Tender chickpea meatballs with zucchini, carrots, and cheese served with marinara sauce and pasta; this is our favorite vegetarian meatball recipe.
I have to say that we do have a soft spot for meatballs in our family. We love the real meatballs, made mostly with turkey or beef, sometimes with pork or fish, but not only those. And we love our vegetarian chickpea meatballs just as much. It's a super easy recipe made with pantry staples; it's all about searching and blending some ingredients, forming balls, and baking them in the oven.
I am trying a new meatball recipe at least once a month, and we love most of them. This vegetarian meatball recipe is a new variation that my kids love. So filling and satisfying, yet completely wholesome and healthy.
What do you need?
For the veggie meatballs (1):
A simple ingredient list using many pantry items, the only thing I might have to buy to make this tasty recipe is the zucchini.
- Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) – from a can.
- Zucchini – one small, about 200 g/ 7 oz.
- Carrot – one small, about 60 g/ 2 oz.
- Fresh and dried breadcrumbs.
- Make the fresh ones from a slice of bread. You will need about 30 g/ 1 oz fresh breadcrumbs; I prefer to weigh that amount because slice sizes can vary from one bread type to another.
- I had whole wheat breadcrumbs, but white bread should be fine as well.
- See How to Make Breadcrumbs if you want to learn how to make breadcrumbs from old bread at home.
- Gouda or Cheddar
- Hard cheese – a vegetarian hard cheese to keep the recipe vegetarian. Otherwise, Parmesan cheese is excellent.
- Spices: salt, pepper, sweet and smoked paprika, garlic powder, red pepper flakes (use to taste), and dried thyme. Instead of garlic powder, you can use two cloves of grated fresh garlic as well. You can also add one or two tablespoons of finely chopped fresh parsley or fresh basil.
For the marinara sauce (2):
- Strained tomatoes/ tomato puree/ passata; they are more or less the same thing. Not concentrated tomato paste. (Amazon affiliate link)
- Two small red bell peppers
- Olive oil
- You can use tomato sauce as well. In this case, cook the onions, garlic, and peppers as instructed. Add tomato sauce but leave the spices; tomato sauce is usually flavored. Adjust the taste to your liking.
Can I use marinara sauce?
A great shortcut is to serve the chickpea meatballs with spaghetti and your favorite brand of marinara sauce. In this case, just warm the sauce in a small pan and serve.
How to make chickpea meatballs?
The quickest way is to use a food processor. Alternatively, you can crumble the bread with your hand and grate the vegetables and cheese before blending them with the chickpeas and spices using an immersion blender.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius/ 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the holes of a mini-muffin pan with olive oil (Amazon affiliate link). If you don't have one, you can bake the vegetarian chickpea meatballs on a baking tray lined with parchment paper, but I like using the pan. The balls will keep their shape better, will be prettier, and more evenly golden.
- Breadcrumbs: If using crusty bread, remove the rind. If using soft bread, there is no need to remove the rind. Cube the bread and process it until you obtain breadcrumbs. Transfer to a large bowl. (1)
- Cheese: Cube and process the cheese; add it to the bowl with the fresh breadcrumbs. (2)
- Vegetables: Top and tail the zucchini and carrot. Peel the carrot. Chop roughly and pulse a few times until finely chopped. The veggies should look as if they were grated. (3)
- Mix: Return fresh breadcrumbs and cheese to the food processor. Drain the can of chickpeas. Add the pulses, spices, and egg to the bowl of the food processor. Blitz the chickpea mixture until finely chopped. Don't overdo or the meatballs will be too mushy. The mixture should be finely chopped but not become a paste. Adjust the taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to the bowl you used before. (4)
- Form 24 balls, as many as the holes in the muffin tin. They should be about as large as a golf ball. You can use a cookie scoop, but I never bother. Forming the meatless meatballs with the hands is easy; just remember to clean them from time to time to stop the meatball mixture from sticking too much. Place in the prepared muffin tray.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes until deeply golden and cooked through.
Make the red pepper sauce:
- Make the sauce and cook the spaghetti noodles while the meatballs are in the oven.
- Cook onions in a little oil on medium-low heat until softer and golden.
- Peppers: Add finely chopped garlic and peppers. Cook on low heat for 10-15 minutes until the peppers are soft. Add two splashes of water during the cooking time. This will help the peppers soften and will stop them from catching to the bottom of the pan. Stir often.
- Spices: Once the veggies are soft, add the spices and stir for one minute or so.
- Add the strained tomatoes, water, and sugar. Stir well, cover, and cook on low heat for about 10 minutes. The sauce should have thickened slightly.
- Adjust the taste with a bit of balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.
How to serve?
- Serve the chickpea meatballs with pasta and tomato pepper sauce.
