes is something different, of course, but even that comes with practice, I think.

The thing about me and cooking is that 1) I like to cook (because I like to eat, duh) and 2) I do it a lot. This is one of those areas where I believe “practice makes perfect” isn’t quite correct, but “practice makes you pretty good” certainly is.

I am not a fabulous cook. I am a pretty good cook; I am an experienced cook; and—perhaps most importantly—I am an unafraid cook. That’s all it is, really. I’m willing to try new stuff, and most of the time it works out.

Not always, though. Ahem.

Oh, sure. My successes at this point still outweigh the failures, by a lot. But every now and then I make a recipe that just… misses. And to add insult to injury, the misses are almost always when I’ve bought some sort of expensive specialty ingredient specifically for that dish. ARGH. But, you know, it happens. No biggie.

[Brief unsolicited plug: This is why I nearly always pull new recipes from blogs I like, these days. The commentary is invaluable in helping me to decide if I really want to try that dish or not. It’s a level of insurance you simply can’t get from pulling a recipe off a cooking site where the comments are things like “I loved this! I changed the white sugar to brown and the chicken to pork and the asparagus to broccoli and the potatoes to cauliflower and I pan-seared instead of baking and changed all the spices and IT WAS WONDERFUL!”]

My current cooking challenge is that I try to fix at least two vegetarian entrees each week, both for our overall health and so that Chickadee has enough variety in her diet. (Chickadee’s preferred version of vegetarianism, if left to her own devices, would be a steady diet of cheese, cookies, Skittles, and the occasional faux meat patty from the freezer section.) That’s not super challenging, actually, except that I’m finding MANY vegetarian recipes also rely heavily on wheat and OH YEAH, I can’t have wheat, so suddenly I’m trying to fix gluten-free vegetarian entrees, and that’s a bit more complicated.

We have our favorites, but I’m always trying to branch out a bit.

So I don’t know what happened, exactly, but I came across a recipe for “lentil ricotta meatballs” and possibly I was abducted by aliens and when they returned me to terra firma, I was so delighted to be back, my first thought was, “Lentil ricotta meatballs sound DELICIOUS!” (No, it’s not a very good explanation. It’s all I’ve got.)

I can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of times I’ve made regular meatballs. What I forgot, before embarking on this recipe, is that making meatballs is a complete pain in the ass under the best of circumstances. I really don’t know what I was thinking.

The first problem was that the recipe called for breadcrumbs, and I really don’t do gluten-free bread for the most part, so I decided to substitute brown rice. That seemed reasonable, to me, because rice is bland and sticky and would be appropriate filler. Fine. I made a giant batch of brown rice.

The second problem was that I always forget how visually unappealing lentils are. Maybe it’s just the way I cook them? Maybe it’s because I’ve never been able to find those mythical french green ones I always hear people talking about? And the saddest part is that Chickadee LOVES lentils, and I like lentils just fine, even, but let’s face it—cooked lentils always end up looking like cat barf. I made a giant batch of lentils and the cat barf jokes began.

But then I had to PUREE some of the lentils and then they REALLY looked like cat barf. Yum yum yum.

I wasn’t sure what happened, but in retrospect I think the fault lay with my substitution of rice for breadcrumbs. The recipe called for a couple of eggs, which I added, but because cooked rice doesn’t soak up liquid, the mixture was… somewhat soupy. Uh oh. Well, the recipe called for it to rest in the fridge for a few hours, so maybe it would firm up!

It did not. I added more lentils, and adjusted the spices. Okay. Time to start frying!

I blithely plunked down five or six meatballs on the first round. They all sizzled and… completely disintegrated. I used my slotted spoon to scoop the carnage out of the pan and adjusted the heat and added more lentils to the mixture and tried again.

The second round held together somewhat better, but it became clear that my balls were too big. (Heehee! Hi, I’m a 10-year-old boy, amusing myself.) I used my slotted spoon to scoop those monstrosities out and added some more oil and gave myself a pep talk about how the third time’s the charm.

Success! Round three and onward actually worked, and the resultant balls actually looked more or less like meatballs. I cooked and scooped and drained and then gingerly placed a pan’s worth into a bath of marinara and slid the mess into the oven.

