I can’t believe that I’ve been vegan for almost a year and it took me this long to make vegan meatballs! Italian food is one of my favorite cuisines and I’ve eaten a lot of it since going vegan.My love of Italian food started young. The family next door was Italian and taught my mom to cook her famous sauce.
My family also used to frequent a restaurant called Filipi’s in the Little Italy neighborhood of downtown San Diego after picking my dad up at the airport when he returned from trips as a pilot for American Airlines. We made these homecomings into a special occasion, a time to enjoy each other’s company over a hearty meal, further implanting the idea in my mind of Italian food as “comfort food” and also a way of bringing people together.
It’s funny how many fond memories I have about Filipis, where the meatballs were so huge they only gave you one on top of the giant family-size portion of pasta. Somehow it was always enough – that’s how big it was! They would always have a giant line out the door but the friendly people at the restaurant would keep us kids out of trouble by giving us pizza dough to play with. As we grew up, their deli cases and market, filled with interesting items and imported goods, would keep us intrigued as we waited. We almost never left without a few packages of pastina, amaretto cookies or lady fingers.
Once we were finally seated in the candle-lit dining room, we would order immediately, not even having to glance at the menu because we always knew what we wanted. It was almost impossible for our growling bellies to ignore the warm bread and butter that sat on the table, threatening to take up the space that we ultimately desired to save for the enormous meal that would soon arrive. We sat beneath the rows of wine bottles hanging overhead, enveloped by the joyful noises of a restaurant packed to the brim. Finally, the food would arrive and any conversation would slow to a halt as we enjoyed a meal together.
I haven’t been to Filipis in a while, but I’ve been making my mom’s recipe for “Mama Wendy’s Marinara Sauce” as frequently as ever and I’ve even created vegan lasagna with a cashew ricotta cheese. One time, I purchased some frozen vegan meatballs but I found the meat-like texture so realistic that they were unappetizing to me.
And then the other day I got a message from a friend asking if I knew how to make quinoa vegetarian meatballs. This is what finally sparked me to get creative. I had already given some thought to how I could create vegan meatballs at home and quinoa was definitely an ingredient that had crossed my mind. I thought that I would also add a little tofu, mushrooms and soaked walnuts to give extra texture and flavor. You can easily omit the walnuts if you’d like to make these nut-free, just double the tofu!
I knew what ingredients I wanted to use but not necessarily the quantities of each. So I spent a little time with my food processor adding a little bit here and there until I got the flavor to where I wanted it to be. It needed to be thick enough of a mixture to be able to form into balls but not too dense that they would not be moist. With this first batch of vegan meatballs, I plopped them on top of a huge pile of spaghetti with a generous serving of homemade sauce. Traditional, yet unbeatable!
Since then, I’ve thought of numerous other ways to use them such as make meatball subs, using them as a topping for pizza or chopped up into lasagna layers. I chose to bake the meatballs, but I think they would turn out great pan-fried in a little olive oil – definitely more decadent and probably would be best prepared this way if serving them on their own.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 white onion
- 1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa
- 1/2 cup tofu
- 1 cup crimini mushrooms
- 1/2 soaked walnuts (or use twice as much tofu)
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 tap salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp dried fennel, ground
- 2 tsp oregano
- 1 Tbsp fresh chopped basil
- 1/4 cup plain bread crumbs, more as needed
- Soak the walnuts for 2-4 hours. If you don't have time to soak, you can simmer them in water for about 10 minutes to soften.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- If you have a tofu press, put the tofu in to drain excess water. Otherwise, just press it between paper towels.
- Heat the olive oil in a skillet.
- Chop the onion and mushrooms and add to the olive oil. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until onions are translucent.
- Add grated garlic and cook for another minute.
- Place the soaked walnuts in a food processor and grind until they are tiny crumbles.
- Add the onion and mushroom mixture, tofu, salt, pepper, fennel, oregano and basil and process until blend well.
- Add the quinoa and 1/4 cup of bread crumbs, pulsing until combined.
- At this point, taste the mixture and adjust seasonings to taste. If the mixture seems too moist to shape into balls, add a little more bread crumbs or quinoa until it reaches the desired consistency.
- Form into balls about 1 1/2 inch in diameter and place on an oiled baking sheet. Brush each meatball with a little olive oil.
- Bake for 10 minutes, flip and bake for another 10 minutes on the other side.
- If you are omitting the walnuts, try adding a little extra mushrooms or tofu to add texture and moisture.