Make-Ahead Veggie Meatballs with Roasted Eggplant and Lentils
A few years ago, we were visiting our BFFs in New York City and ended up at the Meatball Shop on the Upper West Side (location no longer exists). A restaurant concept focusing entirely on meatballs?! Yes please!
It was there that I had the greatest veggie meatballs (“meat”balls?) of all time. Honestly, they were better than every other real-meat meatball on the table. They were swimming in fresh pesto with crunchy pine nuts which truly put it over the top, but it was the texture and flavor of the balls themselves that took my breath away. It was equal parts crispy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, with a savory, herbaceous flavor that I couldn’t believe.
And ever since those veggie meatballs, I’ve been on a mission to re-create these incredible bites of perfection.
While doing some research, I found that the The Meatball Shop had published their Veggie Ball recipe in the NY Times back in 2011. I followed that recipe to a tee, but they weren’t quite right. Not surprising… why would they share the deep secrets that make their veggie balls so incredible?!
What I learned though was that their recipe used lentils and a ton of sauteed veggies… but the lentils were too solid, not quite flavorful enough and there wasn’t quite enough to bind the meatballs together so they fell apart. They needed to be a bit softer and more firm…
And so my mission continued.
I attempted a few different things to make these veggie meatballs just like I remembered them, including more spices, overcooking the lentils and adding in extra vegetables and extra eggs. Each attempt brought me one step closer to those heavenly veggie balls!
Until I finally landed on the secret… roasted eggplant. It doubles as a binder and something to keep those veggie balls extra moist.
Alright, I’ve gotta be upfront with you here. These veggie meatballs require a little investment in time and some space in your grocery cart. However, they are THE best. And we call them Make-Ahead Veggie Meatballs for good reason. An hour in the kitchen and you’ll make enough meatballs to keep you stocked for 2 months!
That’s right! We make 1 big batch, then freeze ’em! Over the next couple months, when you’re at a loss for what’s for dinner, pull out a handful of veggie meatballs and defrost. Drown them in your favorite sauce and put on a slider, on a bed of noodles or zoodles with a sprinkle of melted mozzarella.
Or just eat ’em plain off a fork… that’s my personal favorite!
- 2 cups lentils
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small or 1/2 medium eggplant
- 1 large onion chopped
- 2 carrots chopped
- 2 celery stalks chopped
- 4 minced garlic cloves divided
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 8 ounces button mushrooms wiped clean and sliced
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup finely chopped walnuts
- 1 tablespoon Italian Seasoning
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Cut the eggplant in half and roast for 45 minutes, until skin is wrinkled and the flesh is soft.
Combine the lentils and 8 cups of water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook at a low boil for 45 minutes—the lentils should be almost falling apart and easily squished when pinched between your fingers. Drain the lentils and let cool.
In the meantime, add 1/4 cup of the olive oil to a large frying pan and sauté the onions, carrots, celery, 2 garlic cloves, thyme and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and fragrant. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.
Add the mushrooms to the veggies and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 more minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.
Peel the eggplant and scoop out the flesh. Chop it up with a knife, then add to the bowl.
Add the drained lentils to the bowl with the eggplant and veggies. Place bowl in the fridge for about 30 minutes to cool, stirring occasionally.
Once the mixture is slightly cool, Add the eggs, Parmesan, bread crumbs, 2 raw minced garlic cloves, parsley, walnuts and all the spices (Italian seasoning, basil, oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, onion powder, garlic powder and black pepper) to the cooled veggies and lentils. Mix thoroughly with a large spoon. Place in the refrigerator for 25 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil on 2 sheet pans (1 tablespoon per pan) and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface. Set aside.
Roll the mixture into round 2-inch meatballs, making sure to pack the vegetable mixture firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dish, allowing 1/4 inch of space between the balls and in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid.
Bake for 40 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before serving.
Loosely based on Veggie Meatball recipe from The Meatball Shop in New York City.