Plant-based meats have grown in popularity over the last few years. But most importantly, the quality and taste of them has improved exponentially as well. The improvements are so great that carnivores and herbivores alike often can’t even taste the difference between the real thing and the plant-based versions.
When developing recipes for our cookbook Cooking with Plant-Based Meat, we learned some key tricks to making plant-based meat just as satisfying as the real stuff. One of those tips is to incorporate bold flavors to deeply season the meat. This increases its savoriness and makes it even more indistinguishable from regular meat. Mixing in superflavorful ingredients like pesto certainly does the trick.
And in these Pesto Cocktail Meatballs we don't just use pesto once, we use it three times.
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The first place we used pesto was in the meat mixture, which fills the meatball with that fresh basil flavor and adds some brightness.
The pesto comes in a second time when we stir it into our tomato sauce. Along with the garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, the pesto helps season the meat mixture further. Adding the fresh flavor of basil, an additional punch of garlic, and the soft nutty flavor of the pine nuts helps bring it to the next level.
Cooking with Plant-Based MeatThe recipe experts at America's Test Kitchen show how to cook 75 recipes successfully with modern meat mimickers—producing juicy, savory, meaty flavor—that make meat-free eating into a luxurious (and even preferable!) experience.
Finally, for one last addition of pesto, we decided to spoon mounds of it onto each meatball. Not only does it look beautiful contrasted with the bright red tomato sauce, but it adds one more blast of flavor to each bite.
The addition of white bread to the mixture binds the meatball and keeps it both moist and tender. This allows us to skip the egg, helping us keep this recipe 100% plant-based.
You could eat these meatballs yourself or serve them as part of a spread at your next celebration. However you enjoy them, they are sure to be a hit, whether you’re a meat eater or not.
Pesto Cocktail Meatballs
Serves 6 to 8
Total Time: 55 minutes
- 4 cups fresh basil leaves
- ½ cup pine nuts, toasted, divided
- 3 garlic cloves, minced, divided
- ¾ teaspoon table salt, divided
- 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1 slice hearty white sandwich bread, torn into 1-inch pieces
- 12 ounces plant-based ground meat
- ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
We prefer to make our own pesto here, but you can substitute ½ cup store-bought pesto, if desired; you will still need ¼ cup pine nuts for the crunchy garnish. Serve with crusty bread for swiping up extra sauce.
- Process basil, ¼ cup pine nuts, one-third garlic, and ½ teaspoon salt in food processor until finely ground, about 30 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. With processor running, slowly add ¼ cup oil and process until smooth. Transfer pesto to bowl.
- Process bread, 2 tablespoons pesto and remaining ¼ teaspoon salt in now-empty processor until evenly combined, about 20 seconds, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. Break ground meat into small pieces and add to processor. Pulse until mixture is combined, about 10 pulses.
- Remove processor blade. Using moistened hands, pinch off and roll meat mixture into generous 1-tablespoon-size meatballs and transfer to large plate. Transfer meatballs to refrigerator and let chill for 15 minutes. (Meatballs can be refrigerated for up to 24 hours.)
- Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add meatballs and cook, gently turning as needed, until browned on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes. Push meatballs to side of skillet. Add pepper flakes and remaining garlic to center and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes and bring to simmer.
- Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 5 minutes. Off heat, stir in 3 tablespoons pesto and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer meatballs and sauce to platter, dollop with remaining pesto, and sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup pine nuts.