turkey pesto meatballs and orecchiette

As long as we are a full six days before fall begins, I am allowed to sneak in one more zucchini recipe. It would be right there in my contract, had I one, above the expectation of ironed shoelaces and below that of a daily slice of chocolate biscuit cake. I’d actually intended this recipe for July (and the eggplant involtini for August). But July was so hot, and August wasn’t much better; I couldn’t bring myself to publish recipes that require oven time, so I waited for a better moment to arrive. Our patience has been rewarded; this brothy, late summer-y bowl of pasta and meatballs is absolutely perfect for right now, with the kind of sunny warm days that require a morning and evening cardigan — i.e. the very best weather on this earth, full stop.

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We start with a sheet pan of ground turkey meatballs but we add pesto to them. We’ll roast them on a sheet pan with some vegetables that go well with pesto; I chose zucchini but others will work. While they roast, we’ll boil some orecchiette, whose shape acts like tiny meatball catcher mitts. And then we put everything together in a brothy pesto puddle in a bowl that might be a fork thing, might be a spoon thing, or might be both; I see no reason to choose.

turkey pesto meatballs and orecchiette

Book tour! I promised you a Smitten Kitchen Keepers book tour announcement this week but something has come up — something good! — we are going to need one more week to get everything in order. I can’t wait to share everything with you; I hope we get to hang out this fall/winter.


6 months ago: Banana Cream Pie
1 year ago: Baked Farro with Summer Vegetables
2 years ago: Tangy Braised Chickpeas
3 years ago: Crisped Chickpeas with Herbs and Garlic Yogurt
4 years ago: Flapjacks
5 years ago: Tomato Bread
6 years ago: Plum Squares with Marzipan Crumble and Piri Piri Chicken
7 years ago: Caponata
8 years ago: Chocolate and Toasted Hazelnut Milk
9 years ago: Baked Pasta with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage
10 years ago: Baked Orzo with Eggplant and Mozzarella
11 years ago: Roasted Eggplant with Tomatoes and Mint
12 years ago: Peach Shortbread and Grape Focaccia with Rosemary
13 years ago: Corn Bread Salad and Chocolate Pudding Pie
14 years ago: The Baked Brownie, Spiced Up
15 years ago: Hoisin Barbecue Sauce, Lemon Layer Cake and Tortilla De Patatas

Turkey Pesto Meatballs and Orecchiette

  • Servings: 4
  • Source: Smitten Kitchen
  • Print

If you use a bouillon base for broth, such as Better Than Bouillon, you could replace the 2 cups of broth with 2 additional cups of pasta cooking water and add the bouillon to it.

  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound (455 grams) ground turkey
  • 1/2 cup panko, or another plain, dry breadcrumb
  • 1 cup basil pesto, homemade or store bought, divided
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced, divided
  • 2 tablespoons grated parmesan, plus more to serve
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 pound (455 grams) zucchini or summer squash, sliced into 1/4″ half-moons
  • 1 pound (455 grams) dried orecchiette
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth (see Note)

Heat your oven: To 450°F. Coat a large sheet pan with oil, or line it with nonstick foil for easier cleanup.

Prepared the meatballs: Combine turkey, panko, 1/4 cup of the pesto, half the minced garlic, 2 tablespoons grated parmesan, water, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, many grinds of black pepper, and the egg in a large bowl with a fork, mixing until just combined. Coat your palms lightly with olive oil and use a heaped tablespoon or 1.5-tablespoon scoop to measure the meatballs, rolling them briefly in palms to smooth them, and space them out on the prepared sheet pan.

Prepared the zucchini: Toss zucchini in a big bowl with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and lots of black pepper. Scatter zucchini around the meatballs on the tray.

Roast meatballs and zucchini:Transfer the tray to the oven and roast for 15 to 18 minutes, until meatballs are cooked through. For better color on top, transfer meatballs and vegetables to your oven’s broiler for 3 to 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the orecchiette: In a large pot of well-salted water, cook your pasta until 1 minute shy of done, so it still has a little bite left to it. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup pasta water [and up to 3 cups, if using the bouillon option, see Note up top].

Make brothy pesto and assemble: Heat empty pasta pot over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 2 garlic cloves. Cook garlic until just golden at the edges, about 1 minute. Add 2 cups of broth and bring it to a simmer. Add 1/2 cup of remaining pesto, stir just until warmed. Transfer meatballs and zucchini to brothy pesto in the pot, and add drained pasta. Cook everything together, tossing to evenly coat, for 1 to 2 minutes.

