Vegan Eggplant Meatballs with Za’atar & Kale Pesto

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs with Za’atar & Kale Pesto

Vegan Eggplant Meatballs with Za’atar & Kale Pesto

my wild vegetable patch // via thefirstmess.com

eggplant and kale in my messy garden // thefirstmess.com

zaatar eggplant meatballs with lemony kale pesto // thefirstmess.com

Well hey there! Long time, no talk eh? If my vegetable garden is any indication of how my summer is going, you might think that it’s been busy and, frankly, a little messy too. My recipe work and shooting schedule for the book have been front and center, but also all over the place. It’s getting there and it’s really something to see all of the images clustered together on my little cookbook wall. My excitement to share this work with all of you is pretty much off the charts 🙂

Other than that? I’ve been riding around at night once the humidity settles, working at the restaurant here and there, drinking rosé and lots of coffee on the porch, hitting up my favourite antique spot for some sweet props, buying up hydrangeas at the nursery clearance sales (crazy hydrangea lady), catching up on the greatness of Bob’s Burgers etc. Nothing too wild, which is exactly how I like my summertime. The predictability of tomato and peach season, sundown drinks, and bonfire nights–I’m into the routine of all that.

Another summery thing. I’m not sure if you’ve read about this new vegan, internet-based phenomenon known as aquafaba, but it’s pretty great. It’s the leftover soaking liquid from cans of (preferably unsalted, BPA-free) chickpeas and it essentially acts as a wonderful replacement for eggs. I’ve been playing around with it all summer, making the obvious things like meringues and pavlova. Sometimes when a plant-based recipe needs a binder, I can already get a vibe that a flax/chia “egg” just won’t cut it. Enter the zero food waste superpowers of chickpea water. I’ve since employed it in various patties/veggie burgers, crepes, and shredded vegetable pancake-sorta things too, all with success. I’m trying homemade vegan mayonnaise next.

This vegan eggplant meatball recipe is seriously one of the better veggie meatballs I’ve had. They have a meaty texture and they hold together with minimal fuss thanks to the chickpea water and some almond meal. I was never terribly into real meatballs, but I’ve had some lentil and mushroom-based ones at restaurants in the past that I really quite enjoyed. I grew some Japanese eggplants this year and knew that the velvet-y texture would be appropriate for a dish like this.

zaatar eggplant meatballs with lemony kale pesto // thefirstmess.com

zaatar eggplant meatballs with lemony kale pesto // thefirstmess.com

zaatar eggplant meatballs with lemony kale pesto // thefirstmess.com

vegan eggplant meatballs with lemony kale pesto recipe
Print the recipe here!
serves: makes about 18 balls + a generous cup of pesto
notes: For the bread slices, I just used 2 slices of frozen sprouted whole grain bread. I toasted them up and busted them into the food processor bowl with my hands. This mix held together really nice before I added the bread, so I feel confident that you could use 2 slices of a gluten-free loaf as well.

meatball ingredients:
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 medium eggplant, small dice (about 3 cups-worth of diced eggplant)
salt + pepper
1/2 cup cooked chickpeas
1/4 cup almond meal/flour
1 tablespoon za’atar spice blend
2 garlic cloves, peeled + chopped
1/4 cup chopped flatleaf parsley
1-2 teaspoons lemon zest
big squeeze of lemon juice
1/4 cup chickpea canning liquid (aka chickpea brine/aquafaba)
2 slices of bread, toasted and roughly cut

kale pesto ingredients:
1/2 cup raw almonds
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled + chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
3 packed cups of chopped kale
big squeeze of lemon juice
salt + pepper
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (+ more, depending)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment. Drizzle a bit of olive oil directly onto the parchment and spread it around with your hands, lightly greasing the paper. Set prepared baking sheet aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add all of the diced eggplant and sauté until golden on all sides and pieces are noticeably soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, remove from the heat, and set aside.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the chickpeas, almond meal, za’atar garlic, parsley, lemon zest, lemon juice, and chickpea canning liquid until you have a smooth paste. Add the sautéed eggplant to the food processor and flip machine to high until you have a lightly chunky paste. Add the roughly cut toasted bread to the the food processor and some salt and pepper, to taste. Flip the machine to high once more until you have a chunky and unified paste-like mixture.

