The flavours that make up a tagine are some of my absolute favourites: apricots, nuts, cinnamon, garlic, chilli, coriander and paprika to name a few, all intensified and soaked up into a rich tomato sauce.
So when I was thinking about re-creating one of our classic pre-vegan meals I wanted to combine these ingredients with just a few small tweaks; to achieve the rich, familiar taste of the dish, whilst creating a whole food, healthy recipe with all of the beautiful flavours of North Africa.
The main challenge in creating a meatless-tagine with substance was how to go about replacing those meatballs with something that would carry flavour, keep a good shape, soak up the sauce and provide the protein element of the meal.
And I’m thrilled to report that I’ve come up with something that ticks all of these boxes! This is a recipe that:
- is absolutely bursting with the flavours of a North African tagine;
- is a healthy alternative to meat that’s low in cholesterol and fat but high in protein, fibre and iron;
- provides a delicious way to enjoy quinoa in a different form – proving it doesn’t just have to be a rice or cous cous substitute; and
- is quick and simple to make: this recipe comes together without the hours of slow cooking required by the original, but still delivers punchy, vibrant flavour.
I’ve been experimenting quite a bit recently with different ways to use staples such as chickpeas, dried fruits and quinoa in savoury and sweet recipes (more of that, to come), to create alternatives to using oats or flour (I like the lightness of quinoa, and being gluten-free it has a broad appeal). So when I was thinking about making meatballs for this recipe I immediately thought back to one of my favourite recipes from Christmas – a Pecan, Sage & Cherry Quinoa Stuffing that turned out surprisingly well on the first attempt!
These quinoa meatballs are so tasty. A (mostly) smooth chickpea purée, crisp quinoa, pumpkin seed nuttiness and apricot sweetness punched through with a rich, heady aroma of toasted spices. This is a combination that just works. And aside from the great taste? These quinoa meatballs are:
- versatile: leftovers are delicious in a packed lunch salad box with hummus and peppers;
- low-fat, being oven-baked, not fried;
- super easy to make (but you will get sticky hands…);
- a source of complete protein and amino acids from the quinoa, a helping hand when responding to that question; and
- numerous: this recipe makes about 20 meatballs, which should be plenty.
The tomato sauce packs in an incredible amount of tagine flavour, despite not being cooked and reduced over a long period of time. My secret? Toast the spices for the quinoa meatballs and the sauce in one pan, leaving half for the sauce. That way, you won’t lose any of that amazing spicy, sweet and smoky flavour… not to mention you’ll only have one pan to wash!
I absolutely love serving this dish with zoodles. By using quinoa and chickpeas in the meatballs, you don’t need to include another grain – such as the traditional cous cous – to complete the dish. But if that’s your thing, go ahead!
This tagine recipe would be the perfect centrepiece for a North African-themed dinner, accompanied by some lovely colourful sides such as the pomegranate salad and chard from my Karantita recipe, and a delcious dollop of zesty, smoky Baba Ghanoush.
I hope you enjoy this new take on a classic!
- 100g quinoa, rinsed and drained.
- 1 tin chickpeas (400g / drained weight 240g), rinsed
- 4 tbsp pumpkin seeds
- 12 dried apricots
- 1 tsp maple syrup
- 1 flax egg (1 tbsp ground flax seeds, 3 tbsp water)
- 1 heaped tsp each cinnamon, coriander, cumin, chilli flakes, smoked paprika, turmeric
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 6 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)
- 1 tsp good soy sauce
- 1 tbsp apple cider or red wine vinegar
- Handful fresh coriander leaves
- Juice of ½ lemon
- Optional garnish: fresh oregano leaves
- Heat the oven to 180°C / 350°F / Gas Mark 4.
- After rinsing, place the quinoa in a saucepan with 200ml water. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer until the water has evaporated (about 12-15 minutes). Leave covered for another 5 minutes.
- While the quinoa is cooking, prepare the flax egg by combining the ground flax seeds and water in a small bowl and placing in the fridge.
- Next, put all of the ground spices into a pan and heat, moderately, on the hob for a few minutes until you can smell the aromas. Give the spices a stir to ensure even toasting and remove from the heat.
- The quinoa should now be ready. Fluff with a fork and place in a large bowl.
- Place the chickpeas, half of the pumpkin seeds, half of the apricots, the maple syrup, flax egg and half of the toasted spices in a food processor. Pulse until well combined, into a paste. I like to have a few of the chickpeas left whole, but if you want a completely smooth texture, keep pulsing until this happens.
- Turn out this mixture into the bowl with the quinoa and stir it all together.
- Line a flat baking tray with foil and oil the surface with 1 tsp of the olive oil.
- Make the meatballs by rolling a teaspoon amount of the mixture in your hands, placing each one on the tray. Make sure to wash your hands immediately after, to prevent orange staining!
- Cook on a middle shelf for 20 minutes, turning half way through.
- While the meatballs are cooking, make the sauce. Add the second tsp of olive oil to the pan that still has half of the toasted spices in it. Heat moderately, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Once softened, add the tinned tomatoes, stirring well. Add the soy sauce and vinegar and simmer for 5 minutes. Pour into the food processor (no need to rinse from making the meatballs) and blitz until smooth. Pour back into the pan to reduce further.
- Add the remaining pumpkin seeds and apricots (chopped), the coriander and lemon juice. Keep on a low heat until you're ready to serve.
- If you're serving the tagine with zoodles, make these now.
- Assemble all the elements and sprinkle with more fresh herbs.