Distribute meatballs, zucchini, and orecchiette to wide serving bowls, ladling over any pesto broth left in the pot. Finish each bowl with an additional spoonful of remaining pesto, more salt and pepper, and grated parmesan cheese. Eat right away.

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94 comments on turkey pesto meatballs and orecchiette

  1. teaplease

    Does anyone have a store bought pesto they recommend? I’ve only ever had the kind that comes in a tiny jar from a the grocery store and have never really enjoyed it

      1. Wendy

        I really like Costco’s pesto in the refrigerator section. Mix that with their frozen spinach ravioli and maybe some frozen peas for a dinner that requires zero effort!

        1. France

          Costco’s pesto is the absolute best store bought one I’ve ever had. All real
          Ingredients, great price point, and it truly does last for a long time in the fridge so don’t left the size of it deter you.

        2. Liz

          THANK YOU FOR THIS. I made it as soon as I saw it and didn’t even bother to go to the store when I realized I only had a quarter pound of zucchini (although I did want more). This was absolutely outstanding and even picky children inhaled it.

      2. Terri

        Like you, I find the tiny jar ones to be substandard, but like others, agree that the Costco one is really one of the best of all non-homemade varieties. I buy two jars at a time and almost immediately divide them into ice cube trays and stick them in the freezer. When frozen I transfer the little pesto cubes to a freezer bag. They’re the perfect size to throw into soups, stews, pastas, homemade salad dressings and even stirred into mayo for a fabulous sandwich spread. Each little cube is approximately 2 1/2 Tbs.

        1. Anne

          I used to freeze Costco pesto in cubes but developed an even more minimal effort (aka lazier) approach. I now just freeze the whole container, the oil in the pesto prevents it from freezing solid, and when I need pesto, I just remove the bottle from the freezer and dig out what I need with a spoon.

    1. Elisheva

      Oh this looks perfect for September – not to change a recipe or anything but I might transform this into a warm pasta salad situation for a weekend lunch 🤔

    2. deb

      Yes, I actually do. But I’m not sure if it’s just a locally distributed one. I like the one from Gotham Greens. I’ve never liked storebought pestos before but this tastes almost exactly like homemade, and doesn’t seem like it’s mostly oil.

    3. Michelle

      My family likes Rana brand pesto, it’s refrigerated with minimal ingredients. When you mix it with the pasta it is smooth. It’s a Genovese style of pesto as well (which means it has cheese). In my opinion you should keep trying different brands because the taste and textures of them all are very different.

    1. deb

      Ah, thank you! You’ll add it if you don’t feel that the broth is sufficient to leave a little puddle behind. You might not need it. (I find I do when the pasta is more al dente, but not always.) Will fix.

    1. Laura Adrian

      Cauliflower goes with pesto and with turkey, though it would need to cook longer. I like zucchini, but live with somebody who doesn’t like any of the summer squashes. I’m not sure if I want to try this with cauliflower or something else.

    1. Datura

      Suspect that the chocolate biscuit cake is a reference to Queen Elizabeth’s favorite cake (and the ironed shoelaces refer to King Charles). You’ll find multitudes of recipes and commentaries online.

  2. Paula

    Okay, hear me out. Meatballs in the air fryer are life changing. No heating up the kitchen, no mess, just hit ’em with some olive oil spray and hit it. I bet the zucchini would work too. You know, in case It ever gets hot again.

  3. Maro

    i saw this and immediately sent my spouse to the store for orecchiette. i made a zillion little mistakes and it still turned out spectacular! going on repeat for sure.

    1. mks

      We’re in New England and buy a delicious local-ish pesto (Vegetaballs brand) in the refrigerated section of the store – it’s with the plastic tubs of pre-packed olives, fresh pasta, etc. Maybe other regions have similar?

  4. Miriam

    Costco pesto is definitely worth a try. I freeze it in smaller containers and it is great to have it on hand. I wish I could eat this right now! It looks devine.

  5. Joni

    I have a bunch of shredded zucchini in the freezer that I intended for your ultimate zucchini bread or your chicken zucchini meatballs. I’m wondering if I could add them to these meatballs? Or would it be better to mix them in with the pasta? Any thoughts would be much appreciated!

