These delicious vegetarian meatballs are the perfect “meatless” version of an Italian classic. They are meaty with no meat at all! Instead of meat they are filled with oven-roasted eggplant and red pepper, parmesan and panko (coarse) bread crumbs. Whether you are an eggplant lover or not, I think you’ll love these “meatballs”. They are packed with flavor and easily made vegan.
You can serve them as a classic spaghetti and meatballs meal, Italian-style like polpette di melanzane (served in a tomato sauce) or on their own as an appetiser with toothpicks for your next get together. Even on their own, they are that good.
Vegetarian meatball ingredients – what you need
For this eggplant meatballs recipe you’ll need just 9 simple ingredients (not including salt & pepper).
Eggplant: you’ll need two small eggplants (or one large). I like to use small ones as larger ones can be more bitter and have larger seeds since they have had more time to mature.
Red bell pepper: it is roasted in the oven, until the skins are blackened and wrinkly and then the charred skin is peeled away before using. Worthwhile making a batch as they can be used for so many tasty dishes.
Sun-dried tomatoes: tomatoes and aubergine are a dream team. Just a handful of sun-dried tomatoes add depth of flavor and umami.
Breadcrumbs: I particularly love to use Panko breacrumbs which are coarse in their texture and very light and flaky. You can find them in Asian food stores. Or feel free to use homemade or your personal favorite store-bought variety.
Parmesan: Another great source of umami deliciousness. Freshly grated is the way to go here. For a strict vegetarians, look for a “suitable for vegetarians” alternative to Parmigiano-Reggiano, which is prepared using animal byproducts.
Garlic: fresh garlic add lots of flavor!
Italian seasoning: gives the meatballs that classic Italian flavor thanks to oregano, basil, thyme and rosemary.
Olive oil: for roasting the eggplant.
Flour: just a little flour is needed to help bind the meatballs if they are quite moist. I like to use chickpea flour.
Tips for preparing these the best ever eggplant meatballs
- Although it’s an extra step, I like to prepare my roasted red peppers from scratch rather than using store-bought. If you are using store-bought peppers packed in oil, you may need to add a little extra flour (or bread crumbs) to the recipe, due to the extra oil.
Before the eggplant is roasted, it is peeled. This is my ultimate tip to getting non-aubergine lovers to eat eggplant. You get a meaty texture without really knowing where it comes from. You simply roast the eggplant until it’s golden and the edges are lightly browned — the caramelisation process brings out its flavour and gives it the best texture for this type of recipe.
- Make sure the sun-dried tomatoes are finely chopped — quite finely in fact. Larger pieces will make it harder for the meatballs to stay together.
- When mixing everything together, you can either use your hands (or a potato masher) to work together the mixture until the eggplant breaks up and ingredients are well combined. Or you can save your energy and use your KitchenAid with the paddle/flat beater attachment. It’s take only a minute and saves your wrists and a sticky mess. The stand mixer quickly and evenly distributes the ingredients, but doesn’t purée everything, so you retain a meaty texture. That said, be sure NOT to over mix, we want to retain that mincemeat-like texture.
Can you fry the “meatballs” rather than roast them?
Yes! I like to bake them to keep them low-fat, but you can also fry them and serve them like the Italian dish “polpettine di melanzana” (in a tomato sauce). To do so, you can roll the meatballs in flour first, or dip them beaten egg and then roll them in bread crumbs before frying for an extra crispy outer layer. And, if you want that real fried effect, then add about 1 cm cooking oil to a skillet, heat over medium and then sizzle away until browned all over. Drain on paper towels, cool for a few minutes, then serve with tomato passata or your favourite tomato sauce.
Looking for more delicious eggplant recipes?
Try one of these favourites:
- Miso Glazed Eggplant (Nasu Dengaku)
- Eggplant Potato Curry
- Roasted Eggplant and Quinoa Salad with Cherry Tomatoes
- Sumac Roasted Eggplant and Tomatoes with Quinoa
- Roasted Japanese Eggplant with Tahini Sauce
- 1 red bell pepper, roasted (or use jarred roasted peppers)
- 2 small eggplants, peeled and cubed (1-1,5 cm dice) (475-500 g)
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 sun-dried tomato halves, very finely diced (25 g)
- 1 cup Panko breadcrumbs (60 g)
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (45 g) (see notes)
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 1 tablespoon flour, I use chickpea flour
- coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Marinara tomato sauce
- Fresh chopped parsley, optional
- Cooked spaghetti or other pasta of choice, optional
To roast the pepper:
Preheat the oven to 450°F / 230°C (210°C fan-assisted).
Cut the pepper in half and remove the stems, seeds and membranes. Place the pepper on a baking sheet or in an ovenproof dish, cut side down. Roast for 20 minutes or until the skin has blackened and collapsed (there is no need to rotate or turn the pepper).
Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Then peel off skin and discard it. Chop the pepper halves and set aside.
To roast the eggplant:
Meanwhile, reduce the oven heat to 425° F / 220°C (200°C fan-assisted).
Place the cubed eggplant onto a baking sheet lined with parchment and drizzle with olive oil. Toss until evenly coated. Spread in an even layer, without as much crowding as possible, Season with salt and pepper.
Roast the eggplant for 25 minutes, gently tossing after 15-20 minutes, until it is golden brown and the edges are caramelised.
To make the eggplant meatballs:
Reduce the heat of the oven to 375°F / 190°C (170°C fan-assisted) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Add all the meatball ingredients (red pepper, eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, panko, parmesan, garlic, Italian seasoning, flour and salt and pepper, to taste) to a large bowl and use your hands to work the ingredients until they are well combined. Alternatively, use the paddle attachment of your KitchenAid on medium-low speed to combine the ingredients (this only takes a minute). The mixture should retain some texture and resemble a mincemeat mixture. If the mixture is still very sticky, add a little more flour or panko.
Roll into 12 meatballs, about 2,5 cm diameter and place on the prepared baking sheet. Transfer to the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and lightly browned.
Remove from the oven and using a spatula, gently remove from them from the baking sheet. Serve with tomato sauce, fresh parsley and pasta of your choice, if desired.
- Panko breadcrumbs are coarse, light and flaky breadcrumbs used in Japanese cooking (e.g. tempura). You can find them in Asian food stores.
- Although many vegetarians eat cheese, not ever cheese is vegetarian. Parmesan is technically NOT vegetarian as the primary source of rennet used is derived from animals. There are however, vegetarian and vegan alternatives. Look for them at your local supermarket or organic food store.
- You can easily make these vegetarian meatballs vegan by choosing a vegan parmesan cheese.
- Store leftovers in the fridge, covered or in a sealed container. They will keep for several days and also taste great served cold on their own.
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