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A Vegetarian “Meatball” That Can Compete With the Real Thing

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 that 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.

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 poveraas 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.

Eggplant, round loaf of bread, and tomato sauce in bowl.
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.

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.”

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.

Domenica Marchetti’s Eggplant & Porcini “Meatballs” In Tomato Sauce

• 1 large eggplant (1 1/4 pounds)
• 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
• Boiling water
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1 small onion, minced
• 4 small garlic cloves, finely grated
• Two 28-ounce cans imported whole Italian tomatoes, pureed with their juices
• 2 tablespoons chopped basil, plus leaves for garnish
• Salt
• Freshly ground pepper 3 cups fresh bread crumbs (pulsed in a food processor from from 6 ounces stale, crustless country bread)
• 2 large eggs, beaten 2 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated, plus more for serving
• 1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
• All-purpose flour, for coating
• Vegetable oil, for frying
• Crusty bread, for serving (optional)

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