By this time, I had used nearly ever pot and plate and utensil in the kitchen, seemed like, plus I’d splattered oil all over the stove. I am not a tidy cook.

I made pasta for the rest of the family and got out salad fixings and in short order we sat down to dinner.

I cut into a meatball and tasted it. “Hey!” I said, completely relieved, “This is pretty good! I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t meat, I don’t think, if I didn’t know.”

“I would know,” said Otto. “The consistency is too soft.” I made a sad face, because I am a child. “I mean,” he hastily continued, “that it’s softer than meat. But it’s good! I like it.”

“I’m just glad it’s edible, after all that,” I said, taking another bite.

Chickadee carefully cut into a meatball. “Looks like cat barf,” she said. She and Monkey cracked up. I tried not to laugh. I failed. But let it be noted for the record that there were NO LEFTOVERS.

See? Not every kitchen adventure goes all that smoothly, even when you’re a pretty decent cook. But sometimes, your cat barf balls turn out okay.

(I am totally stitching that onto something and hanging it in the kitchen.)


  1. Jean

    I would love to tell my kids we were having “cat barf balls” for dinner! You rock, Mir.

  2. Rachel

    “But sometimes, your cat barf balls turn out okay.” I snorted… Loudly.

    I have to stop reading you at work!!!

  3. Jamie

    Mmm…. cat barf! When I come to visit, will you make meat, please? :)

  4. Aimee

    “But sometimes, your cat barf balls turn out okay.”

    Yes, I totally want that embroidered on a pillow.

  5. Lucinda

    Two quick tips for making meatballs more easily, in case you care. Use a cookie scoop. I personally hate individually rolling them. Too time consuming. And bake them. Put them on a pan, throw them in the oven for 10 minutes and voila! They are done. Yes they have a flat side but who cares. Glad your meatballs turned out ok in the end.

  6. Megan

    Lucinda is spot on – bake meatballs. It totally makes life easy. I regularly make my version of an Epicurious recipe for thai meatballs (you DO know Epicurious.com, right?) and even doubling the recipe it’s a breeze – foil on the pan (because I hate scrubbing baked on stuff), oven at 375 (400 if you’re not doing turkey meat which I am – dries out at 400) and Bob’s your uncle. Of course, soft gooey cat barf might not do QUITE so well baked…

  7. Heidi

    Sounds like the perfect ingredient for a Faux Joe (meatless sloppy Joe). And I made that name up myself, yo.

  8. Mare Martell

    My cat barf endeavor took place on a cold Winter’s day. I love cod. I think it’s a delicious alternative to “fishy-fish.” When I found it on sale at a VERY good price I got super excited and decided to attempt cooking it.

    There was a line in the recipe that explained baking it first was a good idea. I must have missed that part.

    The end result was a gelatinous mess that even my husband wouldn’t eat. Unfortunately, I had an entire baking pan filled with this mixture. I couldn’t even choke a bite of it down. When I tried to go back over the recipe, the line I missed glared at me with “I told you so!”

    In the 38 years I’ve been cooking, I can count on one hand the inedible dishes I’ve made. That was one of them. The next time I attempted the dish, what do you know! If you bake it first, it actually tastes delicious!

    Try and try again. Every family deserves the sufferi…I mean the pleasure of new dishes.

  9. Tracy B

    I always bake them in a muffin tin. I actually make mini-meatloaf this way, too. Less messy and it’s evenly cooked and firm on the edges. I like it that way! I would NEVER try your recipe because, well, I’m a meat eater. There, you have it. Something else to stitch on a pillow. I’m a meat eater! ;o)

  10. Sheryl

    I would love it if you would post or link to your favorite vegetarian meals. I need new entrees in my rotation, and I’d like to start cooking more vegetarian stuff. My favorite way to eat lentils is mixed with shredded cheddar and salsa. Mmm, yum!

  11. JennyM

    I don’t have anything to say about cat barf, though it sounds absolutely delicious.

    No, I was just going to add that listening to basketball game commentary in the background while you get caught up on work is also amusing to one’s inner 10-year-old boy. Lots of ball-handling, and such, you see. Hee. (Snort.)

  12. Flea

    I’ll have to try cat barf balls. The jokes are fun and all, but my husband would order pizza. So maybe not. Or maybe so! I love pizza!

