Lentil Meatball Sub with Marinara Recipe from “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations” Author Kim O'Donell


Getting ready for your Super Bowl party this weekend? We’re focusing on Slow Meat in the run-up to the Seahawks returning to the Super Bowl. Slow Meat has two major prongs: eat better and eat less. Part of eating less meat is finding tasty and satisfying vegetarian dishes. If a dish is hearty, delicious and filling, who will miss the meat? Kim O'Donnel is a meat lover who's written two books about meatless cooking - The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook and The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations - and this recipe she shared with us is definitely going to fit the bill as hearty and delicious. Thanks, Kim, for sharing this with Slow Food Seattle! (Also check out her quick video about making the subs for a Super Bowl party!).

Lentil Meatball Sub with Marinara

Recipe courtesy Kim O'Donnel

Makes 6 subs

It started as a daydream. There’s a guy, let’s call him Luigi, hovering over a cast-iron skillet, delicately turning golf ball-size polpettine, the Italian approximation of meat balls, with Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” playing on the radio. He’s just poured himself a glass of Valpolicella. My mind’s eye zooms in on the scene, and I notice that these little brown morsels happily dancing in olive oil are not the stuff of pork or veal — but of lentils. I watch how they get golden and even a little crispy. Luigi ladles some tomato “gravy” into a bowl, then he places a few balls on top. The only thing that’s missing is a red checkered tablecloth.


  • 6-3/4 cups water 1/2 cup uncooked medium – or long-grain brown rice

  • 1 cup dried brown or green lentils

  • 5 garlic cloves: 2 whole, 3 minced

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus 1/2 cup for pan frying

  • 3/4 cup onion that has been very finely minced or grated using a box grater (about 1 medium-size onion)

  • 3 teaspoons dried oregano

  • 1 (23- to 28-ounce) container tomato puree

  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (or pecorino for a sheep’s milk option)

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/4 cup unseasoned medium-grind bread crumbs (panko makes a fun textural option)

  • 1 egg, beaten lightly

  • 6 (6-inch) sub rolls, toasted

  • Optional topping: 4 ounces sharp provolone or cheddar cheese

Tools: Food processor or handheld potato masher, 10- or 12-inch skillet

Kitchen notes: Both the lentils and rice must be completely cooled before mixing together and shaping into balls; otherwise you’ll have a goopy, unworkable mess on your hands. You’ll need about an hour of advance prep time before the meatball assembly can commence. The balls can be assembled in advance and cooked when ready to serve, as can the sauce. The recipe yields 26 to 30 meatballs, which make 6 to 8 ample servings. It is important to note that the balls are more delicate compared to their meaty counterparts, and care should be given when frying.

Don’t sweat it if you’re not in the mood to make your own marinara. Should you choose something off the supermarket shelf, choose a brand with as little sugar, salt, and fillers as possible.

Try these in a bowl for a sit-down supper or as a “meatball sub,” perfect chow for watching men in tights on television. For a cheesy topper, I recommend having some sharp provolone or cheddar on hand.

Here's what you do:

Cook the rice: Bring 3/4 cup of the water to a boil, then add the rice. Return to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, 40 to 45 minutes. Off the heat, keep the rice covered for 5 minutes. Measure out 1/2 cup of the cooked rice and transfer to a baking sheet or plate to cool completely. Refrigerate the remaining 1 cup of rice for another use.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the lentils: Place the lentils in a large saucepan, along with the 2 whole garlic cloves and the remaining 6 cups of water. Over high heat, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium. Cook the lentils until tender, 30 to 35 minutes. Drain thoroughly so that the lentils are dry. Allow to cool completely.

While the lentils cook, prepare the marinara sauce: In a medium-size saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat, then add 1/4 cup of the onion and the 3 minced garlic cloves, cooking until slightly softened, about 3 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon of the dried oregano and stir occasionally to minimize sticking.

Add the tomato puree and stir to combine the mixture. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat so the sauce can simmer. Cover and cook for about 20 minutes. Keep warm until ready to serve. (For prepared marinara sauce, heat until warmed through over medium heat, cover, and keep warm on low heat.)

Place the cooled lentils and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the lentils are mashed. (No food processor? Use a handheld potato masher.) Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl, then add the cooled rice, the remaining 1/2 cup of onion, the remaining 2 teaspoons of oregano, and the grated cheese, salt, black pepper, bread crumbs, and egg.

With a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, stir the mixture until well mixed.

Using a 1/8-cup measure, shape into balls. They will be slightly sticky to the touch. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Over medium-high heat, heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet until the oil shimmers. Gently lower the balls into the hot oil, cooking in batches and making sure not to crowd the pan, as they are somewhat delicate and benefit from space. Lower the heat to medium and pan fry on first side for about 3 minutes. Turn (or gently nudge) to second side and cook for 2 minutes.

Transfer the first batch to a baking sheet. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil to the skillet for subsequent batches and cook in the same manner. Transfer the balls to the oven to finish cooking, about 5 minutes; the balls will still be somewhat soft to the touch but will have dried out a bit and will have a slightly crispy coating.

To keep the balls warm while you prepare the broccoli rabe, lower the oven temperature to 225 degrees F.