Form the eggplant mixture into balls with roughly 2 tablespoons per ball. Gently roll them and then place them on the lightly greased baking sheet. Once you’ve rolled all of the mixture, slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake meatballs for 25-28 minutes, flipping them over halfway through the cooking time.

For the pesto, rinse out your food processor bowl + blade. Then, add the almonds, garlic, and lemon zest to the bowl. Pulse the mixture until the almonds are coarsely chopped. Add the kale, lemon juice, salt and pepper to the food processor. Flip the machine to high until everything in the bowl is finely chopped. With the motor running, slowly pour the oil into the food processor until you have a nice paste-like consistency. You may have to use more oil than I specified, depending on how tightly you packed the kale. Once you have a consistency you like, season the pesto to taste and store in a covered container with a thin layer of oil on top to preserve the colour.

Serve the warm vegan eggplant meatballs with dollops of the kale pesto, some roughly chopped parsley, sliced tomatoes, and lemon zest.

Show Hide 70 comments

  • Julia

    I’m so jealous on your little vegetable garden which I don’t think is very messy ;). Curious to try the recipe!Reply

    • Laura

      I think I took the picture of the garden from the most flattering angle possible. It’s weed city in there! Thanks Julia 😀
      -LReply

      • Ian Hobbs

        Weed city weeds are good especially those that are edible. One to try in the spring are Fresh Young Beech tree leaves.

  • Jess @ alittlealice.com

    oh my gawd these look so good i could eat them through my screen!!!! and hehe <3 vegetable gardens <3 :DReply

  • Lisa

    Laura, I love all the pictures. This recipe really tells a story, pretty nice. Actually feels like being in your vegetable garden and while harvesting eggplants and baby kale. XX LisaReply

    • Laura

      Thanks Lisa! You’re welcome in my veggie patch any time 😉
      -LReply

  • Jessica @jessicatom.com

    Yes! I love this. Sorta subverting/lightening the proportions of a falafel. Summer perfection!Reply

    • Laura

      Yes exactly! The eggplant kinda aerates the whole texture.
      -LReply

  • Kathryn @ The Scratch Artist

    Hi Laura,
    I started following you several weeks ago when you posted the rosemary watermelon-ade and I am so happy to have received a new post today. I have been following you on Instagram and enjoying all the beautiful food you have been eating/creating recently. I always feel a bit stalky if I follow people without properly introducing myself, so HI! I look forward to seeing more garden photos and hearing about your creations. I hadn’t heard of chickpea brine and it sounds amazing.Reply

    • Laura

      Thanks for saying hello, Kathryn! Your comment is so generous and lovely. I’m glad that you’re enjoying the site/Instas 🙂
      -LReply

  • Abby @ The Frosted Vegan

    I have to admit, I am not a fan of eggplant or kale (how am I vegan?!), but rolled into meatballs, I could probably get down with them! Your garden is gorgeous my dear and I can’t wait to see that beautiful book of yours. xoxoReply

    • Laura

      I still think you’re an awesome vegan, even if you don’t vibe to kale and eggplant 😉 If these little ball babes were smothered in marinara, you’d never guess that they had eggplant in them, seriously!
      xo LReply

  • Eliza | Pen + Pan

    AQUAFABA! Its many uses were a fairly recent discovery for me. I can’t wait to see how it works out as a vegan “meat”ball binder.Reply

  • Austin

    I can’t wait for your cookbook! Also my friend text me the other day about the chickpea juice and I’m pumped to try to whip up some meringue – F I N A L L Y ! As always, this recipe looks killer 🙂Reply

  • Allyson

    I have garden envy right now- your plants look gorgeous. These “meatballs” look incredible, and I’m stealing your pesto idea to play around with tonight. I can’t wait to see your cookbook!Reply

    • Laura

      Thanks so much, Allyson. Hope you liked the pesto!
      -LReply

  • Abby

    So lovely, Laura! xoReply

  • Hannah | The Swirling Spoon

    Laura, these are the best darn looking meatless meatballs I ever did see! They look so tender and not crumbly.. mega excited to try this out!Reply

    • Laura

      They are totally tender/weirdly meaty (in a good way). Hope you give them a try! 😉
      -LReply