  6. Lisa

    Sounds wonderful, reminds me of Julia Collin Davidson’s everyday turkey pesto meatballs and spaghetti, going to make yours tonight! I heard that your new cookbook is now coming to my doorstep a whole week early!!!

    1. Lauren

      Made a vegetarian version using chickpeas instead of meatballs, extra zucchini, and whole wheat gemelli. Super easy and delicious. We had 2/3 of a zucchini per serving and could easily have used more given how much it cooks down.

  7. Sharon

    This was amazing. My only change was to cut the broth by half as my husband isn’t fond of having soup for dinner (?!?). We both loved the flavours and I’ll make it again.

  8. J.

    Hello Deb — it’s Sunday morning in Istanbul, and I just put some black lentils on to soak to make your dal recipe. Sat down with some coffee to read Smitten Kitchen, and could not resist writing you a little note: you’ve brought so much pleasure and joy to my life with your generosity of food knowledge! I’ve been following SK for more than a decade, and I love your chatty posts, the research you invest and time you spend in creating recipes, and the original twists that you give them. It’s always an adventure. I feel happy and expectant every time I open your website. I feel gratitude every time I feed my family and friends delicious and healthy food. That’s a lot of joy you’re putting into the world! I felt that I needed to tell you that, and to say thank you. May it be paid back to you and yours a thousand-fold…. :)

  9. Patty S

    This is a great recipe. I served it on a bed of arugula to amp up the veggie content. I only had 12oz of orecchiette, but that was still more pasta than we prefer, so next time I will only prepare 8oz. Definitely a keeper.

  10. Suzanne

    Made this today for Sunday supper. Used Impossible Burger in place of the ground turkey which made a fabulous dish with layers of flavor and the pesto broth is divine. The only thing I would change is to dial back the salt just a bit. Thanks for another amazing recipe, Deb!

  11. Amanda

    I really enjoyed this recipe. I added a little extra pesto (my recipe made too much but not enough to be worth freezing so I added it all in – hard to have too much pesto in a dish). I also subbed out the zucchini for green beans as someone suggested (I’ve just had too much zucchini lately). The meatballs are delicious and so easy to make. Highly recommend.

  12. Molly

    This was wonderful!! I was skeptical of the broth portion, but loved it in the end. I did not have enough pesto to out in the broth, but it didn’t matter. Still great, and better the next day!
    Always wonderful, too, when you just HAVE all the ingredients!

  13. Kathy Beirne

    I made a soup out of the roasted meatballs and zucchini and it was delicious! Chicken broth, diced carrots and egg noodles. It was a perfect fall meal. Pesto turkey meatballs are the new avocado toast😊

  14. Anne

    For those who have made it, I want to make some and bring to a friend for dinner. She lives about 10 minutes away and I will bring over as soon as I finish. Any tips for preparation or transportation?

  15. Babs

    This was really good – the meatballs are very light and fluffy, which I appreciate in a late summer/early fall dish. We halved the broth so this was definitely more pasta dish than soup (just a personal preference); loved how the zucchini meshed with everything.

  16. Danielle

    My family LOVED this! Made a double batch for 4 adults, and 5 kids. Every bowl was devoured! Definitely going into the dinner rotation.

  17. Kellie

    I wasn’t so sure about the amounts of both broth and squash, but the end result was amazing! Not soupy at all, and the meatballs kept their structure with a great tender texture. I’m sure we’ll be making this one again!

  18. Laura

    This was tasty and easy. Used broccoli in place of zucchini, because that’s what we had, and it worked great. Ended up wanting some lemon juice at the end, but overall really enjoyed!

  19. Michelle

    I make Trenette al Pesto (thank you Luca!) for my kids almost once a week. I used the orecchiette from the pantry one night and haven’t turned back since. They’re perfect for pesto. I’m going to have to add some zucchini to the pot next time.

  20. Kathryn

    This is delicious, without being too rich or overwhelming. I used shells instead of orecchiette (just what my store had), and they were great to pick up the broth. I used Trader Joe’s Genova Pesto, it was delicious and had great flavor. I would recommend this recipe to anyone! It make a big pot and will feed a family or give you lots of leftovers!

  21. Claire Van Konynenburg

    I made this exactly as written other than using ground chicken. I do not care for ground turkey. The meatballs are delicious and the sauce is really nice too. I broiled the meatballs and veggies for some color. The dish was very tasty and pretty too! I recommend for a remarkably easy, but delicious dinner.

