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italian freekeh “meatballs”

by Jackie Newgent  |  December 28, 2015  |  2 Comments

You don’t need to give up spaghetti and meatballs when eating healthier. Simply pick a better-for-you pasta, like bean-based or whole grain noodles, and top with vegetarian “meatballs”. I’ve made these with 100% real ingredients and based them on cracked freekeh, which is a young green wheat. They’re not designed to mock meat; they have a culinary quality of their own. The texture and taste of the “meatballs” are craveable … no meat required!

Ideally, serve these freekeh balls with protein-packed pasta, such as edamame, lentil, chickpea, or other bean-based noodles, and sauce of choice. Instead of marinara, I prefer these “meatballs” served with Mediterranean diet appeal, such as paired with pesto or fresh lemon-olive oil sauce. Try accessories like sun-dried tomatoes and toasted pine nuts, too. Hope you enjoy this new taste of comfort, Meatless Monday style!

Calories saved: 120

Why it’s better for you: There’s lots of plant-based goodness, including plenty of fiber.

italian freekeh “meatballs”

Yield: 25 meatballs

Serving Size: 5 meatballs

italian freekeh “meatballs”


  • 1 cup dry cracked freekeh (such as Greenwheat, Freekehlicious, or Freekeh Foods)
  • 2 2/3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 3/4 cup plain dry whole grain breadcrumbs
  • 3/4 cup grated Romano cheese
  • 1 medium uncooked Yukon gold potato with peel, coarsely grated
  • 1 medium red onion, coarsely grated
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 3 large organic eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried hot pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • Organic olive oil cooking spray


  1. In a medium saucepan, add the cracked freekeh and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Stir, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until fully cooked and liquid is absorbed, about 22 to 25 minutes. Set aside to cool, uncovered, about 30 minutes. Then chill the cooked freekeh in the refrigerator until ready to use. (Tip: Do this step a day in advance.)
  2. Add the chilled freekeh to a large bowl and stir to break apart the grains. Add the breadcrumbs, cheese, potato, onion, garlic, basil, eggs, salt, hot pepper flakes, and fennel seeds and stir to combine well. Chill this mixture in the refrigerator, at least 30 minutes.
  3. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Firmly from mixture by hand into 25 meatballs, about 1/4 cup each. (Note: If additional moistness is necessary, add an additional egg to the meatball mixture.) Place meatballs onto a large unbleached parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Generously spritz the meatballs with olive oil cooking spray. (Tip: Fill a culinary spray bottle with extra-virgin olive oil.) Alternatively, lightly brush with extra-virgin olive oil.
  4. Bake until cooked through and browned, about 45 minutes, gently flipping over meatballs halfway through the baking process. Serve as desired with pasta and sauce of choice.


Per serving: 290 calories, 9g total fat, 3.5g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 100mg cholesterol, 720mg sodium, 38g total carbohydrate, 7g dietary fiber, 3g sugars, 13g protein

The “Before” Version

Inspired by Chef John’s Italian Meatballs

Per serving (5 meatballs per serving): 410 calories, 27g total fat, 9g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 160mg cholesterol, 950mg sodium, 8g total carbohydrate, 1g dietary fiber, 2g sugars, 31g protein


Tasteover Tips

  • There are many ways to replace part or all of the meat in a recipe. Freekeh provides an excellent example of how whole grains can offer desirable texture in meatballs in lieu of meat.
  • For added flavor and a slight punch of antioxidants, prepare the freekeh in vegetable broth rather than water.
  • Consider using a stronger herb, such as fresh basil instead of parsley, to heighten flavor when going meatless.
  • Pair vegetarian meatballs with pasta, sauce, and toppings that best match the end result. Think about flavor first. It’s OK not to stick with the tried and true!


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