Delicious meat-free italian meatballs that are full of protein, spices, hard-to-find nutrients, and oil-free and vegan. And they are all wrapped up in a comforting tomato sauce that will warm your heart! Have on pasta, or in wraps or just eat a meatball or two by itself.
Vegan Italian Meatballs & Marinara Sauce
Italian vegan meatballs. Flavorful, filling, comforting, but healthy? YES!
The traditional Italian meatball may be out. But, with the healthy eating trend going full tilt and as Esmé would probably say, the VEGAN Italian meatball is IN!
(The Unfortunate Events – anyone read it? Esmé is a character who frequently interjects long lists of what is currently IN and currently OUT. According to Esmé, yellow paper clips, postage stamps, anything with chocolate sprinkles, llamas, and ballet shoes are all in whereas bronze cubes, the dark, tools and parsley soda are all out😀).
But I digress. Back to the recipe.
All About Vegan Italian Meatballs
This vegan italian meatball recipes produces a meatball bursting with flavor, with a slight crust, tomato-sweet and Italian-spiced and NOT made of meat. Instead the protein, the main ingredient, is a pair of accessible and popular plant-based ingredients probably in your pantry.
AND this recipe also depends on a secret ingredient – also in your pantry, I’m sure! – that clinches the moist and spicy aspect.
First, a bit of background about my experience with Italian meatballs.
I remember being single-digits, standing by my great-grandmother’s side “helping” her make her signature meatballs to serve with a marinara sauce and spaghetti. In making the meatballs, she didn’t measure in any conventional way. She used “handfuls” – 1 handful of cilantro, 2 handfuls of breadcrumbs and so on. This method unfailingly produced moist flavorful meatballs every time which family and friends devoured off bowls of pasta while crowded around her huge creaky dining room table each major holiday.
I moved on into adulthood with that recipe embedded in my brain in terms of handfuls. And I went on to make it successfully many times in my pre-vegan days.
How to Make Italian Meatballs Meat-Free
But after a while, I wanted to make it vegan. Others have succeeded before me of course, in making vegan meatballs. But I wanted my meatballs to taste like my great-grandmother’s. And I also wanted to make the meatballs oil-free.
So I set about converting her handful-measured recipe into vegan plant-based meatballs while trying to stick to her recipe as closely as possible.
The marinara sauce was first, and of course that recipe is already vegan.
For those who don’t want to also home make the sauce, I suggest this jarred brand because it is vegan and it tastes awesome.If you want to make your own, I also shared my great-grandmother’s basic marinara recipe with the meatball recipe below.
So, now, the question remained: “how to make the meatballs without meat?”
I want them to be moist, and spicy, but most of all, healthy. So what protein to use?
I considered lentils and quinoa and ultimately chose a combo of chickpeas and almond flour. I could have used bread crumbs instead of almond flour, but I wanted these meatballs to be teeny tiny protein packages through and through. And you know what? It worked!
The combination is amazing. The resulting texture is chewy like a meatball, and the secret ingredient made them spicy and moist – like the meatballs made by my great-grandmother’s hand, only plant-based.
How wonderful is that? Can you guess the secret ingredient? Well, Ok, I’ll just tell you.
It’s….ketchup!! And even though the more commercial brands are technically vegan, I suggest you chose a refined-sugar-free brand, such as this one.
And so how healthy is this recipe? Well, the chickpeas alone add a whopping amount of nutrition.
How Healthy are Chickpeas?
Just 1/2 cup of chickpeas has 8 grams of protein and 7 grams of fiber. And chickpeas are a great source of folate, a mineral that is not that easy to find in food and which is very important for brain cell support. So how much protein per meatball? Well, can sizes are typically about 400g/15 ounces which yields about 1 1/2 cups or 250g of beans. Since we use 2 cans (3 cups) of chickpeas in 12 meatballs, that’s 4 grams of protein and 3.5 gms of fiber per meatball! Have two on me!
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Healthy Italian Vegan Meatballs & Marinara Sauce
- 3 flax egg (3 tbsp ground flax seeds + 9 tbsp water, wait 15 min)
- 1/2 cup yellow onion (chopped)
- 1 garlic clove (peeled, crushed)
- 2 cans chick peas (bpa-free, organic) (drained/rinsed but save the (liquid in the can) aquafaba in the refrigerate for a day or so for use in whipped desserts or smoothies)
- 1/2 cup almond flour (or breadcrumbs)
- 2 tbsp sundried tomatoes chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro chopped
- 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 1 tsp ground Italian seasoning (or oregano and basil)
- pinch salt
- pinch cayenne pepper
- 1/4-1/2 cup ketchup Heinz brand is vegan according to PETA; but try to use a refined sugar free brand.
- 1/4 cup onion (chopped)
- 1 garlic clove (crushed)
- 2 cups tomatoes (cored & chopped)
- 1 (4.5oz) tube tomato paste
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro (chopped)
- 1 tsp ground Italian seasoning (or oregano and basil)
- 1 bay leaf
- pinch salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.Prepare the 3 flax eggs and set aside so they can rest.Layer a cookie sheet with parchment and brush that ever so lightly with olive oil
Make the Meatballs
- Rinse the chickpeas (I used canned), put in a food processor and spin to a chunky texture - add the flax eggs when they are ready and process until the flax is blended through. The chickpea texture is going to be a bit chunky, not smooth.
- Add this mixture to a mixing bowl with all other ingredients, adding 1/4 cup of ketchup only. (After mixing, if mixture is too dry, add the additional 1/4 cup of ketchup. If mixture is too dry, add a touch more flour.)Use your hands (gloved or very wet) to knead/mix, and then roll 12-24 meatballs depending on size, setting them on the cookie sheet. The mixture is very sticky - I kept my hand very wet and was able to handle them without sticking, and this added moisture to the meatballs.
- Bake them uncovered for 20 minutes, turning once halfway through, and bake another 10 minutes so the balls are cooked soft in center but crusty on the outside.If you want the center of the meatball to be dryer, bake longer - we like the outside crusty, but the center very soft. It's not meat so you don't have to worry about under-cooking.The meatballs may seem dry coming out of the oven but this is a good thing, it will hold them together.
- Bury them in your marinara sauce and they will be awesome the next day, though we also ate them right away.
Make the Sauce
- Prepare the ingredients. Chop the onions, and tomatoes. And peel the garlic cloves.
- Then, put a tbsp or two of olive oil in the bottom of a deep skillet or dutch oven and turn on to medium heat. While the oil is heating, add in the onions and garlic when the oil seems sizzly.
- Next, add the chopped tomatoes and paste, and all the other ingredients including the bay leaf and simmer covered on very low heat for about 30 minutes - add water if it looks too dry to simmer.
- After 30 minutes, remove the bay leaf. Cover the sauce and add the meatballs to it when ready.
- The marinara and meatballs can last several days refrigerated, and easily frozen in single-meal batches.
Dee Dine is founder of Green Smoothie Gourmet, a plant based recipe blog, and author of the recent cookbook, Crazy Healthy with 4 Ingredients . On this blog you’ll find incredibly easy recipes with hidden veggies for anyone wanting to eat healthier, regardless of diet. Dee has graduate degrees in biology, immunology and journalism. More about Dee Dine here.