  • Keara McGraw

    It all… seems… too… simple!! Chickpea brine??! Bring on all the recipes ever ever that I’ve thought *meh* to about subbing eggs with flax/chia. Thanks for the tip, Laura. Your garden is gorgeous. So are your photos. So will be your cookbook. Summer smiles from Chicago! xoReply

    • Laura

      I know, the chickpea brine solution seems almost TOO easy, but it’s been effective in everything I’ve tried so far! Couldn’t be happier since we eat soooo many chickpeas in this house. Sending a summer smile back too 😉
      -LReply

  • Claudia | The Brick Kitchen

    Your photos are gorgeous! As is your vege garden – I am very jealous, can’t wait until I have enough garden space to grow my own. These meatballs are so unique – I love eggplant and chickpeas (and kale pesto) so it just looks like a stellar combination of flavours. Can’t wait to see your cookbook when it comes out! XReply

    • Laura

      Thanks so much, Claudia! 🙂Reply

  • thefolia

    Viva la luscious garden!Reply

  • Jessica

    The recipe looks amazing and I can’t wait to make it! To make GF, I’m thinking of replacing the bread with cold (cooked) quinoa, as I’ve used quinoa as a binder in other similar recipes. What do you think – will it work?Reply

    • Laura

      Hi Jessica,
      I’ve never tried cooked quinoa as a binder before, but that totally makes sense because I’ve used cooked millet to bind a veggie patty before. I’d say give it a try, but keep an eye on the moistness level. Maybe try about 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa? The mix should be kind of wet, but not too sticky. Would love it if you let me know how it works when you try it out! 🙂
      -LReply

      • Jessica

        Ok I’ll give the recipe a try with the quinoa substitution, will let you know how it goes…hoping it’s a delicious success!

  • Sarah | Well and Full

    WHAT aquafaba works as a binder too?? I’ve been having similar problems with vegan fritters holding together but I never thought to use chickpea water other than for meringues!! I AM SO EXCITED TO TRY THIS NOW!! 😀Reply

  • Pragati // Simple Medicine

    Your garden is my goal for next summer! Do you have any organic gardening tips for pests? All my crops were destroyed by bore worms and I’m not sure how to proceed.Reply

  • Lee

    za’atar
    Can you tell me what this is? I am not familiar with this at all.Reply

    • Laura

      Za’atar is a middle eastern spice blend. I usually pick it up at spice shops or I order it online if I find a mix I like. There’s a recipe to make it yourself here. You could also sub in the same amount of any herbs/spices that you like!
      -LReply

  • Jessica DeMarra

    Aquafaba for the win!
    I have yet to have a “meaty” vegetable meatball, without soy anyways, and I am so glad to see these. They *almost* have me thinking about the cooler months, tucking into a bowl of these with the stash of summer tomato sauce I keep in the freezer and lots of twirly pasta. In the meantime, I plan eat my fill of this bright green pesto.
    P.S. I think your garden is a magical place, like a writer would describe it as a place where fairies live. Just saying.Reply

  • Shanna

    LOVE IT! I didn’t used to be a fan of eggplant, at all, until I started eating it in curries and now – well I’m sold. These little balls sound delightful, they look absolutely wonderful and I just cannot wait to try them out! Beautiful work!

    Also – chickpea brine is the bomb dig, I’ve been using it all over the place lately too! xxReply

  • Valentina @Hortus

    Love this recipe! I’m happy I have found a recipe for eggplant meatballs that does not involve breadcrumbs. We do have a special recipe in Italy for eggplant meatballs, but it’s essentially…well, bread. Pinning! <3Reply

  • Inês

    Hi Laura,

    This sounds so good! 🙂 as always.

    Do we really just need to add the chickpea liquid that comes with the canned chickpeas or does it have to be the aquafaba method?

    Thank you 🙂

    InêsReply

    • Laura

      Hi Inês, I really just added the liquid from the chickpeas to this with all the other mix-ins in the food processor. No pre-whipping with starch or anything else 🙂
      -LReply

  • Brian @ A Thought For Food

    I’m so glad your summer is going well. I’ve been following along to the book coverage over on Instagram. I can’t begin to imagine how much work is involved, but every picture I see makes me more and more excited for its release. So, you go girl!!! 🙂

    These meatballs look right up my alley. I’ve done ones with mushrooms and eggplant, but didn’t think to add chickpeas and the za’atar!Reply

  • Marianne

    These look totally yummy.

