Today I’m sharing a classic Italian recipe with a couple of healthy twists: Meatballs with Roasted Eggplant. They are sooo much lighter than the original Polpette, which I’ve been making since I was tall enough to reach the stove. Read on or scroll down to the recipe to find out what is so special about this version.
MEATBALLS AND ROASTED EGGPLANT: A LOVE STORY
Meatballs and roasted eggplant go so perfectly together, I can’t believe I haven’t been making them like this forever. As I might have mentioned before, in my numerous efforts to restore my gut health, I try to stay off gluten and grains in general. For an avid Italian cook like myself, that is the hardest thing.
My meatballs have been very popular for years, and I can’t count the times friends & family reach out for the recipe. Besides not ever frying them prior to dunking them in a hot tomato sauce for slow stewing, my old trick was to use blended milk-soaked oats in the mix to make them irresistibly tender. BUT… even though oats are naturally gluten-free, they’re still grains.
So, this time I decided to roast an eggplant, scraped the mushy, creamy contents into a food processor with salt, pepper, fresh parsley and fresh oregano, then whizzed them for a good minute before adding the resulting goop to grass-fed ground beef, eggs, and Pecorino cheese. Without adding any kind of flour, not even almond flour, they hold together perfectly and are incredibly light and packed with flavor!
TIP: Poke holes into the eggplant with a fork before roasting it. It will prevent it from bursting inside the oven. You can see how I do it in the video below. If done with enough vigor, it can be a great stress-relief exercise.
LIGHT & FLAVORFUL MEATBALLS
If you are looking for a way to curb gluten or grains while enjoying lighter comfort food, here are a few easy tips for lighter but still very tasty meatballs.
- Replace bread crumbs or any similar ingredient with a tasty vegetable like roasted eggplant. I’ve also used sauteed mushrooms, and they work really well (check out my recipe for Meatloaf Stuffed with Mushrooms & Fontina Cheese).
- Don’t fry the meatballs before putting them in the tomato sauce. Frying is a traditional step I used to follow many years ago because it was dogma, passed on to me from previous generations. However, out of laziness, one day I decided to skip it, figuring that worst-case scenario I would end up with ragù. Instead, the meatballs held beautifully in the hot sauce, searing quickly and staying juicy. I’ve never fried them since!
IMPORTANT: make sure you have abundant tomato sauce for the meatballs to stew in. Traditionally, Italy does not have Spaghetti with Meatballs as a recipe; that is an Italian American staple. In the South, we use the sauce where the meatballs have been simmering for the Pasta that we serve as Primo Piatto (first entree) and serve the Polpette as Secondo Piatto (second entree) with bread for dunking.
- Use lots of fresh herbs. Nothing enhances the flavor of a dish like fresh herbs. I’m using very generous amounts of parsley and oregano in the meat mix, plus rosemary, basil, and thyme in the sauce. Fresh herbs are so much healthier and naturally tasty than adding extra fat or salt. I am a huge fan of herbs and always err on the side of nutrient-density.
INGREDIENTS FOR MEATBALLS WITH ROASTED EGGPLANT
The list is short and simple. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find all the ingredients without any difficulty:
- organic Ground Beef
- Pecorino Romano Cheese
- Fresh Parsley
- Fresh Oregano
- Himalayan Salt
- Black Pepper
ABOUT THE TOMATO SAUCE…
Feel free to use your favorite tomato sauce. If you are one of those cooks who love to make it from scratch with San Marzano or Pelati, go ahead. Just keep the sauce crap-free and stay away from heavily processed jars. Personally, I like to use imported Passata di Pomodoro like Pomì Strained Tomatoes, which is easy to find here in the US. What I care about the most is the ingredients in the product; they have to list only Tomatoes, or Tomatoes and Salt. Nothing else, no additives of any kind, especially sugar. I will add all the flavors, fresh herbs, and ingredients the sauce needs to come to life.
