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Secret Vegetarian: Eggplant & Walnut “Meat”balls

I found this neat-sounding recipe whilst putzing about online one day at lunch last week. From Alice Medrich’s genius brownies at Food 52 I somehow managed to wend my way to Oui, Chef and these tasty little “meat”balls.

Given that these days everyone and their mom seems to have some crazy food preference or issue –real or imagined–it’s nice to have a stable of vegetarian, gluten-free, non-dairy, paleo, psychosis-friendly recipes at the ready. I’d think that water would be the only thing that meets ALL of those criteria, but despite JUST being vegetarian, these sounded quite tasty, with roughly ground walnuts and eggplant subbing for the usual meat.

Tasty they were, even though I decreased the cheese by half and added some red chili flakes for some pop. Tossed with a quick tomato sauce and snuggled in a nest of pasta, they made for a great supper, and I’d imagine they’d be great in a sub or atop a pizza as well.

While not difficult, these might be bit involved for a weeknight. It took me a little more than an hour start to finish, but I made sauce too. I’m sure the baked meatballs would freeze well, and if using a jarred sauce, it’s not so bad, really. In any case, a perfect Sunday afternoon project that will set you up for a stellar Meatless Monday.

Meatless (Eggplant & Walnut) Meatballs
Adapted from: Oui Chef
Yield: 36-40 “meat”balls

1 1/2 c walnuts
olive oil
1 medium onion
1 medium eggplant
sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic
2 large eggs
1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbs tomato paste
1 tbs dried oregano
1 tsp dried red chili flakes
1/2 c loosely-packed fresh basil
2 c panko bread crumbs

Pre-heat the oven to 300°F and toast the walnuts till fragrant, about 8-10 min. Remove and set aside to cool. Increase oven temperature to 375°F.

While the nuts are toasting, warm about 1 tbs of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Peel and mince the onion and add to the  pot when the oil shimmers. Saute till translucent, about 5 minutes. While the onion is cooking, top the eggplant and cut it into 1/4″ dice. Add to the pot with the onion, season with 1 tsp each salt and pepper, and cook till lightly browned on the edges, about 10 min. Stir frequently to prevent too much sticking. When onion and eggplant are cooked, remove from heat and set aside.

Peel the garlic and slice it thinly into very fine matchsticks. When the nuts are cool, place them in the bowl of a food processor with the garlic and pulse till the nuts are evenly chopped to the consistency of “wet sand”.

Empty the nut mixture into a large mixing bowl and put the onion and eggplant into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse until the vegetables are a rough paste–fairly homogeneous, but still with little bits in it. Add to the walnut mixture.

Add the eggs, cheese, tomato paste and seasonings–adding a bit more salt and pepper here, too–and mix to combine thoroughly. The mixture will be very moist and sticky. Mix in the bread crumbs.

Using oiled hands, form the mixture into 36-40 golf-ball sized pieces and place on a lightly-oiled baking sheet. Bake in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes, remove the pan from the oven, carefully turn the balls with an offset spatula, and return to the oven to bake another 15 minutes or so.

To serve, toss with a simple tomato sauce and put over pasta, in a sub roll, or whatever you think would be improved with “meat”balls, i.e. everywhere.

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