Serves 8 to 10
Total time: 1 hour || Active time: 1 hour (Maybe longer the first time you make it)
My palate has a great memory. If it’s something like my mom’s birthday or paying rent I’m guaranteed to forget, but a slice of pizza I had during the Clinton administration will linger forever. And so it is with Spaghetti-os and our sordid history. Children, cover your eyes, this recipe will reveal quite a few things:
I don’t mind a couple of short cut ingredients when they get the job done.
I’m not above ordering food on the internet.
I was a juvenile delinquent.
I should have a job at the national vegan council for naming things.
As a 14 year old goth in the age before cellphones, my friends and I would do that thing of staying up all night being idiots, hanging out on the beach or at the park or whatever (I swear it was mostly innocent.) Since we told our moms we were sleeping at each other’s houses, we couldn’t really go home until it was light out. So we’d go the corner store and pop a couple of Spaghetti-O cans for breakfast, thanks to that easy pull-off lid. We’d pretty much sit on the street, black eyeliner streaming down our faces, ripped fishnets ripping even more, getting Spaghetti-o sauce all over our Salvation Army velvet dresses while we waited for the sun to rise. And, seriously, for shame, those Spaghetti-Os were good.
Sort of mushy rings of pasta swimming in a sweet, cheesy sauce tomato sauce. And don’t forget the meatballs! Chewy orbs that made you want to keep biting into them, even though you didn’t exactly know why – it could have been voodoo or MSG. I had two basic strategies for extending their little meatball lives – slicing them in half or saving them for the end. You totally won if your last bite was a meatball.
Well, sometimes my palate hits me with a strange craving, and I don’t know if Sisters Of Mercy popped up on VH1 classics or what, but I had a nagging for vegan Spaghetti-os. The first order of business was to see if the O-shaped pasta could be found, which brought me to the Wikipedia list of pastas and eventually to Amazon where I purchased three bags of Anellini.
I thought that the meatballs would work well with either tempeh or lentils (of course I had to ask Twitter first), but since I was out of tempeh, that answered that. And because I wanted mushy, but not TOO mushy, I added a little bit of vital wheat gluten. To make them addictive, some seasoned breadcrumbs and, since it’s like catnip for vegans, a touch of nutritional yeast.
The sauce was made velvety and cheesy with some cashews and nutritional yeast, but not too much. Instead of high fructose corn syrup, a bit of brown sugar caramelized with the onions gives the sauce a satisfying sweetness and cuts the bitterness of canned tomatoes. I also used crushed tomatoes with basil, for another dimension of sweetness.
The end result hit all the right notes for me. The lentils ended up being the perfect choice for the chewy texture I wanted and their naturally meaty made for excellent meatballs. I really think kids of all ages will dig this. What kid won’t want to eat something called Spaghetti-Nos? And not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’m pretty sure they taste better than their inspiration. Maybe I didn’t run outside and sit on the sidewalk to eat them, but I did wear a lot of black eyeshadow that evening. Coincidence?
~If you can’t find seasoned store bought breadcrumbs for the meatballs, add a pinch each of basil, oregano and thyme. Homemade bread crumbs won’t work as well (too soft), but cracker crumbs might fare a bit better if you must.
~If you can’t find crushed tomatoes with basil, just use a pinch or two of dried basil.
~If you don’t have a food processor, you can still get the job done (although you’ll need some sort of blender for the sauce.) Just get the onion grated and mash the lentils into a puree. If you warm them up a bit first they’ll mush up a lot easier.
~To soak cashews, just submerge them in water for at least an hour and up to overnight. This softens them up and enables them to get really creamy.
~The recipe makes a lot! Feel free to halve it. And if you’re short on time, just make the pasta or make the meatballs with regular sauce on regular pasta. It’s fun to do the whole shebang, but all of the elements would be good solo players as well.
~Lastly, while it isn’t difficult, this recipe does use quite a few pots and pans, so consider yourself warned! For time management purposes, start the sauce first and once it’s simmering, begin the meatballs. That should get everything done within an hour.
