This recipe for Pesto Turkey Meatballs with Goat Cheese Polenta has been in weekly rotation in our house, so I though it was high time I shared it. I don’t share a lot of meat-centric recipes on this site. It’s not that I am trying to deceive anyone into thinking this is a vegan or vegetarian blog — as my bio clearly states, I happily follow a label-free way of eating. The reason I post mostly plant-based or vegetarian recipes is that I am honestly conflicted about sharing recipes for meat. The truth is, we as a society need to consume less meat for the future of our planet. With many of my recipes, I strive to create delicious food that happens to be vegetarian in the hope of inspiring people to eat this way more often. However, I myself feel healthiest when I incorporate a little animal protein into my diet (about once or twice a week), and I realize that the vast majority of people don’t have the desire or the resources to go completely vegetarian, let alone vegan. After all, the very notion of going “plant-based” comes from a place of immense privilege in the context of a food system in which millions of Americans struggle to put food on the table or simply do not have access to high-quality food.
The focus shouldn’t be a futile attempt to try to convert everyone to a perfect plant-based diet; rather, the focus should be on fixing a broken food system that favors factory-farmed animals and the industrial crops that feed them in the first place, while encouraging incremental habit change among consumers. From a sustainability perspective, the problem is not necessarily the consumption of meat itself, but rather its production. Regenerative farming and grazing practices, if replicated on a large scale, have the potential to sequester 100% of the current carbon emissions while simultaneously regenerating the soil and improving its biodiversity. I purchase only the highest quality, sustainable versions of the animal products I consume to support this movement (think: grass-fed, pasture-raised or free-range and, increasingly, food labeled regenerative), a decision rendered affordable by my family’s decreased overall consumption of them. I am privileged to be able to access and afford these products, and I recognize this is not currently an option for everyone. My hope is that as demand increases for these products and policies change (hopefully!) to promote them, regenerative practices will become more common and prices will go down. All of this is to say, do what you can and do what feels right for your own health. Moving forward, I’ll be sharing a broader range of recipes to give a more realistic picture of how I eat for my own health and the planet’s.
So back to these meatballs. They are a welcome change of pace from your typical red-sauce laden meatballs, swapping tomato sauce with a zippy kale pesto and baking them instead of pan-frying. The additions of pesto, Greek yogurt and lemon zest to the meatballs themselves keep them tender and brighten the flavor. Goat cheese polenta is a delicious accompaniment that is at once light and creamy. This recipe has a few components, but it comes together pretty quickly, particularly if you prepare the kale pesto in advance. This meal is perfect for March, striking the right balance between comfort food and freshness while we wait for spring to come. The recipe makes quite a lot of meatballs, with the intention of having leftovers for the week or serving a crowd. Feel free to cut the recipe in half if you don’t want the leftovers.
I’d love to know how concerns about the environment are affecting the way you eat, if at all. I think the more we generate judgement-free and nuanced conversations around the subject, the more positive impact we can have. Enjoy! xo Maggie
- 1/2 small yellow onion, minced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2/3 cup breadcrumbs (I used whole wheat)
- 1.5 tsp sea salt
- A pinch of freshly ground pepper
- 2 tsp lemon zest
- 1/4 cup greek yogurt (fall-fat)
- 2 tbsp pesto (see below)
- 1 egg, whisked
- 2 lb ground turkey (preferably pasture-raised, but do what you can!)
For the kale pesto:
- 1/3 cup walnuts, toasted
- 3 handfuls of kale (about 3 large stalks, stems removed)
- 1 cup basil leaves
- 3 tbsp lemon juice
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- Pinch freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan (optional)
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
For the goat cheese polenta:
- 6 cups water and/or milk (I prefer 4 cups water and 2 cups milk)
- 2 cups polenta
- 6 oz. goat cheese
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tsp sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F and line a large sheet pan with parchment paper.
- Make the kale pesto. Toast the walnuts in the oven on a dry sheet pan for approximately 8 minutes until fragrant. In a food processor or blender, pulse the kale, basil, toasted walnuts, lemon juice, salt and pepper until coarsely ground, scraping down the sides if necessary. With the food processor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Taste for seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if necessary. The slight bitterness from the kale will mellow as it sits. Set aside.
- Make the meatballs. In a large bowl, mix together the onion, garlic, breadcrumbs, salt, freshly ground pepper, and lemon zest until well combined. Add the yogurt, pesto, egg and turkey to the bowl and mix with your hands until all the ingredients are evenly distributed. Take care not to overmix, which can yield tough meatballs. Roll into golf ball size meatballs (approximately 2 inches) and place on the parchment lined baking sheet. You should get roughly 2 dozen meatballs. Drizzle the meatballs with olive oil and bake for 15-20 minutes, flipping them halfway, until golden brown and cooked completely through (to 165 degrees F).
- Make the polenta. While the meatballs cook, make the polenta. Bring the water and milk to a rapid simmer in a large pot. Add the polenta and whisk until no lumps remain. Cook for approximately 10-15 minutes, stirring constantly, until polenta has thickened and is tender. Remove from heat and stir in butter, goat cheese, salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.
- To serve: remove the meatballs from the oven and place in a large bowl. Toss with 1 cup of the pesto and the juice of half a lemon. If the pesto is quite thick, drizzle with a bit of olive oil to thin out. Serve meatballs over a scoop of polenta, along with crumbled goat cheese, extra pesto, lemon zest and a sprinkling of fresh herbs. Enjoy!
Shortcut: use store-bought pesto in place of homemade kale-pesto.