    If I want to make these without GF bread as the binder and still stay gluten-free, what do you recommend? Would coconut flour work? If I use eggs, will take provide enough binding?Reply

    • Laura

      Hi Marianne, I think if you subbed the chickpea water/aquafaba with an egg, you might be in business. Although I am concerned that the mixture might be too wet. Coconut flour tends to be super drying, so if you’re using that, I would start with 1 tablesoon, mix it up in the food processor, stop the machine, and then see if the mix is pinching together. If it still fells too soggy/totally wet, add another spoonful of coconut flour. The resulting mix should be sort of tacky (enough to hold together with minimal pressing/forming), but not really wet. Let me know if your attempt works! 😉
      -LReply

  • Rosie

    I find this aquafaba thing amazing- who first realised you could use it in place of egg white? ‘Meatballs’ with aubergine (sorry, eggplant!) sound brilliant 🙂Reply

    • Laura

      I call it aubergine sometimes too! 😉
      -LReply

  • Jo

    I love the laid-back routine of summer too..BBQs, harvests, beach picnics. I’ve been hearing so much about aquafaba lately so this is the perfect excuse to try it out! I am so excited for your book Laura! xxReply

  • Julie

    Made these tonight with a traditional basil pesto and a quick tomato sauce on the side (needed to use up basil and tomatoes from our garden) and it was delicious! I cooked a spaghetti squash on the side and it was perfect. Thanks!!!Reply

  • kristie {birch and wild}

    These photos slay me. So. Good. I have yet to play around with chickpea water, but I am very intrigued by the concept. As I am by these meatballs.Japanese eggplant looks so beautiful growing. I will have to add it to my garden next year.Reply

  • Alice

    We made this tonight–utterly delicious, and a great find for my eggplant-skeptical husband.Reply

  • Sophie | The Green Life

    Oh this is genius! I’ve never used chickpea water before but I think I might give it a try with this one. Everything in this recipe sounds so perfect! I love za’atar so much, I would literally put it in every single one of my meals if I could.
    And I must say that your garden is my new life goal.:) Thank you for this gorgeous post!Reply

  • Jessie Snyder | Faring Well

    Can I just say for the um-teenth time how stoked I am for your cookbook?! I may need to shut my blog down for a month when it is released so I can cook from it and only it (!!!). And now these meatballs. Ive been so scared of aquafaba, but now feel it has validity after getting your seal of approval. Imma thinking these need to happen real soon. And your garden? LOVE. <3Reply

  • Iyja

    Laura, you’re the best! I look forward to every new post, and we (my meat-and-potatoes-raised partner included) unequivocally love each recipe- I can’t wait for your cookbook! Milles mercis and tonnes of good vibes from Winnipeg.Reply

  • Noknok

    These look amazing – can’t wait to try. As we head into busy school months, I’m wondering if any of this could be frozen? Is acquafava affected by temperature? Would you bake the eggplant balls part way to keep them stuck together? Thx!Reply

    • Laura

      I’m honestly not sure if freezing changes the texture of these! I did make an extra batch myself and froze them just to see how they would perform. I think pre-cooking them at least a little bit is be the way to go. That way they won’t soak up excessive moisture as they thaw. Plus it makes things go a bit quicker at meal time too. Hope you try them out!
      -LReply

  • mardi

    i cook my chickpeas from dried…the water that they cook in, will it suffice for what you call for from the canned ones?Reply

    • Laura

      I think aquafaba refers to the chickpea soaking liquid, so if you store your chickpeas with that cooking water, I’d go for it. There’s something about what the cooked chickpeas emit into the soaking water that creates the binding/volumizing potential.
      -LReply

  • Bowhaus

    I’ve just made the aubergine balls, and in order to get the consistency right, I think I should have processed things separately. Mine was really runny, and the toast didn’t break up until the whole thing was really, really soft. Was okay after being in the oven, but after putting soooo many lovely things in it, I was a bit disappointed with the flavour – couldn’t distinguish aubergine, or chick peas, or almonds or z’atar. Will make the pesto later and see if that improves things. I love the blog, though, and your beautiful photos.Reply

  • Becca | Spices and Spatulas

    These look incredible!! Is there nothing aquafaba can’t do? So glad you posted a new recipe here, I’ve missed looking at your gorgeous photos in non-instagram form. Can’t WAIT for your book! xoReply

  • Anna

    Love the realism in your photos and it gives me hope that someday I can have a messy garden too! I’ve just made these after staring at a bunch of tiny eggplants from my CSA all week and drawing a blank. Your recipe couldn’t have come at a better time.