OPINION: If you think the only good tomato sauce is the one made with fresh tomatoes on the spot, I beg to differ. Actually, without the right tomatoes and method, you might end up with watery results, or a sauce full of seeds and peel (in my book, seeds are fine in pizza sauce, not pasta). Without false modesty, I consider myself a tomato sauce connoisseur, and here is why. I was born and raised in Italy, Puglia to be exact. My maternal grandfather owned a farm, and by the end of every summer for too many years to count my sister and I were corralled to help with the production of massive amounts of tomato sauce. For many years, I ignored there even was a store-bought tomato sauce. Eventually, when I moved to Rome to attend university, I had to go shop for passata like all the other mortals. Luckily, I was able to find a few acceptable substitutes for the fresh sauce we churned out on my Nonno‘s farm.
INGREDIENTS FOR MY TOMATO SAUCE
Here is a list of ingredients to make the same thick, chunky tomato sauce I used in this recipe. Again, it’s not a must. You can use your favorite sauce and skip this step entirely. For your convenience, though, here we go.
- Passata di Pomodoro (Strained Tomatoes)
- Tomato Paste
- Fresh Rosemary
- Fresh Thyme
- Fresh Basil
- Red Wine
- Baking Soda
- Himalayan Salt
- Black Pepper
TIP: this advice does not apply only to my sauce, but to any kind of tomato sauce. Tomato can be acidic because, well, nature! I know many people resort to sugar to correct the taste, which is completely WRONG! Forgive my vehemence, but the only thing my grandparents and the rest of my family have ever used to correct the acidity is BAKING SODA. Please don’t use sugar, as it will not change the PH; it’ll just make it sweet, which is not what tomato sauce is supposed to taste like. Also, keep in mind that a little goes a long way. In this huge batch of 52 oz, I used less than half a teaspoon of baking soda. Remember that baking soda will elevate the salinity and make it saltier, so keep tasting through the process to make sure you don’t end up with a salty mess.
AND NOW… ACTION!
Please watch the video recipe and see for yourself how easy it is to make these light, tasty meatballs in your own kitchen.
And here is the full recipe for these little nuggets of wonderful flavor. I have also included the full recipe for the tomato sauce. Let me know if you try this recipe. I’m sure you’ll love it!
MEATBALLS WITH ROASTED EGGPLANT (GRAIN-FREE)
- 1.5 lb. beef ground and grass-fed
- 1 eggplant medium and roasted
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup pecorino cheese grated
- 1/4 cup parsley Italian, fresh and chopped
- 1 tbsp oregano fresh
- 1/2 tsp Himalayan salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
TOMATO SAUCE (SUGO DI POMODORO)
- 3 tbsp olive oil extra virgin
- 52.91 oz strained tomatoes basic Italian passata di pomodoro (I used 1 whole Large Pomì Strained Tomatoes)
- 6 oz tomato paste basic, no seasoning or additives
- 1 tbsp rosemary fresh and chopped
- 6 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 onion large, finely chopped
- 2 sticks celery finely chopped
- 2 carrots finely chopped
- 1 sprig basil fresh
- 3 sprigs thyme fresh
- 3 oz wine red
- Preheat oven at 400 F
- Using a fork, poke several holes in a whole medium eggplant. Place it on a sheet pan and roast it for 40 minutes or until it wilts and you can insert a pointy knife with no resistance.
- Remove eggplant from oven, cut it open to reveal the pulp and let it cool off.
- Once cool enough (barely warm), scoop out all the pulp from the eggplant and place it into a food processor along with the parsley, oregano, salt and black pepper. Pulse and blend until almost creamy (a few small chunks are ok). You might have to add a little water if it’s too dry, but just a teaspoon at a time.
- Combine all ingredients (including the eggplant mix) in a large bowl and mix thoroughly using a masher, large spoon, or your hands.
- Roll meatballs to the size of a small egg and lay them on a clean surface, spacing them out.
- Before putting them into the sauce, add some red wine to the pot and stir well.
- Carefully, drop the rolled meatballs into the simmering tomato sauce one at a time, making sure they are not crowded. Go around in a circle concentrically, so that each meatball has a few seconds to get seared before a fresh meatball is dropped in next to it or on top of it.
- Don’t stir the pot now! Just place a lid and keep the pot on low-medium heat, simmering steadily.
- Check the pot after 30 minutes to make sure nothing is sticking and add a bit of red wine if necessary.
- Let the pot simmer for 10-15 more minutes before removing from heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.
- Garnish with fresh basil and Buon Appetito!
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