Did everyone have fun this Thanksgiving? We sure did! This was our first Thanksgiving since going vegan. As if this wasn’t challenging enough, we also traveled to our friends’ house in Panama City Beach, Fla.
What was the challenge, you might ask? Well, I had to make sure my husband and I had plenty of vegan food choices at the overall non-vegan Thanksgiving table our friends were planning to have. To make that happen, I spent the entire afternoon on Wednesday cooking one vegan dish after another, and then packing the entire spread to travel. I know, people do that all the time for Thanksgiving, but honestly, this was my first time of doing that, so it seemed challenging.
Did we end up having enough vegan food? More than enough!
Clockwise from top left: sautéed kale, stuffed rice balls (today’s recipe!), curried butternut squash, stuffing, mashed potatoes, creamy mushroom gravy, Hippie Loaf from Lindsay Nixon’s Happy Herbivore Cookbook. This cookbook is a true lifesaver for any vegan person, especially around the holidays (stuffing and gravy also came from this book).
Everything was delicious, and the best part? Our omnivore friends liked my vegan creations a lot!
Here’s where things get interesting. My Italian mother-in-law has been making stuffed rice balls every Thanksgiving and Christmas for years. My husband Rob grew up loving them, so big holidays are incomplete for him unless the rice balls are present.
When we went vegan, he even told me that he would have to cheat on our diet with his favorite rice balls during the holidays! I smiled and nodded when he told me that, but deep inside I hoped that I would be able to eventually veganize his mom’s favorite recipe.
The family recipe that my mother-in-law uses calls for Carolina long-grain rice, meat or mozzarella cheese stuffing (meat gets mixed with pasta sauce), butter for making the rice sticky, and an egg wash for dipping the assembled balls prior to rolling them in bread crumbs. The rice balls are then left in the fridge overnight, and deep-fried the following afternoon right before the big feast.
How could I make a delicious vegan version of Rob’s favorite rice balls without the tried-and-true, but very non-vegan ingredients? I also wanted to reduce the fat content. After some soul-searching, here’s what I decided to do:
Rice: instead of adding butter to make it sticky, I slightly overcooked the rice, and then mixed it with a generous amount of ground flaxseed and water mixture, a.k.a. ‘flax egg’ in the vegan baking community (see pic below). Flax egg makes things stick together well, and it worked like a charm!
Stuffing: I decided to use vegan sausage, mushrooms, and store-bought marinara sauce. There’s hardly any choice of commercial vegan sausage in Southern Alabama, plus I’m not a fan of mysterious ingredients and overly processed foods, so I decided to make my own.
I used a recipe for Apple Sage Sausage from Kathy Hester’s book The Vegan Slow Cooker . I’ve been cooking my way through Kathy’s book, and there hasn’t been a recipe that I didn’t like so far! The convenience of making meals in a slow cooker is undeniable: who doesn’t like coming home to a delicious, ready-to-eat dinner? Kathy’s sausage is made with brown rice, walnuts, wheat gluten, and applesauce among other ingredients.
Egg wash: the best vegan substitute for eggs turned out to be almond milk mixed with some chickpea flour. Call it thinking outside the box, but this mixture works perfectly as an egg wash replacer! I found that out after making some French Toast from the above mentioned Happy Herbivore Cookbook recently. That stuff was delicious!
The only thing that I couldn’t replace was deep-frying the rice balls in oil. Yep, this removes these vegan rice balls from my list of wannabe-healthy dishes, and makes them a dietary splurge for anyone attempting to eat a low-fat, plant-based diet… But heck, at least no animals were harmed!
A traditional Italian appeizer, these stuffed rice balls turn out to be a wonderful addition to a vegan holiday table! This recipe calls for vegan sausage, which can be bought in a store or made at home.
- 1.5 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
- 3 cups water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- Flax Egg: 2.5 Tbsp ground flaxseed + 5 Tbsp warm water
- 2 cups vegan sausage, crumbled (I used homemade - see above - but you can find sausage crumbles in stores)
- 5-6 baby bella mushrooms, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup chopped onions
- 1 cup or more marinara sauce
- 1.5 cups almond milk
- 1/3 cup chickpea flour
- 1 cup or more vegan breadcrumbs
- 2-3 cups vegetable oil, for frying
- 2 days before you're planning to serve the rice balls (see note* below), cook the rice: boil water and rice together on medium, letting all of the water to be absorbed by the rice. It's best if you let the rice overcook a little. You may need to add a little more water towards the end to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom.
- Once the rice is cooked, let it cool a little while you're preparing the flax egg. To do that, just mix together the ground flax and warm water, let it sit for 5 min to thicken. Mix in the flax egg into the rice; stir to combine well. Cover the rice dish tightly with plastic wrap or a lid, put in the fridge overnight.
- One day before serving the rice balls, make the stuffing and assemble the balls. To make the stuffing, sautee chopped mushrooms and onions until soft, then add them to crumbled sausage. Stir in marinara sauce. The mixture should look like thick bolognese sauce.
- Assembling the rice balls: take a small handful of the rice mixture, press it in your hand to look like a little bowl. Put a small spoonful of the sausage mix into the center, then take a bit more of the rice, cover the stuffing, and shape the rice into a ball with the stuffing in the middle. Do not overstuff the balls! You may end up with a lot of stuffing left over (I did!), just freeze it and use later as makeshift bolognese sauce for pasta.
- Once all of the balls are assembled, put together a breading station. In a small bowl, whisk together almond milk and chickpea flour until no clumps are left; put breadcrumbs into a separate small dish.
- Dip each rice ball in the almond milk mix, then roll in the breadcrumbs until well coated. Put the breaded rice balls into a casserole dish lined with wax paper. Once all of the rice balls are assembled, cover the casserole dish and store in the fridge overnight.
- The day of your big feast, take the rice balls out of the fridge 30 min before frying them. Heat up vegetable oil in a deep, thick-walled pan (the oil level should be enough to cover the rice balls by 3/4) - see notes below . When the oil is hot, drop the rice balls, 2-3 at a time, into the oil, cook for 4-6 min, turning them a few times to ensure even cooking. Once the breadcrumbs look golden brown, take the balls out and set on a dish lined with paper towels. Repeat with the rest of the rice balls. Let them cool slightly before digging in!
*Making rice balls is a three-day affair, which might seem like too long on regular days, but turns out to be no problem around holidays! A lot of holiday dishes are usually made in advance, and these rice balls only benefit from resting overnight.
**To make the things a little easier, we used a small cheap deep fryer that we bought specifically for making the rice balls a couple years ago. It does the job well, and you can do the frying away from the stovetop that's already loaded with other Thanksgiving pots and pans!
At our Thanksgiving table, these rice balls were the most talked-about dish! If you have a few of them left, they’ll stay good for 4-5 days stored in the fridge. My mother-in-law freezes the original version of these successfully, but I haven’t tried that with these vegan rice balls. If you do, please let me know how that worked out!
To see more vegan Thanksgiving dishes from all over the blogosphere, click here.
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