    One of my best friends upbraided her mother for not teaching her to cook. Her mom protested saying, I taught you to read, didn’t I? I disagree, though, that they’re one in the same. It’s like learning English versus learning pidgin English or pig Latin. Too many things that don’t make sense if you don’t have some training.

  13. hollygee

    I’ve made nutburgers for breakfast twice now. They’re improving. I’m still looking for some more chew and maybe some brown rice will help with that.
    Pour boiling water over 1/4 cup of rolled GF oats and let set for 10 minutes. Toss a can of drained garbanzos in a food processor with some raw cashews and sunflower seeds (or sunflower seed butter), a half a minced onion, and more thyme, sage, and pepper than you would usually use. (Don’t you love exact measurements?). Maybe a little bit of marjoram and allspice, too. I beat a whole egg, but used only half of it to bind. Pulse processor until coarsely chopped, stir in the oats (here’s where I’d add the brown rice), form into patties and saute in oil.
    We liked ’em. But not as well as sausage ;-)

  14. Jenn

    Another foodie blog suggestion is The 10 cent diet. The title is a bit misleading as it is a gluten free foodie blog, and not necessarily a money saving foodie blog (she is the 10 cent designer and that’s how it gets its name). I admit I haven’t cooked too many of her recipes yet, but they all look amazing, and there are more than 50 vegetarian and gluten-free meal ideas.

  15. dad

    You may recall my waxing eloquent about the infamous episode while in grad school wherein I decided to make a birthday cake for a coed I was persuing. Having little money and no knowledge of how to bake a cake I decided to rely on a Betty Crocker ready mix. Evidently I also didn’t read very well because after mixing it up the batter was the consistency of skim milk. I had added a cup of water rather than a tablespoon and realiized that clearly, I would need to stiffen the mix. A survey of my meagher kitchen supplies revealed I had no corn starch, flour or other thickening agents. Invention prevailed as I ingeniously added a cup of instant mashed potatoes which worked better than a sponge.
    The completed product looked good but it’s taste badly missed the mark despite the artistic application of multi colored icing.
    I never saw her again.

    Now, if I had been able to come up with a catchy name like “cat barf” …who knows?

    So, as you seem to prove everytime you write something, words really count.

  16. Laura S.

    Vegetarian here who would love your recipe for … I can’t say cat barf or else I won’t be able to eat them…Lentil “Meat”balls. Except I did just say cat barf and therefore…um…I don’t think I want the recipe anymore. Glad you liked them though. My foray into homemade meatless patties was a total loss. Win some and lose some but keep on trying! :-)

  17. Julie

    Earth Fare has the tiny green lentils, and the pink ones that we LOVE for dal, too!

  18. Kayt

    We’re big meat eaters around here, and big fans of The Pioneer Woman. (With her copious amounts of cream and meat, I don’t picture her being your style, though). The first time I made her Cajun Chicken Pasta, she kept goading you into adding More! Spice! through the whole process. “She’s from Oklahoma,” I kept saying to myself, “how spicy could this be?” Well, when we sat down to eat and took a bite, and we saw through time. I had to put about two cups of sour cream in it to cut down the spice. Not the worst of dinner disasters, but still, not fun at all. My husband complained his mouth still burned the next morning.

  19. Chana

    Next time your in Ithaca, got to Green star and stock up on French lentils. Also get red ones for dahl if you haven’t tried that yet. They come out yellow, not brown so you’ll have to come up with a more descriptive name. (Red ones are more common, so you probably don’t have to go to Ithaca to find them!) Of course if you are really serious, I think anything can be found on the internet.

  20. Mamadragon

    My children have forbidden me from cooking with lentils. I happen to love lentils but my children do not share my feelings. I believe it’s the cat barf appearance that gets to them.

    My meatless “meatballs” are easy and delicious, but they’re made with 2 cups of bread crumbs so you don’t want my recipe. Moosewood has a good recipe for balls made with tofu and walnuts – I can send it to you if you want. Like most Moosewood recipes, it’s delicious but rather time-consuming to make.

  21. Jan in Norman, OK

    Mir’s Dad — I think that your story beats my baking-a-cake-in-a-popcorn-popper-while-living-in-the-dorm story. It was messy but it actually tasted pretty good.

