Genius Never-Dry, Never-Bland "Meatballs"—Thanks to 2 Heroic Vegetables

September 25, 2018

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Here we have a meatball that skirts all our classic meatball fears—the dry, dense, flavorless fears, the not-worth-my-time-rolling-dozens-of-balls fears. The first secret is: There is no meat.

These same fears can capsize meatless balls too, of course, even though you aren’t worrying about over-mixing ground beef or pork, or choosing a too-lean or too-fine blend. Anyone who’s had a ho-hum falafel or lentil ball knows that some of the classic plant-based swaps can present an uphill battle for moisture and flavor.

Not in these balls, friends. The second secret, just as it was in last week’s ultra-moussey chocolate cake, is our friend the eggplant, which brings moisture and flavor-carrying flexibility everywhere it goes. Here the whole eggplant is sent into the oven to roast and collapse, till you can scoop out its melty middles to stir into breadcrumbs and eggs and other familiar components .

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This move might sound like a modern vegan workaround, but Dominica Marchetti, author of seven Italian cookbooks, discovered the foundation of this recipe in Neapolitan and Sicilian cucina povera as she was researching her 2013 cookbook The Glorious Vegetables of Italy. Southern Italian cooks have been creating clever ways to trade scarce meat for abundant vegetables for generations.

Photo by Ty Mecham

If eggplant ball doesn’t immediately sound like your idea of a good time, think about eggplant’s role as crisp, saucy vessel in eggplant Parmesan, or the sultry wobble of a soy-marinated curl of Japanese eggplant. When cooked well and partnered with small amounts of influential ingredients like garlic, pecorino, and fresh basil, eggplant unleashes hidden powers to lock in moisture and amp up neighboring flavors.

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Top Comment:
“I love a good meatball and although not meat, these were completely satisfying. Guests asked for the recipe. ”
— Steph

From the recipe’s cucina povera beginnings, Marchetti added one more secret for an updated version on Food & Wine: the umami-intensifying power of dried porcini, times two. The mushrooms themselves steeped in boiling water, drained, and finely chopped to wiggle into every ball; the rich resulting stock poured in to round out a quick DIY tomato sauce. Now these already not-dry, not-bland lookalikes give real, true meatballs even more direct competition.

“I’d never seen that before,” Marchetti told me. “But it worked beautifully, adding even more meatiness to the meatballs.”

Photo by Ty Mecham

Marchetti finishes them off by dusting with flour, for a bit more binding insurance and a delicious crispy crust, and a 20-minute chill to firm up, before pan-frying them crisp. Homemade meatballs are never going to be a 30-minute meal (at least not without some degree of Iron Chef–style chaos), so save this recipe for making in big batches on a low-key Sunday afternoon, or enlist a buddy to help.

The prep work passes quickly in neat layers (eggplant roasts while you chop; sauce simmers while you ball). Soon enough, the balls will be crisped and ready to go for a five-minute swim in that mushroom-liquored tomato sauce—just long enough to drink up a little sauciness, before joining your plate of bucatini or polenta or, why not, a foot-long meatball sub. Or just served humbly, on their own—there’s nothing else they need.

Photos by Ty Mecham

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • FrugalCat
  • Steph
  • heidib
  • Sapphite
  • amkrim
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


FrugalCat November 11, 2018
The Asian grocery store in my area sells dried mushrooms CHEAP.
Steph September 29, 2018
I made these for a dinner party and they were a HIT. Not quick for sure; I spread the prep out over a couple days, which was easy to do. I did use a different sauce (Marcella Hazan’s with lots of basil) but that had minimal effect on the dish. They were moist, savory, not greasy despite being fried, and a really great option. I love a good meatball and although not meat, these were completely satisfying. Guests asked for the recipe.
heidib September 27, 2018
I’m curious whether these could adapt to baking. The prep time doesn’t deter me but the mess of frying does. Maybe a hot oven, say 400-425, for a similar cooking time?
Kristen M. September 28, 2018
Hi heidib—there's been a bit of conversation about this over on the recipe page, too. Neither Domenica nor I have tried baking, but I think it would work (in a high-heat oven as you say, and brushing the balls with olive oil first), it just likely won't have the same great crust and crunchiness. If you try, please let us know!
Sapphite September 26, 2018
Can these "meat"balls be frozen?
Kristen M. September 26, 2018
I think they would freeze just fine, but I'd freeze (and reheat) the balls and sauce separately so they don't totally meld when reheating.
amkrim September 26, 2018
Will this work with aquafaba or another egg substitute? Have an allergic nephew.
Bridget A. September 26, 2018
I'll try it with both and let you know!
Kristen M. September 26, 2018
Wow, thank you Bridget—I like your conviction! amkrim, I haven't tried either of these myself, but it looks like aquafaba is used commonly in other vegan meatball recipes, so it should work.
patty September 26, 2018
I’m allergic to mushrooms. Any ideas?
Kristen M. September 26, 2018
Domenica's original recipe in The Glorious Vegetables of Italy didn't use the mushrooms, so you should be fine to just leave them out. You could try off a little taste tester ball to see if you want to tweak any of the flavors before frying them all off.
KD September 26, 2018
I need the eggplant meatballs to be dairy free. What can I substitute for the Romano cheese?
Tom September 26, 2018
Try nutritional yeast—in this case I suspect it’s confeibuting more importantly to flavor than texture.
Kristen M. September 26, 2018
Great idea, Tom! There are also a lot of other ingredients contributing flavor, so you might be okay just leaving it out and adding a little salt to taste (by frying off a mini taste-tester ball).
Deedledum December 28, 2018
How about pangritata? Miso?