    Subbed garbanzo flour for almond meal, spinach for kale, and added a tsp of aleppo pepper to give the balls a little kick. They were delightful and I thought the flavors played very well together. Reminded me of Ottolenghi. Thanks for this inspired mess, Laura 🙂Reply

  • erin {yummy supper}

    Laura, you’re blowing my mind with this aquafaba thang… Somehow I missed it, but can’t wait to experiment. I love the zero waste thing.
    And your eggplant meatballs look amazing. Must try before summer’s over.
    xoxo
    EReply

  • PatMad

    Delicious recipe! Tried it tonight and absolutely loved it. Thank you!Reply

  • Elena

    Made a double batch of these…twice this week!! SO GOOD!Reply

  • Nina

    The sounds and looks of this is heavenly!Reply

  • Nissrine @ Harmony à la Carte

    I love everything about this recipe Laura. The za’atar, the kale pesto, the combination of it all together and your gorgeous garden and all that Mediterranean flare. It reminds me of all things home. My mother has always used chickpea brine to bind stuff,it’s a Lebanese kitchen trick apparently, so it kind of makes me laugh that it has suddenly become this internet phenomenon. Although I will say that the thought never crossed her mind to make a pavlova, meringue or macaroon out it, that’s pretty genius and I’m in awe of the recipes I’ve seen out there. Best of luck finishing up the cookbook. Yours is one I look forward to buying.Reply

  • Mahée Ferlini

    This is a beautiful dish, hope it’s as good as it looks. Great job on the pictures. It looks like you have a great garden as well. Thank you for the recipe!Reply

  • Eleanor

    Oh my!!! The meatballs are AH-MAZING! So fragrant and delicious! Well done! Will 100% be making these again 🙂Reply

  • Kristy

    I don’t have a food processor – do you know if this will work as well in a blender?

    (Also, I have to admit I’m not vegan, but my roommate is vegetarian and I’m trying to branch out my cooking and find things that I’ll like and he can eat! These look so different but good, I’m excited to try them!)Reply

    • Laura

      Hi Kristy,
      Thanks for this lovely comment. I think you could make this work in a blender–just as long as you don’t over-mix it. The final mixture should be pasty, but still chunky. As long as you keep an eye out, you should be fine.
      -LReply

  • Jamie

    Hi, I just made your meatballs (haven’t yet put them in the oven), but the consistency reminds me of a falafel recipe I make with chickpeas (I got it from Sarah Molton). Here you roll the balls in panko crust and saute. I think I’ll bake them tonight according to your directions, but have you or anyone else tried that method? Maybe that would be more like an eggplant “burger”?

    Love your site!
    JamieReply

  • Anna

    Just came across your beautiful blog! I am in love. Your recipes look amazing and your shots are gorgeous. Thank you for inspiring me to get in the kitchen! 🙂Reply

  • Amy

    Hi – I’ve just made the mix and it’s like a sticky thick paste, I don’t know how I’m going to roll these into balls… I had the same issue with your millet nuggets.

    I’d LOVE a video where you show how to turn these mixes into shapes properly, mine just end up being sploges that flatten into discs in the oven.

    Thank you!Reply

    • Laura

      Hi Amy,
      It is a naturally thick and sticky mix. If it seems TOO wet and the balls aren’t holding their shape, I’d try toasting and chopping another slice of bread to add to the mix to dry it all out a bit. And definitely oil up your hands before shaping the balls. Hope these tips are helpful!
      -LReply

  • Victoria

    love this!!! but I currently have other beans made right now- do you think I could sub the 1/2 cup chickpeas with 1/2 cup adzuki, lentil and mung bean mix and a chia or flax egg binder? Reply

    • Laura

      Hey Victoria!

      I’m confident that those substitutions will work out just fine 🙂
      -LReply

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