  22. Karen

    If it’s still edible, it’s all good.

    I will tell you, however, that I’de never attempt lentil rice meatballs, or lentil ricotta meatballs for that matter. Nothing I ever do with lentils come out appealing, I think I have a lentil handicap.

  23. Little Bird

    I recently started cooking what amounts to vegan meals for my step-father, who is trying to watch his cholesterol. If you ever need any ideas, let me know. I have roughly 40 recipes that don’t have dairy or meat. And probably 40 more that have some dairy (he might be watching his cholesterol, but Mom and I are not!).
    It’s been challenging, but some of the stuff has turned out REALLY good.
    If Chickadee likes lentils, would she like peas? In a pea soup that doesn’t have any meat whatsoever in it?

  24. Alice

    Count me in as one of the folks who’d be interested in the recipe – as a vegetarian w/ Celiac, GF veggie recipes are now what I do all the time, and while rice noodles and curry are awesome, variety is *always* good. A friend recently made me a lentil-based GF shepherd’s pie, and said she had a ton of lentils left over – I think that I can see one of my favorite things in my future – multiple recipes using (at least one) cheap ingredient!

  25. Angela

    I just found a blog by Gwyneth Paltrow called Goop and she writes about a Clean program by Dr. Alejandro Junger, used for detoxifying. It looks like most of the recipes he recommends for the detox are gluten-free. Here’s a link, the recipes looked really yummy. http://goop.com/newsletter/111/en/

  26. Karate Mom

    HA! Cat barf!
    I made polenta once and we all hated it. Mooshy, gross stuff, it makes me shudder to even think about it!
    I have a fantastic recipe for Sweet Potato Stew which is vegetarian and really, really good. (And not sweet at all, oddly enough, In fact, it can be kind of spicy.) I always serve it with grilled sausage because, well, I’m a meat eater. Anyway, let me know if you think you might like the recipe.

  27. Liza

    I would love to see “Sometimes cat barf balls turn out ok” in cross stitch, hanging in someone’s kitchen.

    I also second the recommendation for cooking meatballs/minimeatloaves in muffin tins. Less time, less mess, don’t forget to grease the muffin tin.

    Last random thought here: instant oatmeal absorbs water well. I almost always use it instead of bread crumbs when I make meatloaf. Or as Noah likes to call them, “meat muffins.”

  28. Wendy

    As a gluten-free vegetarian, I can sympathize with the search for good recipes. I’ve found that crushed corn or rice Chex cereal makes a pretty good substitute for bread crumbs. Yesterday, I made a red quinoa and black bean salad for a family dinner at my parents’ house, which everyone agreed was delicious:


    I did ignore the overly complicated directions for cooking the quinoa and cooked it the usual way (similar to rice – add 1 part quinoa to 1.5 parts water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer on low for 20 minutes).

  29. Lulu

    Sounds like someone would like the Lentil-of-the-Month club:
    (not kidding!)
    A little spendy, but it costs a lot to ship those legumes all the way across the US!

  30. barbara

    Mir, can I just say how pretty you look today?? AND how much prettier you would be if you would add to your list of wonderful blogs a VEGETARIAN recipe blog? My daughter has always reminded me of your Chickadee and since she became a vegetarian about 2 months ago, now REALLY reminds me of her…anyway, I think there are more girls their ages making this decision and I’d love to read an entertaining blog about yummy vegetarian recipes. You know…pioneer woman meets woulda coulda shoulda! Doesn’t that sound like a great idea? I think it would be wildly successful!!!!

  31. Kathy

    Oh thank goodness! That post turned out so much better than I had expected it to! Your family laughs a lot … at really funny things! I’m so happy about that! ;)

  32. Nancy R

    Cat barf balls could be on the menu for Halloween, I think.

  33. The Mommy Therapy

    This entire post made me so happy that I haven’t made any effort to eat vegetarian, though I have thought about it for months now.

    I’ll be praying all my children retain their love of eating animals so I don’t have to attempt these type of cat barf ball recipes.

    Why can’t I picture what a lentil looks like? Googling now.

  34. Mit

    I second Wendy’s idea, (comment #29) – use Corn or Rice Chex for your bread crumbs. Corn will absorb the moisture quicker, but rice won’t add the yellow color. (not sure if that would matter in cat barf or not.)

