Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce


Lettuce in meatballs? I know it sounds weird, but it really works. Tons of chopped lettuce and onion in the meatball mixture gives them an interesting crunchy-crispy texture when freshly cooked. (Picky kids may object to that texture, just because it’s different, but give them a try!) After a time, especially if the meatballs are frozen, the texture disappears, but the meatballs remain juicy and succulent. Plus, the vegetables lighten up the meatballs and lowers their per-ball calore count without sacrificing flavor. The meatballs are simmered in a thick, flavorful tomato sauce.

This is a really versatile recipe that can be kept in the refrigerator for a few days, or put into your freezer stash. You can make this for dinner and serve it over hot pasta, and set aside some for your bento the next day. It goes well with pasta or rice, can be a filling for a assemble-at-lunch sandwich, and so on.

Recipe: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

Makes about 25 to 30 meatballs plus sauce

For the meatballs:

  • 450g / 1lb lean ground beef (Lamb or pork will work well too. Turkey may work, though the meatballs may turn out a bit dry.)
  • 1 large or 2 medium onions (to equal 1 1/2 cups chopped) finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the crispy rib parts of romaine, cos or iceberg lettuce, chopped (I prefer to use the rib parts of romaine or cos lettuce, using the leaves for salads)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup dry plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dry thyme (optional)
  • olive oil for cooking

For the tomato sauce:

  • 1 medium onion (to equal about 3/4 cups chopped) finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 large or 2 medium cans (about 800g / 28 oz total) crushed tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary or 1 tsp. dried rosemary (optional)

In a large bowl, combine the meatball ingredients with your very clean hands. Combine well - it will seem too crumbly at first due to all the onion and lettuce, but it will all come together. Keep mixing until the mixture sticks together when formed into balls.

Divide into 25 to 30 portions or more. Roll each portion into a round ball. Heat up 1 or 2 large frying pans or skillets with olive oil, and brown the meatballs on all sides. Set aside.

In the meantime, make the tomato sauce. In a heavy-bottomed pan, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil until softened. Add the canned tomato and sprig of rosemary. When the sauce is bubbling, drop in the browned meatballs. Simmer the sauce until thickened over medium-low heat. Let cool before storing in the refrigerator or freezer.

This will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, or in the freezer for a month.


  • Instead of the lettuce, try: chopped up bean sprouts, the white stalks of Swiss chard chopped up, chopped up Chinese (napa) cabbage stalks. (In Japan I might use bean sprouts more than lettuce, since they are so cheap there (10-20 yen a bag). Here bean sprouts are rather expensive, so I use lettuce or one of the other alternatives.)
  • Add some chili powder or chopped red chili peppers to the sauce to turn it spicy. You could different spice combinations to give it an Indian, Middle Eastern, etc. twist.

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Re: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

Lettuce+meatballs, that's an interesting combination I wouldn't mind to try! :)
My mom usually adds one or two mashed boiled zucchini to soften the texture, but taste-wise you wouldn't tell. And if you want to go Italian, you might substitute the thyme with some majoran and grated nutmeg, they really give them a kick.
It's always nice to read your blogs, they're very inspiring!
Thank you!


Re: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

I'm living in Japan now, and the food prices here are quite shocking compared to North America. Do you know of any cheap grocery stores in Kyoto? For now, I guess I should skip the meat and go back to eating bean sprouts and udon...

Re: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

I really don't know the supermarkets in Kyoto - try asking a neighbor where they shop. If you don't speak Japanese, there is probably a American (or Canadian) expatriate group you can contact, or one that caters to foreign students. (Though Kyoto does have a reputation for being a rather expensive city.)

But in general, if you try to eat the same way that you do in North America in Japan, I'm afraid you will end up spending quite a lot. Beef is quite expensive (even the ordinary cuts, I'm not even talking about the special wagyuu meats and such). Pork and chicken are less expensive, but still more pricey than in the U.S. Cheese in general is expensive too. To eat within a tight budget, you will have to adjust to using different sources of protein, like tofu products, beans, eggs, inexpensive cuts of fish; eat less meat per meal, and so on - in other words, eat like Japanese people do. Good luck!

Re: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

This is fascinating, I am definitely going to try it! I will use turkey, I don't eat 'red meat.' Turkey always needs additional binder - for a pound of meat I would add an extra 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, or an extra egg, or some combination. More fat also helps for both binding and flavor - if using another egg for binder it also helps on the fat side, duck fat for amazing flavor, or some olive oil. And turkey needs more seasoning - Worcestershire sauce helps a lot (makes it more "meaty"), as well as just more salt/pepper and other seasonings. Because I prepare it properly my husband now prefers turkey instead of beef in most ground meat recipes.

Re: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

I just made it today, and it was delicous!! :)
I stored it in the refridgater, so i can have some more in the future! :)

Re: Meatballs with lettuce in tomato sauce

Yummy! I've been going through your posts for a few hours now getting inspired for when school starts back in two weeks and I love it! I'm a vegetarian but occasionally I'll eat chicken or other white meats and I think I'll try these with turkey instead of beef! Thanks for the recipe!!

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