Spaghetti and 'Meat' Balls

Time 1 hour
Yields Makes about 30 balls
A bowl of spaghetti topped with large vegan "meatballs."
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
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My favorite vegetarian meatballs are neither smooth nor bouncy, so I stop short of over-chopping the ingredients. That means binding all the little bits together with egg to ensure balls you can spear with a fork. If you’d like to make them vegan, omit the eggs and pulse all the ingredients together into a paste; the balls will hold together after baking and simmering in sauce but will be softer in texture. Steamed lentils and beets are available in the produce section of most supermarkets. Use your favorite marinara sauce here, jarred or homemade.

From the story: How to make the best vegetarian meatballs without fake meat


Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned around the edges, five to seven minutes. Add the garlic, Italian seasoning and chile flakes and cook, stirring, for one minute. Add the panko and cook, stirring, until evenly dark golden brown, three to four minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutritional yeast until evenly mixed. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl to cool. Reserve the skillet without washing.


Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a half-sheet pan with foil and drizzle with oil to generously coat. There should be a thin sheen covering the entire surface.


As you chop the following ingredients in a food processor, you don’t need to wash the processor bowl between each. Pulse the sunflower seeds in a food processor until half are powdery like cornmeal and the remainder are finely chopped; transfer to the bowl with the onion mixture. Pulse the basil in a food processor until very finely chopped; transfer to the bowl. Pulse the beets in the processor until half the mixture is pasty and half is finely chopped; transfer to the bowl. Pulse the lentils until nearly smooth with some chopped lentils remaining; transfer to the bowl. Stir well until everything is evenly mixed. Taste a spoonful and add more salt and pepper to taste.


Add the egg and egg white to the mixture and stir until everything is evenly distributed. Using a 1 1/2-tablespoon cookie scoop or a measuring tablespoon, scoop the mixture (heaping, if using the measuring spoon) and form into balls. Put the balls on the prepared pan, drizzle with oil to lightly coat the tops and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake until dark golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes.


Meanwhile, heat the marinara sauce in the reserved skillet over medium heat until bubbling. Reduce the heat to low to maintain a light simmer. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.


When the balls are done, carefully transfer them to the simmering marinara and turn to evenly coat. Drop the spaghetti in the boiling water and cook according to package directions until al dente. You can drain the spaghetti and top with the balls and sauce or cook them together to meld the flavors: A few minutes before the spaghetti is done, transfer the balls to their roasting pan; keep the sauce simmering. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water and drain the pasta. Immediately transfer the spaghetti to the simmering sauce. Carefully toss to evenly coat, adding pasta water a few spoonfuls at a time if the sauce is too thick to coat the noodles.


Divide the sauced spaghetti among serving dishes and top with the balls. Drizzled with olive oil, then grate Parmesan on top if desired and serve immediately.

Meatball Sub: Substitute four hero rolls for the spaghetti. Split them, drizzle with oil, and top with sliced mozzarella or vegan mozzarella. Toast them open-faced in a toaster oven or 375-degree oven until the cheese melts, then top with the hot sauce-coated beetballs and extra sauce. Grate Parmesan on top if desired.
Make Ahead:
The uncooked beetball mixture can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to two days before roasting. The cooked beetballs in sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days.