Growing up I really loved my Mum’s spaghetti with meatballs (or polpette in Italian) and it’s something I missed when I stopped eating meat but these meatless balls are a lovely alternative. There’s nothing meaty about them so they aren’t a meat replacement as such but they are great baked in the oven in a tomato sauce and served with spaghetti.
Making the balls is a bit of effort but I’m usually just cooking for 2 so I freeze half the meatballs (uncooked). That way you get to have a special dinner another night with very little effort. If you like to batch cook you could of course double up the recipe. Freeze the uncooked balls on a plate and then once they’re solid transfer them to a small bag or container. You can fry them from frozen when you want to eat them and then they finish cooking through in the oven.
The original recipe by Kathryn Bruton appeared in the January 2017 issue of Vegetarian Living magazine (this magazine closed this year, one of the many victims of the Covid pandemic). She suggests chickpeas as an alternative to cannellini beans and also includes 50g finely chopped watercress in the meatless balls. I haven’t tried either of those options. I like them just the way they are.
Spaghetti and Meatless (Hazelnut and Ricotta) Balls
Hazelnut and ricotta balls (makes 16, enough to feed 4 people, but they freeze well if you only want to use half of them)
- 100 g hazelnuts
- 400 g can of cannellini beans
- 50 g ricotta
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
- 125 g grated Italian-style hard cheese
- 1-2 tbsp olive oil, for frying
- Fresh basil leaves to garnish (optional)
- Black pepper to season
Tomato sauce (if you are freezing half the balls just use 1 tin tomatoes)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp chilli flakes (optional)
- 2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 2 x 400 g cans of chopped tomatoes
- Spaghetti or other pasta
Hazelnut and ricotta balls
- Heat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4, put the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and toast for about 5-6 minutes (be careful not to burn them!).
- Blitz the hazelnuts in a food processor or mini chopper to finely chop.
- Drain and mash the cannellini beans with a fork or use the processor.
- Pace the nuts, cannellini beans, ricotta, oregano, lemon zest and 100g of the grated cheese into a bowl. Season with black pepper and mix well.
- Using your hands shape the mixture into 16 small balls.
- If you are freezing any of the balls, this is the time to do it. Otherwise, heat 1-2 tbsp olive oil in a frying pan and fry the balls gently. Turn them carefully because they do soften up as they cook. You don't need to cook them through because they will finish cooking in the oven; you just want to get some colour on them.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a saucepan and add the onion and chilli flakes if using. Fry gently for about 5 minutes to soften without colouring.
- Add garlic and fry for another couple of minutes.
- Add tinned tomatoes and oregano and bring to the boil. At this point you can take it off the heat because the sauce will cook more and thicken in the oven.
- Season to taste with black pepper and salt.
Putting the meal together
- Preheat the oven to 190°C/fan 170°C/gas mark 5.
- Put the sauce in a shallow ovenproof dish. The dish needs to be big enough to hold the meatless balls in a single layer.
- If you are using fresh basil, tuck a few leaves into the sauce around the balls.
- Place the balls on top of the tomato sauce and sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese.
- Cook in the oven for 15-20 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and the tops of the meatless balls are browned.
- Serve with pasta.