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Recipe: How to make the best vegetarian meatballs without fake meat

These as-good-as-the-real-thing meatballs contain no beef or pork — and no fake meat either.

It was the lab-grown meat substitutes invading our lives that led me to beetballs. I knew corporate near-meat would double well for meatball meat (it works for burgers and chili), but I still don’t know what those products are like for our bodies.

So, going back to my fundamental belief that whole actual-plant ingredients are healthier and better for flavor, I cooked. And, after a little work, I stumbled onto these, yes, beetballs. They look just like meatballs. They taste … possibly better than meatballs?

The practical info:

These are best made with homemade roasted beets, but store-bought presteamed beets in the produce section are a speedy substitute. Lentils add protein and an earthy heartiness, while sunflower seeds bring a nubby texture reminiscent of browned ground beef.

Capturing the meaty umami depth of beef is tougher but doable. Here, it comes through lightly caramelized onions, deeply toasted breadcrumbs and nutritional yeast and in the cooked-down tomato sauce that coats them.

Essential Italian seasonings bring all the flavors together: dried herbs and fresh basil plus garlic with chili flakes sizzled in olive oil. If cheese is on the menu, you’ll want to go hard on the Parmesan. The finished dish doesn’t just look like the Italian American restaurant standard, it tastes like it too.

SPAGHETTI AND BEETBALLS

By Genevieve Ko

My favorite vegetarian meatballs are neither smooth nor bouncy, so I stop short of over-chopping the ingredients. That means binding all the little bits together with egg to ensure balls you can spear with a fork. If you’d like to make them vegan, omit the eggs and pulse all the ingredients together into a paste; the balls will hold together after baking and simmering in sauce but will be softer in texture.

Use your favorite marinara sauce here, jarred or homemade.

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to grease sheet pan and for final drizzle
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 3/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
  • 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 8 ounces roasted or steamed beets (1-1/2 cups), patted dry if needed
  • 1 cup steamed lentils, drained if needed
  • 1 large egg plus 1 large egg white
  • 4 cups marinara sauce
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)

Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high. Add onion, season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until browned around the edges, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add garlic, Italian seasoning and chili flakes and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add panko and cook, stirring, until evenly dark golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in nutritional yeast until evenly mixed. Transfer mixture to a large bowl to cool. Reserve skillet without washing.

Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line a half-sheet pan with foil and drizzle with oil to generously coat. There should be a thin sheen covering the entire surface.

Pulse sunflower seeds in a food processor until half are powdery like cornmeal and the remaining are finely chopped; transfer to the bowl with the onion mixture. (You don’t need to wash the food processor bowl between each ingredient as you proceed.) Pulse basil until very finely chopped; transfer to the bowl. Pulse beets until half the mixture is pasty and half is finely chopped; transfer to the bowl. Pulse the lentils until nearly smooth with some chopped lentils remaining; transfer to the bowl. Stir well until everything is evenly mixed. Taste a spoonful and add salt and pepper to taste.

Add egg and egg white to mixture and stir until everything is evenly distributed. Using a cookie scoop or a measuring spoon, scoop mixture into 1-1/2 tablespoon portions and form into balls. Place on prepared pan, drizzle with oil to lightly coat tops and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until dark golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat marinara sauce in reserved skillet over medium until bubbling. Reduce heat to low to maintain a light simmer. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

When beetballs are done, carefully transfer them to the simmering marinara and turn to evenly coat. Drop spaghetti in the boiling water and cook until al dente, according to the package directions.

Drain spaghetti and top with beetballs and sauce. Alternately, cook pasta and sauce together to meld flavors: A few minutes before spaghetti is done, remove beetballs from sauce, keeping sauce simmering. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water and drain pasta. Immediately transfer spaghetti to simmering sauce. Carefully toss to evenly coat, adding pasta water a few spoonfuls at a time if sauce is too thick.

Divide sauced spaghetti among serving dishes and top with beetballs. Drizzle with olive oil, then grate Parmesan on top, if desired. Serve immediately. Makes about 30 balls; serves 6.

>> Meatball Subs: Split 4 hero rolls, drizzle with oil and top with sliced mozzarella or vegan mozzarella. Toast them open-faced in a toaster oven or 375-degree oven until cheese melts, then top with hot sauce-coated beetballs and extra sauce. Grate Parmesan on top if desired.

>> Make ahead: The uncooked beetball mixture can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days before roasting. The cooked beetballs in sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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