(not) meatballs & marinara

I didn’t set out to make (not) meatballs, in fact, I just wanted to make one of my favorite recipes again with a slightly different twist. What is this favorite recipe of mine? FALAFEL! Say it with me now – FALAFEL! yum.

Anyway, since I wanted to pair the falafel with a marinara sauce, I decided to switch up some of the ingredients to make them a little more Italian. I added parmesan, nixed the cumin and cilantro, and added some bread crumbs and egg for binding purposes. Then I thought, “Wait, what? These are just meatballs minus the meat…”

Well, let me just tell you – any meatball would be jealous of all of the flavor packed into these special little chickpea (not) meatballs. Seriously, this stuff is so good that I kept eating the chickpea mixture straight out of the food processor (before I added the raw egg, btw).

One word of warning, though. They are quite soft in texture. And the longer they sit in the sauce, the softer they get. So, I suggest topping the (not) meatballs with sauce just prior to serving. If you’re keeping them for leftovers, keep the sauce in a separate container. Sure, I doused mine in sauce and they’re in the fridge right now mingling and getting softer by the moment… but they tasted so good at lunch today that I didn’t give a second thought to the texture. But, I know some people have texture issues, so a fair warning is in order.

(not) Meatballs & Marinara

chickpea (not) meatballs
The pricing is just for the balls and the sauce, because you can eat them many different ways. Over pasta, stuffed into a pita, or just plain in a bowl.

5 from 2 votes

(Not) Meatballs & Marinara

This is a great vegetarian alternative to meatballs & marinara with a bean based, falafel-like (not) meatball.

Total Cost $6.38 recipe / $1.06 serving
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Total Time 50 minutes
Servings 6


(not) Meatballs

  • 2 15 oz. cans chickpeas $2.18
  • 1 small red onion $0.70
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic $0.16
  • 1/2 bunch flat leaf parsley $0.39
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan $0.24
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper $0.02
  • 1/2 tsp salt $0.02
  • 10-15 cranks fresh cracked pepper $0.02
  • 1 large egg $0.23
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs $0.16
  • 4 Tbsp vegetable oil for frying $0.12


  • 1 medium yellow onion $0.23
  • 1 6 oz. can tomato paste $0.53
  • 1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes $1.29
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil $0.03
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano $0.03
  • 1/2 tsp brown sugar $0.02
  • 1/4 tsp or to taste salt $0.01


  1. Empty both cans of chickpeas into a colander and rinse with cool water. Shake off excess water and transfer to a food processor. Also add the parsley leaves, red onion (roughly diced), whole garlic cloves, parmesan, cayenne, cracked pepper, and salt. Pulse the mixture until it forms a rough paste. Occasionally scrape down the sides of the bowl to ensure even processing.
  2. Transfer the chickpea paste to a bowl. Mix in the bread crumbs and egg until thoroughly mixed (I used my hands). Measure out one tablespoon portions and roll them into a ball. Continue until all of the mixture has been made into balls.
  3. Heat about 3 Tbsp of vegetable oil in a heavy duty skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot (the surface will look rippled or wavy), add about half of the chickpea balls. Allow them to cook until golden brown on all sides. If they stick, allow them to brown more before attempting to roll them over. Transfer to a plate covered with paper towel. Add more oil to the skillet as needed and cook the second batch of balls.
  4. While the second batch of balls are cooking, dice the yellow onion for the sauce. After the last batch of balls have cooked, add the diced onion to the skillet with the remaining oil and cook until the onions have softened.
  5. Once the onions have softened, add the tomato paste, diced tomatoes, basil, oregano, brown sugar, and one cup of water. Stir the mixture until it is thoroughly combined. Allow the mixture to simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed (I needed about 1/4 tsp of salt to balance the sugar and acidity).
  6. Either add the chickpea balls back to the sauce to re-warm, or serve the balls with the sauce spooned over top. The (not) meatballs and sauce can be eaten alone, stuffed into a pita, or spooned over a plate of pasta.


chickpea (not) meatballs in pita

Step By Step Photos

rinse chickpeas
First rinse the chickpeas under cool water. Shake off as much water as possible.

seasoning food processor
Transfer the chickpeas to a food processor and also add the parsley leaves, red onion (roughly chop it), whole garlic cloves, parmesan, cayenne pepper, cracked pepper, and salt.

Pulse the mixture in the food processor until it forms a slightly chunky paste. You’ll need to scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally to keep it even in texture.

add egg bread crumbs
Transfer the mixture to a bowl and mix in the egg and bread crumbs. I just squished it all in with my hands. You’ll want to make sure it is *very* well mixed. For the record, I did try shaping and frying one ball before adding the egg and bread crumbs. It was soft and kinda crumbly but you could probably get away with it if you don’t want the egg or bread crumbs.

shape into balls
Shape them into 1 Tbsp sized balls. I got 33 balls out of the mixture.

fry in skillet
Heat some of the vegetable oil in a skillet and when it is very hot, add the balls. Cook on all sides until golden brown. A non-stick skillet will make this A LOT easier. My first batch kind of stuck and fell apart but the second batch (once the skillet was hotter and the oil had sealed off the pan better) didn’t stick at all. So, this step can be tricky.

Let them drain on a paper towel covered plate. I probably will brown them better on next time, but I was impatient. BTW, they are insanely delicious at this point. I ate about five of them just as they were.

cook onion
Now for the sauce. Dice the yellow onion and add it to the remaining oil in the skillet. Cook the onion until softened.

canned tomatoes
Add the tomato paste and diced tomatoes. I used a can of diced tomatoes with garlic and basil already added, but you can use plain as well.

Also add the dried basil, oregano, and brown sugar.

add water
Also add one cup of water. Stir everything up really well and let it simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper as needed. My sauce needed about 1/4 tsp of salt.

add chickpea balls
Add the balls back to the sauce to re-warm. If you only plan on eating some of this now and saving the rest for later in the week, only add what you will eat to the sauce to prevent excessive softening.

sauced balls
Serve warm! I really could eat them just like this, maybe with some naan or pita on the side.

chickpea (not) meatballs trio
OR stuff them inside a pita or spoon them over some pasta… if you’re a carb-y type person :)

chickpea (not) meatballs
I really wish you could taste the picture… these things are seriously flavorful! …oh, and make sure you’ve got some mint gum. There’s a lot of garlic and onion in there.