For the Cheesy Tomato Sauce:
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
Fresh black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons packed brown sugar
2 24 oz. cans crushed tomato with basil
1/4 cup cashews, soaked (see note)
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
For the Mini Meatballs:
1 clove garlic
1 small onion, peeled (tangerine sized or equivalent)
1 1/2 cups cooked green or brown lentils, rinsed, drained (a 15 oz can is fine)
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons vital wheat gluten flour
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup seasoned store-bought breadcrumbs
For everything else:
1 lb anellini pasta (or small pasta of your choice)
Olive oil for pan frying
To make the sauce:
Preheat a 4 quart pot over medium heat. Sautee onions in olive oil with a pinch of salt until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic about a minute more, then mix in the black pepper, oregano, salt and brown sugar. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the sugar is melted. Add the tomato sauce, cashews and nutritional yeast, cover and cook for about 20 minutes.
Now puree the sauce until smooth. It’s easiest to use an immersion blender. You can also use a blender or food processor, blending in batches. Once it’s smooth, keep warm in the pot until ready to use.
To make the mini meatballs:
We’re going to use the food processor fit with a metal S blade for most of the work here, so it should come together pretty quickly. First toss in the garlic and pulse until finely chopped. Now add the onion and pulse until minced. You don’t want any big pieces or they will ruin the texture of the meatball.
With a plastic spatula, transfer the onion/garlic mixture to a mixing bowl and set aside. It’s okay if some remnants are left, just try to get most of it.
Now in the food processor, pulse the lentils, nutritional yeast, wheat gluten, soy sauce, tomato paste, olive oil and water. Once everything gets mixed well, puree them until totally smooth, scraping down the sides to make sure you get everything.
Combine this mixture with the onion mixture and add in the breadcrumbs. Mix really well with your hands for about 2 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Roll the meatballs into cherry sized balls, I got 32 meatballs out of this. This goes very fast if you keep your hands clean and dry (I was averaging one meat ball every 10 seconds.) Preheat a large skillet over medium heat and pour in a thin layer of olive oil. You don’t want to crowd the pan, so pan fry in two batches. You should be able to tilt the pan and have all the meatballs roll around and get coated in oil, cooking until browned (no more than 5 minutes.)
Transfer first batch to a baking pan, cook the second batch, and transfer all meatballs to the baking pan. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, shaking the pan every once in awhile to toss the balls so that they cook evenly.
Boil the pasta while the meatballs are cooking. Drain pasta, and add to the sauce. When meatballs are ready, add them to the sauce as well. Toss carefully with a wooden spoon, being careful not to break the meatballs. Serve!
The sauce was cheesy perfection and the lentil balls were easy to make and held together. In the words of my daughter, “Hey, these meatballs [she means vegan meatballs] don’t fall apart like your other ones always do! They’re good!” And my husband loved that the creaminess of the sauce came from the cashews. Quote: “that’s wild!”
I’m making these right now! the sauce is amazing, but my neatballs are still kinda mushy. I’m letting them cook a little longer in hopes that they’ll firm up a little. Overall AMAZING, and delicious. stoked to make this reguarly.
I made just the meatballs with some couscous salad on the side, it was delicious! I’d love to see what couscous recipes you could come up with, by the way. 🙂
what can i substitute the cashews with? i have a tree nut allergy.
The lentil “Meat”balls were delicious even my non-vegan boyfriend really liked them, I froze them and ate them for a bunch of meals!!!
Delicious! Can’t get enough of these. My kids love them. Had to make them twice, used barbeque sauce the second time. Definitely a weekly menu item. http://crawford.cc/wordpress/2012/01/pasta-with-lentil-meatballs/ , http://crawford.cc/wordpress/2012/01/vegetarian-barbeque-meatballs/
these neatballs are absolutely perfect… WAY better than any freezer neatball i ever had! i added 3 more Tbsp of wheat gluten and about 1/4 c more breadcrumb to get them to hold together and the texture is spot on. thank you thank you thank you!!!
