These vegan “meatballs” are so good, you won’t miss the meat. The trick? Combine tender, roasted eggplant with protein-rich tempeh, season just right, and brown in an olive oil-slicked skillet. Serve in a just-so-spicy tomato sauce and all that’s needed is some crusty bread to sop up any extra in the bottom of the bowl. Feel free to make and form the meatballs up to a day ahead, browning them in the pan just before serving.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
Cut off the stem of the eggplant and cut in half lengthwise. Lay flesh-side-down on a baking sheet. Bake the eggplant until tender enough that a paring knife slips right in and the skin is slightly wrinkled, about 35 minutes. Remove from oven and leave until cool enough to handle.
While the eggplant cools, make the sauce. Empty the cans of tomatoes into a medium saucepan. Use your hands to squash the whole tomatoes into pieces. Add the onion (no need to chop), olive oil, chili flakes, and salt. Bring to a boil and then drop the heat until the sauce simmers. Simmer for 25 minutes. When the sauce is done, remove the onion (discard or save for another use) and stir well. Puree with an immersion blender or in a blender or food processor if you prefer a smoother sauce.
Peel off the skin of the cooled eggplant. If some of the flesh of the eggplant adheres to the skin, run the blade of a sharp knife along the skin to remove it. Finely chop the eggplant so it looks a bit like ground meat. Transfer to a large bowl. Crumble the tempeh into the bowl so it’s in tiny pieces. Add the breadcrumbs, Pecorino or vegan Parmesan, currants, pine nuts, mint, and salt. Use your hands to vigorously blend the ingredients together.
Form the mixture into 15 balls that are about 2-inches in diameter.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet (ideally cast iron or non-stick) over medium-high heat. Add as many meatballs as fit in the pan without overcrowding. Brown on all sides. The meatballs don’t need to cook through as with traditional meatballs. Once browned, transfer to a serving platter.
To serve, put a few spoonfuls of sauce into a shallow bowl. Top with 3 to 4 meatballs and add a little more Pecorino or vegan Parmesan on top.