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Eggplant Meatballs

Mark Bittman, author of VB6, says that the more he plays around with vegetable-based meatballs, the more he likes them; certainly they’re not the same as meat meatballs, but the different textures and flavors are terrific. To round out the meal for lunch, serve these over pasta, rice, salad or steamed greens with a squeeze of lemon.

Ingredients:

For the all-purpose tomato sauce:

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 Tbs. minced garlic
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • Red chile flakes, to taste
  • 2 cans (each 28 oz.) diced tomatoes with juices
  • 1 cup (1 1/2 oz./45 g) chopped fresh basil, or 1/2 cup (3/4
      oz./20 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley (optional)

  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 lb. (500 g) eggplant, unpeeled, cut into cubes no larger than 1
      inch (2.5 cm)
  • 1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml) water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbs. minced garlic
  • 1 cup (7 oz./220 g) cooked or canned white beans
  • 1/4 cup (1/3 oz./10 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 cup (2 oz./60 g) bread crumbs, preferably whole wheat
  • Pinch of red chile flakes (optional)

Directions:

To prepare the tomato sauce, in a large pot over medium heat, warm the olive oil. When it’s hot, add the onion, garlic, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, the pepper and red chile flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the remaining 1/2 tsp. salt and adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles steadily. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down, the vegetables become very soft and the mixture thickens, 15 to 20 minutes. If the mixture looks too thick, stir in a splash of water. Stir in the herb; taste and adjust the seasoning. The recipe makes about 10 cups (2.5 l) tomato sauce; you will need 2 cups for the eggplant meatballs. Refrigerate or freeze the rest for another use.

Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C). Use 1 Tbs. of the olive oil to grease a large rimmed baking sheet.

In a large fry pan over medium-high heat, warm 1 Tbs. of the olive oil. When it’s hot, add the eggplant and water. Sprinkle with the salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pieces shrivel a bit and are tender and beginning to color, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the eggplant to a food processor.

Add the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil to the pan along with the onion and garlic and return to the heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until they’re soft and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, drain the beans; if using canned, rinse the beans also. Add the beans and parsley to the work bowl with the eggplant and pulse until well combined and chopped but not pureed.

Toss the eggplant mixture with the onion and garlic, then add the bread crumbs and red chile flakes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Roll the mixture into 12 balls about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Bake, undisturbed, until they’re firm and well browned, 25 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm the 2 cups (16 fl. oz./500 ml) tomato sauce. Serve the meatballs hot or at room temperature along with the tomato sauce. Serves 4.

Variations:

Mushroom Meatballs: For those who don’t fancy eggplant, or just as a change, substitute 1 lb. (500 g) chopped mushrooms of any kind for the eggplant. Cook them in a fry pan with 1 Tbs. of the olive oil until the pan is dry and they start to stick a bit, 5 to 10 minutes. Then mix, form and bake as in the original recipe.

Cauliflower Meatballs: Substitute 1 lb. (500 g) chopped cauliflower for the eggplant; core and roughly chop it. Cook the pieces in a fry pan with 1 Tbs. of the olive oil until the pan is dry and they start to brown a bit, 10 to 15 minutes. Then mix, form and bake as in the original recipe.

More Ideas: The coarser the bread crumbs are, the better. If you can’t make your own, use panko (preferably whole wheat if you can find it).

Adapted from VB6, by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, 2013).