I just made and enjoyed this (sans meatballs) but the sauce was too sweet for me and not salty enough. Next time I think I’ll use just one tablespoon of brown sugar, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt.
You can also get more of the “canned” flavor by adding a teaspoon each of onion & garlic powder.
Thank you for sharing this, Isa!
oh, snap. i am so excited about this. i am exactly the same way, in that i get these nostalgic cravings for less than healthy consumables- and one of the biggest ones as a vegan has been meatball spaghettio’s! odd, i know it. but this is bananas, i am so excited to make these.
Two Ladies and a Ladle
I made these lentil meatballs with spaghetti squash and roasted veggies and then blogged about it a few weeks ago. My husband and I agree that this was the best recipe we’ve blogged about this year. So delicious! Thanks for the great recipe.
My husband and I had this for dinner last night. I used rotini, which holds sauce better than anellini. I made two batches of the lentil-balls. The first batch was made following the above directions. For the second batch, I chose to skip the pan-fry step and placed the balls directly in the oven. I cooked them for about 9 minutes, turned them over, and cooked for 9 more minutes. I finished the cooking process by broiling the balls for 2 minutes. The second batch had the same firmness of the first batch, saved me from dirtying another dish, and had better shape and coloring than the first batch. This recipe is definitely making it into the monthly dinner rotation.
This recipe looks great! I’ll have to use pureed pumpkin since I’m terribly allergic to tomatoes, but everything else sounds delicious!
This is probably the most awesome recipe for “meat”balls ever. Thank you! I’ve been making them with my own sauce, and they always come out so delicious. This was my attempt: http://whathappenedtothekitchen.blogspot.pt/2012/04/lentil-meatballs.html
I have never had spaghetti o’s before (I did have the canned alphabet spaghetti)… growing up vegetarian… But I had been looking at this recipe for weeks… the picture looked great. Well, I just made these last night. It was super yummy! My husband said the meatballs tasted a little like chopped liver. Really? He has been vegetarian for 20 years so he must have forgotten what liver tastes like : ) He loved it and took the left overs to work. My onion mixture was also a bit runny and the meatball “dough” was very moist. But I didn’t have much trouble cooking them in a stainless steel pan, but I did use more oil than I should have. I just put them on paper towel to blot the oil off before putting them in the oven. Also, I think I counted out 50 meatballs so mine must have been more like “grape tomato” size rather than “cherry tomato” size. I wouldn’t change a thing in this recipe! I have 10 mo twins, so I can’t say that I will make the meatballs every time… but very very doable and the results are amazing!!
Awesome! I just wanna know….can I can it? 🙂
These were AWESOME! *-*
I love you so much for sharing all those recipes! <3
Had these lentil balls tonight but with the marinara sauce from Veganomicon and spaghetti… YUMYUM!! It was so good, my fav ‘meat’balls so far! I had enough for about 3 people, and have the worst food baby ever now. Isa is my food God, she never lets me down!!
I usually use your recipe for beanballs when I want a sub for a meatball, but today I was looking for something different. As I was making hot meatball subs for the guys, I wanted something similar but meatless for myself! I made your sauce (hey, what they don’t know didn’t hurt them–they loved the sauce on their sammies! LOL) and I made the lentil balls–but with a couple of changes. I also must make food gluten free–vital wheat gluten and regular breadcrumbs weren’t going to fly. So what’s a girl to do? I added gluten free oat bran in place of both (I hadn’t baked GF bread because of the heat and was out of it)! Obviously I lost a bit in the texture you were going for in this recipe, but they held together well and tasted great! Also, I didn’t have cashews so I subbed raw pine nuts, which I totally love. I will definitely make these again–maybe I will actually make the spagetti too!! LOL
Just made this! minus the pasta. I must say…SO DELICIOUS! This sauce is now officially the family tomato sauce. Perfectly seasoned!
I probably should have rolled the meatballs a little more…but those I did roll perfectly still had a hard time keeping shape. (Though the flavor was perfection.) Maybe they needed more breadcrumbs or vital wheat gluten? Any tips for the next time I make them?
