Vegetarian Italian Meatballs
I think this is the part where the Italian family I married into kicks me out. I know you’re not supposed to mess with their meatballs, but non-meat eaters should be able to enjoy them too, dammit.
Now I’ll be honest – when I woke up this morning with the plan to make these lentil cheatballs, I procrastinated like mad. I usually gingerly dive into my projects, but it’s known that lentil meatballs (much like black bean burgers) can be finicky. They are notorious for falling apart and that’s a sure slap in the face when trying to convince meat eaters that non-meat eaters can still enjoy burgers and meatballs and life.
BUT… I think these photos speak for themselves on how they turned out.
“Yeah, okay Dana. Those look all nice and fancy from the outside – but what do they look like on the inside?”
Oh! I’m glad you asked…
They are beautiful on the inside, too.
‘Cause that’s how I roll.
Okay, now I’ll explain a few important things.
I adapted this recipe from the ever-so-credible Dana from Minimalist Baker. Her version is vegan and gluten free – so I changed things up by adding an egg and using bread crumbs.
So yeah, my version is not vegan nor GF.
In her post, she mentions pulsing her mixture in a food processor. I did a total forehead slap here because I rely on my high-power blender for everything because it’s amazing and to hell with food processors because they are clunky and annoying BUT – if there was ever a good reason to have a food processor – it’s for things like this; things that need to only be pulsed, not pureed.
So – jokes on me.
I used my blendermonster anyway – but very carefully. If you’re going to use a blender, you can totally achieve a texture that will work, but you’ll want to pulse it low and slow, occasionally stirring with a silicone spatula (when not pulsing) to make sure things are getting mixed thoroughly. You’ll notice that my mixture still includes some full lentils. This is absolutely fine, but you want more mush than lentils. Keep that in mind.
Once the mixture is all mixed up, empty the contents into a large bowl and add the egg and bread crumbs; mix with clean bare hands just like you would when making homemade meatballs.
Details on handling the balls (ha) and rolling them are in the directions below.
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Get the Recipe:
Vegetarian Italian Meatballs
- 3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 shallot, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, approx. 1.5 tablespoon, minced
- 1.5 cups cooked and cooled green lentils, for extra flavor, cook them in vegetable stock
- 1.5 tablespoons of dried Italian seasoning, dried basil/oregano
- 1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 5 tablespoons grated pecorino romano, + more for coating, parmesan, or asiago cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
- Cracked black pepper to taste
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons Italian bread crumbs, + more for coating
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Heat a large skillet (I prefer cast iron for this) over medium heat.
- Once the skillet is hot, add 1 tablespoon olive oil, the shallots, and the garlic.
- Sauté until just slightly golden brown, approx. 2.5 minutes, careful not to brown/burn. Remove from heat and set aside.
- To a blender or food processor, add the cooked lentils, 1 teaspoon of olive oil, sautéed garlic and shallots, Italian seasonings, fresh parsley, tomato paste, grated cheese, kosher salt, and cracked black pepper.
- Pulse, mixing until combined, but be sure not to puree. Keeping some full lentils in the mix is fine, but most of it should be a mushier consistency.
- Taste and adjust seasonings to your liking.
- Add egg and 3 tablespoons of Italian bread crumbs. Blend well with your clean bare hands.
- The texture should be dough-y. If it's too wet, add more bread crumbs.
- Use a tablespoon or cookie dough scoop to scoop out rounded amounts of the mixture and carefully form into balls. The mixture is pretty easy to mold, but it's fragile. It's best to rest the ball in the palm of one hand, and use two fingers from your other hand to carefully and gently form into a ball. If you find cracks, dampen your fingers with a little water to help bind and reform. Repeat until all of the balls are formed. I got 10 out of my mix.
- Spread some grated cheese and extra bread crumbs onto a plate and carefully roll the balls through to coat.
- Heat your skillet over medium heat once again, and once hot, add olive oil.
- Carefully place the balls onto the hot skilled and brown, for approx. 4-5 minutes, or until golden brown. Ensure to shake the pan or use a silicone spoon/tongs to roll the balls around so they brown evenly on all sides.
- Once done cooking, transfer to the prepared baking sheet and set aside until all of your balls are ready.
- Once all balls are browned and set on the baking sheet, transfer to oven and bake for 15 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let them cool slightly. They will firm as they cool.
- Serve them up on their own with marinara sauce, a plate of pasta, or a as a meatball sub! Treat them as you would treat Italian meatballs.