    And I’m with you – no matter what tricks I seem to do … meatballs just take a LONG time. Although I am usually making 3-7 dozen at a time.

    HOWEVER, if you par-bake them (and since there is no meat, and you don’t have to worry about internal temperature) … I bet you could freeze them (on a cookie sheet in the freezer) – and once frozen put in a zip-lock bag for future (quick & fewer dishes to clean!) meals.

  35. Laura

    During my first year teaching I signed up for “treat week” and brought tortilla soup to share in the staff room. I made it the evening before and warmed it up in the morning before leaving for work — and spectacularly burned the bottom. I noticed it smelled maybe a wee bit smoky when I left, but I didn’t want to arrive empty handed and so I dropped it in the staff room before my first class. It was so burned that the entire office reeked of carbonized tortilla soup all day. I had a meeting with my principal about something unrelated, and she started with: “So… the soup.”

    Not exactly the same as a cat barf creation, but it’s definitely my biggest food failure. Don’t know if this would apply in many of your lentil recipes, but I find that if you soak lentils overnight before cooking them, they retain their shape and it looks less barfy.

  36. ramblin red

    Oh Mir, your whole approach to cooking is the same as mine. And I sometimes have those wild adventures too. Loved reading this.

    FYI…uncooked rolled oats is my filler of choice in meatballs or meatloaf – i bet it would work in this kind of recipe too.

  37. Lady M

    Hey, they ate it – you’re a total genius.

    My last attempt at an unvouched-for recipe was a apple-juice-sweetened bran muffin (in a one and only attempt to cook from the “What to Eat While You’re Expecting” cookbook. Hahahaha. Turns out that we went into shock from how different the muffins tasted from our regular diet and never cracked open the book again.

  38. Jen

    After 6 years with a trained cook who convinced me that NOTHING I cooked was right and barely any of it was edible I am really enjoying cooking again (now that we are separated). I love the feeling of providing tasty, healthy sustenance for myself and my son. And my boy (who used to eat 3 things, that’s it, well 4 if you count toast) now eats a wide range of things. Still no pasta (breaks my mac-n-cheese loving heart) but he actually ate honey garlic chicken breast and couscous salad last night, that I made, and I can’t even tell you the happy high it gives me just to type that sentence. My method to regain my culinary confidence was to start basic and with every success, think about how I could change it up a little (try a different marinade, change a sauce, try a new cheese, etc). I do feel for you on the vegetarian/gluten-free issue though, my sister is on a dairy, gluten and egg free diet with other weird restrictions too, so I know it can be challenging. Good luck, and make Otto do the dishes!

  39. Brigitte

    Ha, your cooking methods and messes sound just like mine!

    I find that nature-granola-type stores always seem to carry lentils in every color. And if I feel like branching out and being a vegetarian for a day, I can usually find good stuff (even wheat-free) in my Moosewood cookbooks.

  40. Kate in Michigan

    When I make anything with yellow lentils, it’s called “Baby Poo” around here. sigh.

    And I simply LOVE lentils with Indian spices, sauteed onions and raw chopped jalapenos. Plus some salt. OY.

    And to deal with the cat barf appearance, I make it into sort of nachos with corn chips or pita chips and greek yogurt with a bunch of chopped cilantro or green onions or parsley. It distracts the eye from the otherwise barfy appearance.

  41. julie w

    try OAT bran for a filler (that doesn’t have gluten, right? if I’m wrong..sorry)! totally works, and so much better for you than bread crumbs. just make sure to pre-moisten it with whatever liquid you are using.

  42. Mom again

    I would skip the purée step and just mold together the cooked lentils and cooked rice. Or break down and get some sort of gluten free bread or crackers to meek crumbs with.

    If there is an Indian grocery, get the red lentils and cook them briefly and stir them into spaghetti sauce. They disappear leaving you with additional protein in a normal looking sauce.

  43. Ri

    Check out the magic vegan loaf maker. (I don’t know what it’s really called – when I need it, I search for that and find it everytime.)

    We make a black bean, salsa, pecan loaf thing that would really decent veggie burgers or “meat balls” using their basic formula.

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