I ate meatballs long before I ate spaghetti.

That’s because I’m the grandson of Assyrian immigrants, and I have fond childhood memories in the 1970s of eating koufta, a ball of rice and meat somewhat like the filling of a stuffed pepper (without the pepper). Koufta and its Middle Eastern kin, sometimes spelled kofta, are considered precursors to the Italian polpette that led to Italian-American meatballs.

My first taste of spaghetti and meatballs came during my college years, at a unique little spot in Austin called Olive Garden. And I quickly made up for lost time. Who doesn’t love a plate of spiraling noodles, tossed in tangy tomato sauce, with tender meatballs here and there? Over the decades, I’ve made meatballs with beef, pork, veal and chicken, bound by bread crumbs and egg, pan-fried and then simmered in sauce.

For going on seven years now, my diet has been plant-based, but the meatball’s appeal hasn’t changed. What has changed is the recipe. For years, I made a version from my friend Domenica Marchetti that uses eggplant, but it requires roasting the eggplant for an hour before making the balls, and then frying them. I wanted something a little more weeknight-friendly – and I found it in Tamara Green and Sarah Grossman’s new book, “The Living Kitchen” (Appetite by Random House, 2019). The recipe uses walnuts and two types of mushrooms, bound by brown rice flour (making them gluten-free) and an “egg” made from chia seeds and water (making the meatballs vegan). There’s no advance cooking required. And instead of frying, you bake them.

Many egg-free, meat-free balls fall apart as they cook, but these don’t. And when you coat them in tomato sauce and nestle them in spaghetti, they give you that bowl-of-comfort feeling.

Refrigerate the cooked meatballs for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 5 months; defrost and reheat in a 300-degree oven, pan-fry or simmer in tomato sauce.


Servings: 4 to 6 (18 meatballs)

1 tablespoon chia seeds

3 tablespoons water

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms (stemmed), caps chopped

4 ounces cremini mushrooms, trimmed and chopped

1 cup walnuts, toasted

1/3 cup chopped yellow onion (from 1/4 medium onion)

1/4 cup lightly packed chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup brown rice flour (may substitute white rice flour)

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Make a chia “egg” by stirring together the chia seeds and water in a small bowl. Let it stand and thicken for at least 10 minutes.

Combine the shiitakes, creminis, walnuts, onion, parsley, balsamic vinegar, Italian seasoning, garlic, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse until all the ingredients are combined and evenly chopped but not pureed. Add the chia egg and pulse just until incorporated.

Transfer to a mixing bowl and fold in the flour, using your hands as needed to make sure the flour is evenly distributed. The mixture will be a little sticky.

Take 2 tablespoons of the mixture, shape into a ball and place on the baking sheet. Repeat to make 18 balls of equal size. Lightly brush each ball with oil. Bake (middle rack) for 25 minutes, until firm and browned on the bottom.

NOTE: Toast the walnuts in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat, until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.

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