29 Comments on “Vegetarian Italian Meatballs”
So yummy and so easy!!
OMG these look so good!!! thanks for sharing the recipe, will definitely make them
These meatballs look amazing! I did make lentil meatballs once, but they didn’t turn out too great. These look completely different, and scrumptious!!
Hey, Natalie! Thanks so much! And I hear you – you almost never know what you’re going to get with these recipes. I think the components are important, but also, just being careful while making them. My black bean burger recipe has had great feedback, and I usually have no issues with them, but I made them in a rush once and they totally fell apart. My fault! But it just kind of goes to show you.. haha. If you try these, I really really hope they turn out well for you! Let me know :)
I could just see the look on your Italian mother in law’s face when you said you were making meatless meatballs! I live in Little Italy and meat is like a pastime over here. :P
But seriously, I’m so impressed at how well these stick together and look just like real meatballs! You’re so right that veggie balls can often be dry or crumbly, but not these ones. Thanks Dana! :)
Even though I’m not a vegetarian, I’m always on the hunt for a good meatless burger or ball (ahem). The flavour sounds awesome (as usual!), but I’m particularly taken with the texture. They really look like they hold together well, and that’s one of the biggest selling points as far as I’m concerned. Nice work Dana!
I have never had lentil “meat” balls and they look fantastic. I do eat meat but I love the idea of making main course dishes like this with vegetables. Beautiful photos.
Thanks, Julia! I think a lot of omnivores are becoming more and more intrigued by vegetarian dishes. My husband, not so much. But he tries! He hates eggplant but loves my eggplant part. That was a proud wife moment. Haha.
Ha-ha, I could see why veg meatballs could be daunting. I love the look of yours though. I like adding grated beet for a touch of colour to mine. :)
Thanks, Janet! Adding grated beet sounds interesting! I love beets – I just kind of hate working with them because “blood”. Everywhere. Haha.
These look so, so yummy! We’re eating many more vegetarian dishes these days than we used to. Going to give these a whirl and see what my family thinks (not going to tell them until they take a bite)!
Hey, Shauna! Thanks! You’ll have to let me know how that goes, haha. The texture isn’t as comparable to a meatball as the appearance and flavor – but hopefully they are happily surprised :)
So impressive and they look just as delicious as a meat version. Hope the in-laws don,t ban you.
Hey, Evelyne! Thanks! Haha, I think they’d be more impressed than anything. They are pretty open-minded and, luckily, not “hardcore” Italian. If they were the Italians that had a basement kitchen and prosciutto hanging in their garage, I think I’d be in trouble.
Italian meatballs :) i have never tried it! will surely try some time!
Hey Suki – I hope you love them!
I LOVE how much these look like my family’s Italian meatballs! I have been meaning to find a vegetarian option. Thank you so much!
Thanks so much, Lu Ann! I was pretty surprised at how much they resembled meatballs myself. I hope this vegetarian option works for you – let me know :)
I love the idea of vegetarian meatballs…this looks so good! I love lentils…this is something I know I would enjoy. xo, Catherine
Thanks, Catherine! The old me would have rolled my eyes so hard at this. Haha. Never thought I’d see the day – and wouldn’t change a thing now! I hope you love them if you try them!
I don’t think even the hardest won over carnivore would say no to these babies. They look great and flavour packed, just perfect.
Thanks, Sara! They were even delicious cold this morning when I needed a mid-morning snack… haha ;)
I’m pretty certain there are vegetarian Italians who wouldn’t kick you out and would enjoy your lentil meatballs. :) If I were to cook these longer in the sauce would they stay together? I like braising my meatballs to soak up more of the sauce flavor.
Haha, I sure hope so, Annemarie! That’s a great question. I cooked mine in the sauce only after baking and it was for a very short time. I mainly wanted to coat them prior to serving. I’m sure you could let them cook/sit in the saucepan for longer – just keep an eye on them. They can be so finicky. Let me know if you try it, and if it works! I’m sure a lot of people would like to know since that is a common way to do meatballs.
Those meatballs look perfect. I could eat them and not miss meat one little bit.
Thanks, Jackie! I agree – I’m constantly reminded at how easy it is to avoid meat. The only thing that can’t really be replicated (that I have seen yet) are chicken wings!
I made a vegetarian meatball with eggplant and it was pretty tasty. Lentils though would make a delish meatball dish.
Yes, it worked really well! I’ve also heard of minced mushrooms being a great component in veg meatballs.