- Stuff the veggie balls into sandwiches or hoagie rolls. You can top them with mozzarella and place them under the hot grill for 1 or 2 minutes until the cheese melts nicely.
- Crumble on salads or eat them as they are with your favorite dipping sauce - a super delicious, healthy snack.
- Make some wraps with guacamole/ cream cheese/ salsa + chickpea meatballs + grated cheese. So good!
- Stuff into pitas smeared with hummus. Add julienned or grated veggies like fresh carrots, kohlrabi, cucumbers, cooked beets, onion slices, and so on. Add some crumbled feta.
How to store?
- Refrigerate: The chickpea balls keep well in an airtight container for at least 3-4 days. Serve at room temperature or reheat in the leftover sauce.
- Freeze: for up to 2 months in freezer bags or containers. Defrost in the fridge or reheat from frozen in the oven (at 160 degrees Celsius/ 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes).
Can I make them without cheese?
- Sure. I often make them with nutritional yeast.
Can I make vegan chickpea meatballs?
- Many people replace the egg with flax seed eggs, but I cannot say how much of that because I've never tried it. To make them vegan, also replace the cheese with nutritional yeast.
Why are they mushy?
- You've over blended the mixture. Mix until finely chopped, but don't let the mixture become a paste. When baked, the meatballs should be tender but not mushy on the inside and slightly crispy and firm on the outside.
Do I have to use so many spices?
- Chickpeas need spices; they don't have much flavor themselves. However, if these are too many for you, you can use a spice mixture like Italian seasoning, Cajun spices, garam masala, or other Indian spices. Of course, the flavor will be different, but as long as you use a spice mix you like, everything should be fine.
Can I make patties for veggie burgers?
- Definitely. Form the mixture into several larger flat patties and place them on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and lightly oiled. Brush gently or spray with olive oil and bake until deeply golden and cooked through.
More vegetarian meatballs and patties:
- Baked Cauliflower Potato Patties
- Baked Broccoli and Cauliflower Balls
- Oatmeal Patties
- Potato Patties (or Pancakes)
- Corn and Zucchini Fritters
Chickpea Meatballs (with Vegetables and Cheese)
- Food processor
For the meatballs:
- 1 slice of whole wheat bread about 30 g/ 1 oz
- ⅓ cup vegetarian hard cheese Note 2
- ¼ cup gouda or cheddar cheese
- 4 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
- 1 zucchini about 200 g/ 7 oz
- 1 carrot about 60 g/ 2 oz
- 1 can chickpeas
- 1 large egg
- ¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes to taste
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
For the sauce:
- 1 onion
- 2-3 garlic cloves
- 2 small red bell peppers
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sweet paprika
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes to taste
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups tomato puree Note 2
- ½ cup water
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon black ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius/ 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Chop: If the bread is crusty, remove the rind. If it's soft, leave it. You will need about 30 g/1 oz breadcrumbs. Cut the slice of bread into cubes and pulse in the food processor until you obtain breadcrumbs. Transfer to a bowl. Cube all the cheese and process it as well; add it to the bowl with the breadcrumbs. Top and tail zucchini and carrots, peel the carrots. Cut into smaller pieces and process in the food processor until finely chopped. Alternatively, you can grate everything with a box grater.
- Mix: Return fresh breadcrumbs and cheese to the food processor. Add the drained chickpeas, dry breadcrumbs, egg, spices, salt, pepper, and blitz until everything is mixed. Don't over blend! The mixture should be finely chopped but not become a paste. Adjust the taste again, be generous with the salt and pepper. If the mix is too wet and you cannot form the balls easily, add 1 or 2 extra tablespoons of breadcrumbs until you can form the balls. Do not add too many extra breadcrumbs; the mixture should be pretty soft.
- Form: Brush the mini-muffin pan with olive oil. Form 24 balls about the size of a golf ball.
- Bake: Place the balls into the muffin tin and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. In the meantime, make the sauce.
- Chop the onion and the garlic cloves finely. Quarter and then slice the bell peppers thinly.
- Cook: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, and cook the onions until lightly golden, about 3 minutes on medium-low heat. Add garlic and peppers and cook for about 10-15 minutes or until soft, frequently stirring and adding two splashes of water in between to help the vegetable soften and to prevent them from catching. Add paprika, chili, thyme, and stir for 1 minute.
- Simmer: Add the strained tomatoes, water, and sugar, stir well. Turn the heat down and simmer for about 10 minutes. Adjust the taste with balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper.
- Add the meatballs to the sauce and reheat gently. Serve with pasta.
- Parmesan is fine as well, but it's not vegetarian.
- Tomato puree (passata or strained tomatoes), not tomato paste. If using tomato sauce or marinara, which are already flavored, you can leave out the spices (Amazon affiliate link).
- The nutrition is calculated without considering the pasta. 6 balls and ¼ of the sauce per serving.