Eggplant “Meatballs” with Tomato Sauce

While in Traverse City on vacation this summer, we had the pleasure of dining at Trattoria Stella. This rustic Italian spot is located in the basement of a former sanitarium. We were almost as entertained by the ghost stories as we were delighted by thinly sliced cured meats, pillowy soft mounds of burrata and my personal favorite – vegetable-based “meatballs” made from eggplant, herbs and provolone. After a long, leisurely dinner complete with after dinner drinks and dessert, we discovered the (relatively new) car was dead. We got a jump. We got home. The next morning, the car started just fine. We may have left vacation and the ghosts behind, but I am still haunted by those “meatballs!”┬áThis is my best guess after a couple attempts.

  • For “meatballs:”
  • 1 medium eggplant
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 pound provolone, shredded
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • Olive oil
  • For sauce:
  • Olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • Kosher salt
  • 2 small garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 3 pounds mixed tomatoes, chopped (see note)
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, plus more to serve
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1/3 cup water
  • Grated Parmesan, to serve
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Pierce eggplant several times with the tip of a sharp knife, then roast on a baking sheet for 1 hour. Remove and allow to cool slightly.
  • While eggplant cools, start the sauce. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and a big pinch of salt to the hot oil. Cook onion until translucent and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and stir for about a minute. Add carrot and bell pepper and cook for an additional 5 minutes or until just tender. Add diced tomatoes, another pinch of salt, basil and parsley. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. If it looks a little dry, add the water. Allow mixture to cook for roughly 40 minutes, adding more water if the mixture becomes too dry. The vegetables should be very tender and the sauce fragrant. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
  • While sauce cools, start making the “meatballs.” Chop off top of eggplant and discard. Cut eggplant in half lengthwise. Remove the largest clusters of seeds without removing too much of the flesh. Dice eggplant (with skin) and place in a large bowl. Add garlic, Provolone, egg, parsley, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes. Stir to combine. Add breadcrumbs 1/4 cup at a time, stirring in between. Mixture should hold together.
  • Form mixture into balls roughly 2″ in diameter. Set formed balls on a plate, then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a cast iron skillet over medium heat for a few minutes. Oil must be sufficiently hot, or “meatballs” will fall apart in the skillet. Cook each “meatball” for 2-3 minutes per side until all sides are browned and the balls are heated through. You may need to do this in batches depending on the size of your skillet. Line a plate with paper towel, then remove “meatballs” from hot skillet and allow to drain on paper towel.
  • To finish the sauce, puree in a high powered blender until nearly smooth. If the mixture is still fairly warm, vent the top and cover lightly with a clean kitchen towel to allow steam to escape.
  • Serve “meatballs” on a bed of sauce or with pasta. Garnish with additional basil leaves or grated Parmesan.
  • Quick Tips
  • 1. I made this sauce a few times. It’s not a traditional tomato sauce, as you can see from the ingredients. My kids turn their noses up at tomatoes, so I wanted to add flavors that are more pleasing to them (like peppers and carrots) so the tomato taste wasn’t as in-your-face. What resulted was a light sauce with fresh vegetable flavor. If you’re looking for something that is really tomatoey you are going to be disappointed. I tried this using roma (plum) tomatoes as well as on-the-vine tomatoes. The verdict? Blend them. Half of each will give you the best of both worlds.
  • 2. This recipe will make about 18 meatballs and 6 cups of sauce. I immediately put half the sauce in the freezer for another time.
  • 3. The “meatballs” are fairly delicate. Chilling them in the fridge helps, but I skipped this step the first time and they came out just fine. What is more critical is ensuring the oil is nice and hot before you place the “meatballs” in the pan.
  • 4. I used a cast iron skillet here and it worked beautifully!

Preparation time: 40 minute(s)

Cooking time: 2 hour(s)

Number of servings (yield): 6

One response to “Eggplant “Meatballs” with Tomato Sauce”

  1. Lynda says:

    Meatballs are a big hit in my family – especially when the weather cools down, and I love the idea of using eggplant.

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