I’d like to find the equivalent of a steakhouse for vegetarian food. Instead of waxing rhapsodic about the restaurant’s aging room, servers would talk euphorically of gardens, soil, and the latest rainbow of produce pulled fresh from the earth. The “side dish” category would be completely rethought. Veggie- and legume-based dishes like these easy Lentil Meatballs would move from menu page 3 to the front-page nightly special.
Although I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, I have a deep love and appreciation for vegetables. It’s easy for me to prepare them at home—you’ll find a big pan of simply roasted mushrooms, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts in our oven almost every night of the week—but when I go out, I’m often disappointed by how much of an afterthought the vegetables seem. Even when restaurants do have a decent selection of vegetables, they are usually deep fried, slathered in cream, or similarly disguised via butter and cheese.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that deep-fried Brussels sprouts or garlicky, buttery mushrooms are not delicious, but I am saying that vegetarian and vegan recipes can hold their own as the principle of a plate. Case in point: today’s lentil meatballs.
Why I Love Lentils and These Meatballs
I’ve long been a lover of legumes, which, if we want to get scientific, include (per Wikipedia) “a plant or its fruit or seed in the family Leguminosae.” You might know them better as ingredients that include, among others, chickpeas, peanuts, and today’s superstar, lentils.
Lentils are fiber and protein powerhouses. While not technically a vegetable, they are an excellent resource in vegetarian and vegan cooking, because the lentils make vegetarian dishes extra hearty and satisfying, no meat required. They are also easy to make, budget friendly, and can be adapted to a wide range of cuisines and styles.
Today’s lentil meatballs are exactly the sort of dish I’d envision in my star vegetarian restaurant. They pack so much flavor and are so filling that your thought won’t be “Where’s the meat?” but rather “Can I have a second helping?”
Lentil Meatballs Flavor Secrets
To give the lentil meatballs lots of flavor, I cooked them in Simple Truth Vegetable Broth, which I purchased at Pick ‘n Save, my local Wisconsin grocery store. Simple Truth is Pick ‘n Save’s new line of minimally processed, affordable products, and I’ve enjoyed partnering with the store to create new recipes that highlight them, these meatballs included. In addition to the broth, I grabbed the rest of the recipe ingredients on this list, including the colorful rainbow of produce you’ll find both inside (and underneath!) the lentil meatballs.
Once the lentils are cooked, making these easy lentil meatballs is a simple matter of blending and baking. Everything goes into the food processor, then once the vegetarian meatballs are shaped, all that remains is to bake. Pan frying might be more traditional for meatballs, but I found the hands-off baking method to be just as effective, healthier, and so much easier too.
How to Serve Lentil Meatballs
- With Vegetable Noodles. I elected to serve these lentil meatballs on a bed of spiralized zucchini and sweet potatoes (I use this spiralizer attachment, which fits easily on my stand mixer).
- With Pasta. If you aren’t watching your carbs, they’d be just as tasty over a bed of traditional pasta noodles.
- With Both. If you aren’t ready to go all-veg in your noodle selection, a blend of half zucchini noodles, half pasta noodles is quite scrumptious too. That’s how Ben and my two younger sisters—none of whom are vegan and all of whom sampled and heartily approved of the lentil meatballs recipe—enjoyed them. We topped them with a simple tomato sauce and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
For the meatballs:
- 3/4 cup dried green - brown, or French lentils (I used green French lentils)
- 1 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth - or chicken broth, plus additional as needed
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1/2 cup diced yellow onion - about 1/2 medium onion
- 1 cup shredded carrots
- 2 cloves garlic - minced (about 2 teaspoons)
- 1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats - or quick-cooking oats, do not use instant or steel cut
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 large egg
- Prepared whole wheat pasta noodles - zucchini noodles, or sweet potato noodles
- Good-quality red pasta sauce - store bought or homemade or pesto
- Rinse the lentils: Measure the lentils into a colander or strainer. Pick over and remove any shriveled lentils or small pieces of rock or other debris. Rinse well under cool water. Drain.
- Cook the lentils: Add the rinsed lentils to a medium saucepan with the vegetable broth. Bring to a rapid simmer over medium high, then reduce the heat to a very low simmer. There should be a few small bubbles, and the lentils should be barely moving. Let gently simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Keep an eye on them to ensure they do not dry out—you want the lentils to always be just barely covered with liquid. If the lentils are not yet tender but the liquid has been has been absorbed, add more water and continue to cook. Drain off any excess liquid and set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook until onion is translucent and lightly brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the carrots and cook for another 2 minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 additional minute.
- Place the oats and parsley in the bottom of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, then pulse a few times to begin breaking up the oats. Add the cooked lentils, onion mixture, tomato paste, oregano, salt, and pepper. Pulse a few times to start combining the mixture, then crack in the egg. Pulse a few more times until the mixture is combined but the lentils still have some texture. Set aside and let rest for 10 minutes or refrigerate overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, then coat the paper with nonstick spray. Roll the lentil mixture into balls that are roughly 1 1/2 inches across, about the size of a golf ball. Arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheet and mist the tops with nonstick spray. Cook for 10 minutes, then turn, mist again with nonstick spray, and continue baking 8 to 10 additional minutes, until the meatballs are browned and lightly crisp. Serve warm with pasta or vegetable noodles and your desired sauce.
- To make this recipe vegan, you can use a flax egg in place of the egg called for in the recipe.
- Make-ahead options: Unshaped lentil "batter" or shaped, unbaked lentil balls can be stored in the refrigerator 1 day in advance. Bake (or shape and bake) as directed. You can also freeze the shaped balls unbaked or baked for 2 months, then thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Either cook as directed (if unbaked) or rewarm gently in the microwave (if baked).
- Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Reheat gently in the microwave.
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