Let Your Imagination Run Wild With These Lentil Rice Balls

As a food writer and cookbook author, I have a number of good friends who have also written excellent cookbooks. Do I own them all? No. In a perfect world, my entire home would be filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that I could fill with all my friends' gorgeous masterworks, but alas, I do not live that sort of Beauty And The Beast lifestyle. After I spend a few months cherishing them deeply, nearly all my books find their way to the donation box, except for the ones that I deem essential for reference (like The Joy Of Cooking) or those with recipes that have become essential to my lifestyle. Such is the case Toss Your Own Salad by Eddie McNamara—a fun, usable vegetarian cookbook whose pages I've been staining for the past three years. While every recipe great, one in particular should be a classic: the lentil and rice veggie burger, courtesy of Eddie's Israeli mother-in-law, Elka.

What makes this recipe a classic is its crazy versatility—the resulting dish is like plant-based fresh beef alternative, but instead of being synthesized in a lab, it's made of things found in nature. The spices and cheese you use in this recipe are up to you, leading to countless variations based on your mood. Some ideas: cheddar and chili powder; Gouda and smoked paprika; mozzarella and ground porcini mushrooms; goat cheese and garam masala.

You can shape the lentil mixture into burgers to fry up in a skillet, like Eddie does in his book, or bake mini "meatloaves" and glaze, or you can scoop it into balls and air fry, like I do (with Eddie's blessing) in this adaptation. I prefer using my air fryer for my cumin-spiced balls because it's cleaner and faster than deep frying. If you want to deep-fry them in oil or cook them in the oven, go to town. They're your balls, and you should be allowed to fiddle around with them as you like.

Lentil Rice Balls with Lemon Tahini Sauce

Makes 36 balls or 16 burgers

For the balls

  • 1 cup white rice
  • 1 cup brown lentils
  • 3 onions, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 cup grated cotija cheese (or any cheese you'd like)
  • 2 Tbsp. cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. finely ground black pepper
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup corn or potato starch
  • 1/4 cup olive oil

For the lemon tahini sauce

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Juice and zest of 1 lemon
  • 2 Tbsp. tahini
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup ice water
  • Rinse the rice and lentils together, then transfer to a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the rice and lentils begin to take on color and smell nice and toasty. Add seven cups of water; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for 40 minutes (you want them to overcook). If the mixture looks as if it's drying out too much while cooking, stir in another half cup of water.


    Meanwhile, heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, then add the onions and baking soda. Cook, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until they caramelize to a deep golden brown. If the onions begin to stick to the bottom of the pan, add a tablespoon or two of water to deglaze the pan, then keep on cooking—the whole process should take about 25-30 minutes.

    Stir together the overcooked lentils, rice, and onion in a large bowl. Add the cheese, cumin, salt, and pepper and stir vigorously for a minute or two to help the mixture cool down. Take a little taste and adjust the seasonings as you see fit, then stir in the eggs. Place in the refrigerator until cool, about 10-20 minutes.


    Mix the cornstarch and breadcrumbs together in a bowl. Scoop the lentil mixture into 36 balls, roll them in the breadcrumbs to coat, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. (At this point, you can freeze the balls for future use.)

    Preheat the air fryer, brush the lentil balls with a bit of olive oil, then fry in batches at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Serve with a green salad drizzled with tahini sauce.

Tahini Sauce

Microplane the garlic into a bowl with the lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt. Whisk together and allow to sit for 15 minutes.

Whisk in the tahini. It might seize up into clumps, but don't worry. Just keep whisking, pounding out the clumps while drizzling in the ice water. Once it's smooth, give the sauce a taste and add salt and/or water as desired.