Made this tonight, tag team cooking with my bf. so yummy! Reduced sugar to only 1tbsp because I just can’t deal with things being too sweet… Then we had the donut cupcakes from veganomicon for dessert. Glorious! Isa, you’re a genius!
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I really enjoyed reading this post. The part when you mentioned leaving a meatball for the last bite really made me smile because it is just the thing I did when I was a kid and still do now that I am an adult. I love spaghetti and “meatballs” but this recipe is certainly a must-try. Thank you for sharing. I am just excited to get started!
The recipe looks great’ but my doughter has an allergy to cashew nuts.
Is there any substitute for this nuts in the sauce?
Hi Isa, as a relatively ‘new to the vegan world’ person, all of your recipes have been a hit. For this one, I didn’t read your ‘warning’ note of many pots and can confirm it is true… but it was certainly worth it in the end!! I actually used red lentils and found by adding a little more breadcrumb and frying the ‘meatballs’ a little longer in the pan to ensure a firm/crispy outside (before baking). Thanks so much.
Made a double batch of the meatballs to serve with a brown gravy over rice. Delicious!! I did cook my own green lentils, and had a similar issue with them not entirely holding their shape. I’ll add more vwg and bread crumbs next time, as some have suggested. But the taste and texture was outstanding. For breakfast, I’m crumbling up the leftovers to throw into some creamy gravy to top biscuits. Thanks for a great recipe!
I LOVE your cookbooks and trolling this web site! It’s some of my favorite food ever! But the best part is almost the way you talk about your inspiration (and share your cooking tips). It really feels like hanging out with a friend, and not many people can pull that off. Anyway, thanks for the recipe. Can’t wait to try it! 🙂
are the cashews necessary? im allergic.
Nah! Leave em out. Maybe add a little nutritional yeast.
I made just the meatballs and they are outrageous. I am not a lover of lentils, but this recipe is so tasty and easy to make. I gave up meat six months ago and while I’ve never looked back, I occasionally miss meatballs not so much for flavor but because they were always a quick dinner during a busy work week. This recipe sacrifices nothing. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to wait to eat them until my husband gets home. Thank you!
WOW!!! I just found your website a few weeks ago and have been trying different recipes. They have all been phenomenal! But this one literally made me say “OH MY GOD” after the first bite. SOOOOO delicious! I wanted to make it GF, so instead of the vital wheat gluten I tried adding 1/4 tsp xanthan gum. It seemed to work great as the meatballs held together perfectly! I halfed the entire recipe though, as I just wanted dinner and lunch for myself. THANK YOU, THANK YOU so much for exciting my tastebuds and posting such amazing recipes!!! 🙂
Good to know it works with xanthan!
I must try this! Rather than Spaghettios, my goth high school days revolved around pizza rolls with lots of garlic salt and Type-O-Negative (although This Corrosion was also a staple).
Been whole foods, plant-based for years now but I would make an exception for vegan pizza rolls if you ever feel like experimenting!
What a hit! Made exactly as written, my daughters loved the “lentil buddies”, adorable noodles and the not-too-sweet tomato sauce. Thanks Isa, you are a genius.
I’ve made the lentil balls several times since discovering them and they really hit the spot for people who miss Italian meatballs. I make them larger than the recipe suggests and usually quadruple it. I usually add Italian seasoning and parmesean cheese (or cheez for vegans) for a little more authentic flavor. I also find that they are less mushy if you mix in a little more breadcrumbs to soak up the wetness of some of the ingredients and bake for an extra 5-10 minutes.
For those who are curious, they freeze excellently, as I usually like to have a batch on hand to make anything from grinders to “meatball” pizza. I’ve made these for my omnivore husband and inlaws and they all love them. Thank you for this recipe!
Made this tonight with my wife and it was spectacular. Thank you for yet another great recipie, Isa!
This is seriously delicious! We’re definitely going to make this again soon!
I made a lentil meatball sub and it was bangin’! Thanks for the inspiration!
So yummy!!!!!!! I made this today and it made lots! I used alphagetti, and didn’t have cashews on hand.