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An Eggplant ‘Meatballs’ Recipe, Streamlined for Easy Cooking

We took one of Ottolenghi’s famously complicated recipes and simplified everything but the flavor

A bowl of eggplant meatballs atop polenta, served on a bright yellow table. Dina Ávila

If you haven’t heard of Yotam Ottolenghi, then you might not have browsed a cookbook section or been on Instagram in the last 16 years. The Israeli-born chef has created an empire around vegetable-forward cooking, racking up nine restaurants in London, multiple TV specials, 12 cookbooks, and numerous awards. His colorful, inspiring dishes have helped him sell hundreds of thousands of cookbooks in an era when most folks get their recipes for free online. What’s more, his use of Middle Eastern ingredients like za’atar, black limes, pul biber, tahini, and rose harissa have compelled legions to seek them out, and in the process made them more readily available in this country. It’s not hyperbole to state that Ottolenghi has changed the way many of us cook.

And yet, everyone I know who has an Ottolenghi cookbook also has a story about one or more recipes that were so involved that they required every pan in the kitchen, or ingredients next to impossible to track down. The complexities of Ottolenghi’s recipes are so widely recognized that the New Yorker published a satirical round-up of the chef’s “easiest recipes ever”; a “simple salad” included three types of leaves, edible flowers, 16-year-old Modena vinegar (preferably older), pink miso, white miso, garlic scapes, and human tears.

I have four of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks and read his weekly column in the Guardian and yes, there are both easy wins and hard-fought struggles coming from the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen (OTK for those in the know). The latest recipe I tried, eggplant dumplings alla parmigiana, turned out to be the latter. Published in Ottolenghi’s 2022 cookbook, Flavor, it’s a version of the classic Italian vegetarian “meatballs” that have been made in frugal Italian homes for centuries whenever meat was scarce. The recipe’s headnote promises all the flavor of the classic breaded eggplant and red sauce dish, in meatball form.

I love meatballs, I love Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and eggplant — well, he had me at eggplant. I went into the recipe knowing that I’d sink a bit of time into dinner: all meatballs require some degree of effort, vegetarian ones even more so. What I didn’t anticipate was the furious amount of scribbling I had to do in the cookbook’s margins just to vent my frustration during the three and a half hours it took to make a maddeningly inefficient recipe. Yes, it yielded vegetarian meatballs with a satisfying meatiness and creamy interior, along with an okay red sauce. It also made my kitchen look like a Category Five hurricane had stopped by a ketchup factory.

There had to be an easier, more efficient way. So I got to work.

The first step of Ottolenghi’s recipe instructs the reader to make sourdough breadcrumbs but doesn’t say how, and then tells you to toast them. I wound up with crunchy breadcrumbs that are exactly the texture of panko breadcrumbs, and darned close to the same flavor. So when I started revising the recipe, one of my first orders of business was to use panko. That change alone meant one less pan (and food processor bowl) to wash, not to mention 20 fewer minutes of prep time.

Moving on to the eggplant, Ottolenghi has you cut four eggplants (he doesn’t specify which type or size) into one-inch cubes to make 12 cups, toss them with ⅓ cup oil, and roast them. That’s a lot of eggplant for one sheet pan, so I had to keep adding time and stirring until the pieces were all cooked, which added 20 minutes to the 30 minutes he called for. Next, you pile the oily, piping hot eggplant cubes onto a cutting board and chop them some more. What could go wrong?

Two Band-Aids later, I vowed to make this a less dangerous process. So in my adaptation, I use a large, 1⅓ -pound eggplant. I peel strips of the skin (more on that later) and cut the eggplant into thick rounds, brush them with a little olive oil, and broil them for five minutes per side. Voila, evenly cooked eggplant in less than half the time. Then, instead of chopping the slices, I mash them with a potato masher in a bowl. Easy, safer, and very effective.

The original recipe then adds six tablespoons of ricotta to the chopped eggplant — annoying, since ricotta is sold in a standard 15-ounce container. Since ricotta doesn’t taste like much and adds lots of moisture to an already wet mixture, I decided to leave it out of the reworked recipe. No difference in texture or flavor noted. Ottolenghi also calls for one egg, plus one yolk. Why? Would the second egg white make the whole enterprise fail? No: it turns out that you can use an entire egg and everything will turn out just fine. As a bonus, there’s no leftover egg white roaming the fridge, waiting to be spilled or spoiled.

Ottolenghi’s recipe also calls for three cloves of crushed garlic, flour, fresh parsley, and roughly chopped fresh basil. Since the garlic is raw, it remains quite bitey. Call me a heretic, but there is a time and place for garlic powder. It melds evenly into meatballs and dips with no raw garlic taste. As for the flour, I’m assuming Ottolenghi included it to absorb the extra moisture from the ricotta, but it makes the balls extra sticky and wasn’t really necessary in later ricotta-free versions I tested, so I left it out with no problems.

The original recipe’s use of fresh basil required me to drop $3.79 for a tiny plastic packet of out-of-season basil that amounted to barely a whisper of flavor in the meatballs. So in my later attempts at revision, I used the basil only for garnishing the finished dish as instructed, all the better to taste its freshness. But I did want to give the balls a more Italian/eggplant Parmesan-leaning flavor, so I added dry Italian seasoning. Bada-bing! Major flavor was waiting for me in my spice drawer all along.

