Eggplant Meatball Casserole with Air Fryer Option

These delicate vegetarian meatballs are lighter in texture than standard meatballs, but full of flavor.

1 1-pound eggplant, peeled and cut in 4 3/4-inch planks
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 1/3 cups fresh bread crumbs, preferably from a hearty Italian loaf, divided
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 large egg
1 28-oz can whole plum tomatoes, pulsed in food processor
red pepper flakes
8 ounces pasta of choice, cooked and drained
4 ounces mozzarella cheese, sliced into 12 thin squares

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt, place in a single layer around a colander set over a bowl, and let stand for 30 minutes. Rinse eggplant, drain, and squeeze dry, pressing out excess moisture and patting with paper towel. Removing excess moisture helps make it easier to roll the balls.
2. Meanwhile, spread 1 1/3 cup breadcrumbs in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until dried and just turning golden, 5 minutes. Let cool.
3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 10 inch cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the eggplant in a single layer; cook, flipping one time, about 5 minutes. Transfer to colander. Repeat adding another tablespoon of oil and second half of eggplant. If pan gets too hot, adjust heat. Wipe out pan. Let eggplant cool slightly in colander.
4. Transfer eggplant to a food processor, discarding any extra juices that drained out. Add toasted breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and minced garlic. Pulse until mixture is a chunky paste, about 6 pulses. Transfer to a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in egg. Chill until cold, about 30 minutes. Form mixture into 12 balls, coating the outsides with remaining breadcrumbs to help shape the balls.
5. If frying stove top, chill at least 1 hour until firmer and cold and up to overnight. Best results with an overnight chill. If air frying, mist lightly with canola oil spray. Lightly spray the air fryer basket as well.
6. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
7. To fry stove top, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 10 inch enameled cast iron casserole or cast iron skillet over medium-high. Add meatballs working in two batches; cook, turning carefully with a spoon to help retain shape, until browned all over, about 6 to 7 minutes. If pan gets too hot, adjust heat. Transfer to a plate.
8. To air fry, transfer meatballs to the air fryer basket. Cook at 425 degrees for 6 minutes or until lightly browned. Depending on your air fryer, you may have to work in batches.
9. Add remaining tablespoon oil and sliced garlic to the skillet; stir until fragrant, 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, a large pinch of red pepper flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt; bring to a boil. Return meatballs to pan; spooning sauce over to coat.
10. Spray a 9-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Pour the cooked and drained pasta into the dish and top with the meatballs and sauce.
11. Bake until sauce is slightly thickened, 18 minutes. Remove casserole from oven. Top each meatball with a piece of mozzarella; return to oven. Bake until cheese is bubbly and golden in spots, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Servings: 4