I have a thing for meatballs. I grew up peering into the frying pan in my grandmother’s kitchen on Sunday mornings in hopes of scoring one before they went into the gravy (sauce). I still am a sucker for them along side a plate of spaghetti as long as I know the cook! There’s nothing worse than a bad meatball. Whenever I see a meatball sandwich on a menu I am always tempted to place an order, but I’ve been disappointed more times than not so now I mostly pass and order something else. There is one exception-Pizzeria Mozza-their meatballs are as good as mine or maybe I should say that mine are as good as theirs…
When I first came upon this recipe in Domenica Marchetti’s The Glorious Vegetables of Italy (if you don’t already have this book you really should) I knew it was just a matter of time until I was frying them up. This eggplant meatball is creamy, flavorful and for a minute you might just forget that it’s made from a vegetable. For some reason eggplant tastes a little bit like meat and once simmered in tomato sauce you have one tasty starter or side dish. Be sure to dust a little grated Parmigiano over top-I took my photo before I got out the grater.
Eggplant Meatballs (from Domenica Marchetti)
1 large (16 ounces) shiny purple eggplant
3 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
28 ounces canned, no-salt-added diced tomatoes, with their juices
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
3 large fresh basil leaves, shredded or torn, plus 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
3 rounded cups fresh bread crumbs
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 ounces pecorino-Romano cheese, freshly grated
1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 cup flour, for coating, or more as needed
Vegetable oil, for frying
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prick the eggplant a few times all over with a fork. Place it on a small rimmed baking sheet and roast for about 1 hour, or until the skin is crinkled and collapsed and the interior is completely tender. Cool for a few minutes.
Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce: Crush one of the garlic cloves, then warm it in the olive oil in a saucepan large enough to eventually hold the eggplant meatballs over medium heat. Use a wooden spoon to press down on the garlic to release its flavor. Cook for about 2 minutes, or until the garlic begins to sizzle; do not let it brown. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and their juices (the oil will spatter) and stir to coat with the oil. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt; increase the heat to medium-high. Once the mixture is bubbling, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 35 minutes, to form a sauce that has thickened, with oil that is pooling on the surface. Remove from the heat and stir in the 3 basil leaves. Cover to keep warm.
Slice open the eggplant, then scoop the flesh onto a cutting board, discarding the skin. Mash the eggplant flesh with a potato masher or chop it coarsely with a chef’s knife. Scoop into a large bowl, along with the bread crumbs, eggs, remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, the pecorino Romano, minced basil and parsley. Use a garlic press to add the remaining 2 garlic cloves, then use a wooden spoon or flexible spatula to gently yet thoroughly incorporate the ingredients.
Spread the flour in a shallow bowl. Line a platter with waxed or parchment paper.
Use your hands to form the eggplant mixture into about fifteen 2-inch balls (golfball size). Coat them all over with the flour, then and transfer the lined platter, gently pressing down on them gently to flatten them slightly.
Pour enough vegetable oil into a saute pan or cast-iron skillet to reach a depth of at least 1 inch. Heat to about 375 degrees, over medium-high heat and heat the oil to about 375 degrees. If you do not have a thermometer, drop a small pinch of an eggplant meatball into the oil; if it sizzles immediately, the oil is hot enough.
Carefully add half the eggplant meatballs to the hot oil; fry until golden brown on the bottom, 2 to 3 minutes. Use a spatula to turn them over and fry for 2 minutes until golden brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them into the sauce in the saucepan, allowing them to drain any excess oil. Turn them over to coat with the sauce. Repeat with the remaining eggplant meatballs, adding vegetable oil as needed and letting it heat to 375 degrees.
Return the saucepan with the eggplant meatballs to medium-low heat. Cook, turning them once or twice, about 10 minutes. If the sauce seems too thick — the balls will absorb some of it — add a tablespoon or two of water, or as needed, and gently stir it into the sauce.
Serve the eggplant meatballs hot, with the sauce spooned over them and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano on top, if desired.