How to turn stale bread into vegetarian ‘meatballs’ – recipe

<span>Tom Hunt’s <em>polpette di pane</em>, or vegetarian ‘meatballs’.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Hunt/The Guardian</span>
Tom Hunt’s polpette di pane, or vegetarian ‘meatballs’.Photograph: Tom Hunt/The Guardian

Today’s easy recipe for Italian vegetarian “meatballs” is a great way to use up stale bread in a tasty yet economical way. I like them gently fried, then mixed with tomato sauce and spaghetti, but they’re also great coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried or baked until crisp and delicious. They’re good with steamed seasonal greens, too. Other variations on the theme include placing a cube of mozzarella in the middle of each ball and taking this dish to the next level. Unless I’m feeling flush, though, I prefer to keep things simple with just breadcrumbs flavoured with parmesan or a vegetarian alternative (or whatever cheese I have to hand).

Polpette di pane, or vegetarian ‘meatballs’ with tomato sauce, white beans and greens

I’m a bit surprised that, even after almost six years of writing this column, I’m still discovering classic waste-saving recipes such as this one. If you like, these “meatballs” are surprisingly tasty just fried in olive oil and served on their own, but here I’ve turned them into a one-pot dish by cooking them in a tomato sauce filled with white beans and greens to make a wonderful and simple dinner for the whole family. I’ve added walnuts to the polpette mix, to give the balls more flavour and texture, but if you don’t have any, just add an extra 50g soaked bread.

True, these aren’t quite as nutritious as actual meatballs, but polpette di pane, or bread balls in English, score 10 out of 10 for thriftiness. They are very easy to make, too. Serve with pasta, grilled meat or fish, or vegetables – the last time I made them, I served the polpette with steamed cabbage and warm chickpeas dressed in olive oil and lemon juice.

Serves 2-3

150g stale bread wholemeal sourdough, ideally, for flavour, texture and sustenance
50g walnuts (optional), finely chopped, or an extra 50g stale bread
60ml aquafaba (chickpea or bean water saved from a can), or 1 large egg
20g grated parmesan, cheddar or vegetarian alternative
4 sprigs fresh basil, leaves picked, stalks finely chopped and reserved
Salt and black pepper
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra to finish
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
200g seasonal greens
, including the stalks – I used rainbow chard
400g tinned white beans of your choice
500g passata

Put all the stale bread in a large bowl of water. If it’s rock hard, it may need a minute in the water; if it’s fresher, it will need just a few seconds. Drain, then squeeze out any excess water from the bread and tear it back into the bowl.

Stir in the finely chopped walnuts, aquafaba (or one large egg), the grated cheese and the chopped basil stalks, then season, mash with your hands and roll into seven balls.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a wide frying pan on a medium heat, then add the garlic and greens and saute for a few minutes, until the greens wilt. Tip in the white beans and their tin water, and the passata, then bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has reduced and thickened.

Drop the bread balls into the sauce, cover the pan, turn the heat down low and simmer for 10 minutes – keep an eye on the sauce to make sure it doesn’t stick.

Serve topped with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and the ripped basil leaves.