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Vegan and Gluten Free Mushroom and Lentil Polpettini…Molto Buono!

Polpettini are meatballs! Che buono! And while Americans will tell you that "spaghetti and meatballs" are as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly, the way meatballs are served in Italy is a different story. When eating in "La Bella Italia," traditional meatballs are made of a blend of carne tritate (chopped beef, pork, or veal) and are a stand-alone food offered in the secondo portion of a meal, or "second course," where fish and meat follow the primi or "pasta course." 

In that spirit, we offer you lentil and mushroom plant-based "meatballs" that capture the comfort, hearty flavor and abbondanza of the ones found on the Italian table. Sure, you can dunk these "meatballs" in a rich tomato sauce and serve them with pasta for a classic Italian American Sunday supper, or, if you prefer, set them atop a hearty grain, such as brown rice or farro. But we like to do as the Italians do and enjoy them alongside a favorite contorno (side dish) such as braised escarole, studded with slivers of garlic! The touch of chickpea flour keeps these beauties soft and tender. 

(Photo Credit: Cookie and Kate)

Plant-Based Polpettini


3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for frying

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup finely chopped mushrooms, such as button, cremini, or shiitake

1 cup cooked green lentils

2 tablespoons chickpea flour

½ cup plain Panko breadcrumbs

2 ounces parsley leaves, and tender stems finely chopped

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • Heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a medium skillet set over medium heat. Once shimmering, add the onion, garlic, and mushrooms, and cook until softened, and the mushrooms release their water, about 5 minutes. 
  • Remove from the heat and transfer the mixture to a food processor. (Wipe out the skillet and set it aside for later use). Next, add the lentils, chickpea flour, breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, and pepper to the mixture and pulse until just combined, stopping, and scraping down the sides, if necessary.
  • Transfer the mixture to a bowl, and using your clean hands, roll 10 golf-ball-sized "meatballs" and set them aside on a large plate. (If the mixture is too wet, add a touch more bread crumb, or chickpea flour to bind).
  • Using the same now-empty skillet, add enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom, and heat over medium-high heat. Once shimmering, add the "meatballs," working in batches if necessary, and adding more oil, as needed, and gently fry the "meatballs" for about 1 to 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown and crispy (just like traditional meatballs!)
  • Once you have fried all the "meatballs," use a slotted spoon to remove them from the skillet. Serve immediately, as you wish; you can add them to homemade Marinara sauce, where they will absorb more flavor, or set them on the table to be enjoyed as a plant-based secondo

Theresa Gambacorta

Theresa Gambacorta is a writer and cookbook co-author. Her writing has appeared in such titles as La Cucina Italiana, Spin Magazine, Men's Fitness, Muscle and Fitness, and Centennial's special interest publications. She is the co-author of chef Joey Campanaro's Big Love Cooking (Chronicle, 2020), chef Nasim Alikhani's Sofreh (Knopf, 2023), and the forthcoming vegan cookbook, Eat What Elephants Eat by activist Dominick Thompson (Simon Element, 2024).