Sunday, April 21, 2013

Veggie Balls with Spinach-Basil Pesto

Now before you ignore this entire post just because the title is "veggie balls," I ask you to give me a chance here.  After all, to me, the word (and the food) "meatball" is totally repulsive and yet you guys devour those like it's nothing.  So please believe me when I say that these veggie balls were possibly the best thing I have eaten all month.

I was really excited when I found this recipe; my family is big on meatballs and I refuse to eat ground beef, so I was pumped to think that I might have found an alternative to keep me full and happy on meatball nights.  I thought maybe I could even convince them to eat them!  Just like you, they balked at the name "veggie balls," so I started calling them "vegetarian meatballs" and they were a bit more open then.

The balls are made from lentils, as well as all sorts of lovely vegetables: onions, carrots, celery, and mushrooms.  They are flavored with garlic, fresh thyme, tomato paste, parmesan cheese, walnuts, and fresh parsley.  Are you starting to see why they are amazing?  That is a lot of flavor, texture, and fabulousness in one tiny ball.

Here is the one bad thing I have to say about these balls: rolling them out really sucked.  The mixture was very moist and didn't stick together all that well.  I considered adding more breadcrumbs but I didn't want to dry them out, so I just kept rolling very un-round balls (and swearing).  This step was not fun, but I promise you that it was worth it.

While they baked, I made the spinach-basil pesto.  You have to toast the walnuts, blanche the basil and spinach, and puree it all together with parmesan cheese, olive oil, and salt.  I will say that the next time I make this, I will not use the one teaspoon of salt that the recipe calls for.  I love salt, and even I thought that it was a bit salty.  Not the say that it wasn't delicious - just a little too salty for me.

And then, out came the two pans of veggie balls.  I popped one into my mouth before dinner time... and then I ate another... and by the time Rachael came into the kitchen, she counted seven balls missing from the pan.  I tell you, these little guys are so addicting!  They are slightly crunchy on the outside, but moist inside - an excellent contrast of texture.  The crunchy nuts with the soft vegetables.... and the thyme and the parsley and the garlic - smeared with the pesto ... oh my god.  I literally ate these guys for a week (and then froze the rest for Christy once she is over her stomach bug because she will love these!).  They are amazing.  And I am not the only one who thought so; my mom really liked them also - she wanted to try them over spaghetti and marinara sauce, which we never got around to trying but it's not a bad idea - and both sisters ate them (although they wished there were no mushrooms in them, obviously).  I will definitely make these veggie balls again, and perhaps make a double batch so that I constantly have some on hand :)  Healthy, delicious, filling... I am craving more right now.

Admit that they are beautiful.


Veggie Balls with Spinach-Basil Pesto
from Ezra Pound Cake, originally from The Meatball Shop Cookbook

Makes about 4 dozen 1 1/2-inch meatballs

2 cups lentils
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 4 tablespoons for greasing baking dishes
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons tomato paste
8 ounces button mushrooms, wiped clean and finely chopped
3 large eggs
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely shopped pecans or walnuts


1) Combine the lentils and 2 quarts of water in a medium stockpot, and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the lentils are soft but not falling apart, about 25 minutes.  Drain the lentils and allow to cool.

2) Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil to a large frying pan, and sauté the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme and salt over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and just beginning to brown.

3) Add the tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.

4) Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 more minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.
When cool, add the lentils to the vegetable mixture.

5) Add the eggs, Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley and walnuts to the cooled vegetables and lentils, and mix by hand until thoroughly incorporated. Place in the refrigerator for 25 minutes.

6) Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Divide 4 tablespoons olive oil between two 9-by-13-inch baking dishes, and use your hand to evenly coat the entire surface of each. Set aside.  Roll the mixture into round golf ball-size meatballs (about 1 1/2 inches), making sure to pack the vegetable mixture firmly. Place the balls in the prepared baking dishes, in even rows vertically and horizontally to form a grid. (It’s fine if they slightly touch, but there should be space for air to circulate around each one.)

7) Roast for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are firm and cooked through. Allow the meatballs to cool for 5 minutes in the baking dish before serving. Serve with Spinach-Basil Pesto (recipe below) and/or your favorite warmed spaghetti sauce.

spinach-basil pesto sauce


1/4 cup roughly chopped pecans or walnuts
4 cups baby spinach leaves or arugula
2 cups fresh basil
1 teaspoon salt (I recommend using less)
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese


1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spread out the walnuts on a small rimmed baking sheet, and roast in oven for about 12 minutes, giving them a shake after 6 minutes. Continue roasting until golden brown and toasted. Set aside and allow to cool thoroughly.

2) Fill a large stockpot three-quarters full with water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl halfway with ice and water and set close to the sink.

3) Dump the spinach and basil into the boiling water and stir. After 1 minute, strain the greens, and plunge them into the bowl with ice water. Drain the greens again, and squeeze them tightly to get as much water out as possible. Chop the greens roughly.

4) Combine the greens and walnuts with the salt, olive oil and Parmesan in a food processor, and process until a smooth consistency is reached. Taste and season with additional salt, if desired.

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