Ottolenghi’s recipe has you lightly oil your hands to roll the eggplant mixture into 16 golf ball-sized spheres. I ended up with 18 misshapen blobs the size of a baby’s fist after wrestling the preternaturally sticky mixture, a task made even more difficult by all of the errant eggplant skins it contained. The next step, to pan-fry the meatballs, should have been easy, but the meatballs stuck to the nonstick pan, turned from raw to nearly blackened no matter how much I lowered the heat, and occasionally fell apart at even the gentlest prod.

So in my adapted version of the recipe, I let the eggplant-panko mixture rest for 15 minutes, enough time for the breadcrumbs to soak up some of the moisture and cohere the ingredients. I used a tablespoon-sized cookie dough scoop to form the balls and popped them on a sheet tray to bake in a hot oven with the convection fan on. They didn’t end up quite as dark as the original eggplant meatballs (perhaps a good thing), but they did brown evenly and were nicely compact. Oh, and I also didn’t have to wash my hands five times while making them.

The book’s recipe also has you make a homemade red sauce. Simple enough, right? Wrong. Followed to the letter, you start out by sauteing garlic over medium-high heat for one minute. My garlic ended up just this side of burnt, which gave the sauce a bitter edge I didn’t love, even with the added sugar. Next you add “blitzed” whole canned tomatoes (Ottolenghi doesn’t say how to blitz them), a tiny amount of tomato paste, an inexplicable ¾ teaspoon of paprika (it’s undetectable in the finished sauce), and two teaspoons of fresh oregano (no dried alternative amount is given). After eight minutes of vigorous simmering over medium-high heat, my stove area was splattered with red polka dots, as was I.

Next, you pour 1⅔ cups of water into the reduced sauce. But why dilute what you just reduced? You could just as easily simmer the sauce over a lower heat with the lid on, thereby retaining more of the moisture while still melding the flavors. Or you know what is even easier? Opening a jar of good marinara sauce. I used Carbone’s jarred marinara, which saved me 30-plus minutes and spared me the joy of scraping red sauce splotches from the kitchen wall. And it may be blasphemy to say so, but the jarred sauce tasted a lot better than the homemade version.

The final step of Ottolenghi’s recipe instructs you to pour the hot tomato sauce into a baking dish (another dish to wash, yay!), add the browned eggplant balls, and bake for 40 minutes. Since both the sauce and the eggplant meatballs are already hot, I suppose this step is to ensure that your oven doesn’t feel left out and gets its own red sauce stains. For the retooled recipe, I gently heated the jarred marinara in a saucepan (which is deeper and less likely to splatter) on the stove, added the baked eggplant balls and simmered it for five minutes. So much more efficient.

Right before serving, Ottolenghi adds torn pitted kalamatas and more chopped basil to his dish. I omitted the olives as they didn’t add anything and competed with the meatballs for the textural spotlight. I kept the basil garnish but just tore it instead of chopping it, which is easier on the tender leaves than a knife and made my hands smell nice. Win-win.

After four retests and a heavy dose of realism, I’ve arrived at a dish that’s very similar to the original and a lot more user-friendly. I may even trot it out the next time vegetarian friends come to dinner. Or maybe I’ll just buy Mr. Ottolenghi’s latest book, Simple, instead. He seems to have gotten the memo.

Eggplant Parmesan “Meatballs” Recipe

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Flavor

Serves 4


1 large (1¼- to 1½-pound) eggplant
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
½ cup (4 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
Black pepper
1 large egg
1 (24-ounce) jar marinara sauce
¼ cup chopped basil, for garnish
Pasta or soft polenta, for serving (optional)


Step 1: Line a baking sheet with foil and spray it with cooking spray. Adjust an oven rack so it is 4 inches below the broiling element and preheat the broiler on high. Cut off the stem of the eggplant and discard. Peel the eggplant lengthwise, leaving four, evenly spaced strips of skin remaining on the eggplant. Cut the eggplant into 1-inch-thick rounds and arrange on the baking sheet. Brush both sides with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Broil until the slices are browned and tender when squished with tongs, 4 to 5 minutes per side. Remove the sheet pan from the oven and reduce the oven to 425 degrees with convection if you have it. It’s fine if you don’t.

Step 2: Put the cooked eggplant slices in a large bowl and set aside the sheet pan. Mash the eggplant with a potato masher or fork until you have a chunky mash. Add the breadcrumbs, Parmesan, Italian seasoning, garlic powder, and several grinds of pepper and stir to combine. Taste the mixture and add salt and pepper, if needed. Stir in the egg. Refrigerate the mixture for 15 minutes to make it easier to handle.

Step 3: Spray the foil-lined baking sheet with cooking spray again. Form the eggplant mixture into heaping 1-tablespoon balls using a cookie dough scoop or soup spoons to make 20 balls, placing them on the baking sheet as you work. Brush the remaining tablespoon of oil over the tops of the balls and bake until they are golden brown, 20 minutes.

Step 4: Meanwhile, boil the pasta or prepare the polenta, if using. Heat up the marinara sauce in a medium saucepan or in a microwave-safe serving bowl (covered to prevent splatters). To serve, add the eggplant balls to the sauce and turn to coat. Sprinkle with additional Parmesan and basil. Serve with the pasta or polenta.

Ivy Manning is a Portland, Oregon-based award-winning food writer and author of 10 cookbooks including Tacos A to Z: A Delicious Guide to Nontraditional Tacos. She is a regular recipe tester and editor for Eater and restaurants and appliance brands.
Dina Ávila is a photographer in Portland, Oregon.