  22. Jean

    The recipe calls for 1 cup of pesto. The directions indicate that 1/4 cup goes into the meatballs and 1/2 cup into the sauce. Where does the remaining 1/4 cup go?

    1. deb

      Spooned on at the end, when serving.

      Finish each bowl with an additional spoonful of remaining pesto, more salt and pepper, and grated parmesan cheese. Eat right away.

  23. Trisha

    The meatballs were tasty, but the rest of the dish didn’t really work for me. I was worried about having too much salt in the dish since I was using a commercial pesto and Better than Bullion. I got that too work out ok but my zucchini basically steamed on the pan instead of roasting. It was fun to try anyway!

  24. Lisalen

    So good! I made homemade pesto with a bunch of local basil. My zucchini broke down a little too much so I’d prob change up the veg next time. Pretty simple esp if pesto is pre made. Thanks for the yum!

  25. I made the meatball and zucchini part of the recipe (leaving out the pasta and broth additions) and loved it! The meatballs are delicious and cook in exactly the time Deb specifies. I doubled the quantity of zucchini because zucchini loves to be roasted and served the dish with pesto from the very end of our summer basil plant. Delicious dinner!

  26. stephanie

    i don’t think i’ve ever seen an SK recipe i didn’t want to make, but sometimes there’s one you have to make RIGHT NOW. and this was one of them. it was so good! i used ground turkey thighs which i got from whole foods. i made my own usual nut-free pesto (pulverize pecorino, garlic, s&p, and the juice of half a juicy lemon in the food processor, then blitz in a 4oz container of basil, then remove to a bowl and stir in olive oil until desired consistency forms) and i used homemade chicken stock.

    i made some small adjustments out of laziness/preference – i used 1t garlic powder (and 1t onion powder) in the meatballs instead of minced garlic and upped the salt to 2t (diamond crystal kosher). i seeded the zucchini and cut it into bigger sort of abstract bias-cut pieces, and only added it to my portion at the end because my partner doesn’t care for it. i cut the chicken stock to 1c since we aren’t much for soups, and let it simmer with a couple smashed garlic cloves and s&p while the pasta cooked and then fished them out before dumping in the pasta. (i didn’t want to mince garlic today okay? lol) i added in all of the remaining pesto at this point, along with some of the pasta water and some pecorino. topped with crushed red pepper. clean plates all around, will absolutely make again.

  27. Maclean Nash

    This turned out great! Easy enough for a weekday meal, but also great for a dinner party!
    Very flavourful! I was a bit skeptical about how much liquid there was, but once you add the pasta back in, it soaked up pretty quick and turned out just like Deb’s photos!
    Will make again!

  28. Katie in Wisconsin

    Yummy! My kids and I both liked it! I added a dash of red pepper flakes, which was a nice touch. My store-bought pesto likely pushed the salt too far, so I’ll reduce the added salt next time. I’ll also add kale or chard to the broth process to sneak-in more veggies.

  29. These meatballs looks yummy, and mouthwatering! I’ve tried with different types of meats for meatballs like Elk, WildBoar, Bison, etc…. these seems interesting, I will definitely try this time! Thanks for sharing wonderful recipe tips here! Keep it up!

  30. Cathleen

    If I know that this will leave me with leftovers for multiple days, should I keep the pasta separate from the broth until reheating? Or does the pasta hold up ok with all of the liquid? Thanks!

  31. Tariqata

    I *had* to make this right away and it was a perfect cozy meal for a rainy early fall day, and really streamlined to put together on a busy day. I *might* experiment with making the meatballs with chicken or pork in the future because I don’t love the flavour of ground turkey, but I did love the herbal broth and zucchini and the way the pasta and vegetables contrasted with the crispy meatballs, and there will definitely be a next time. I only used 8 oz of orecchiette and about 2 cups of broth because my kids refuse to eat pasta of any kind (weird, I know!) but that made at least 4 generous adult servings.

  32. Butteemeupw2

    There’s a lot of steps and a lot of dishes used in this dish but deeded to try it after my brother in law said it was a 10/10! He was correct; 10/10! I made nut free pesto because of nut allergies but followed the directions exactly, using 2 cups of vegetable broth because that’s what I had and zero pasta water. Everyone loved it! Can’t wait for your new cookbook!

  33. Amanda C

    “But July was so hot, and August wasn’t much better; I couldn’t bring myself to publish recipes that require oven time, so I waited for a better moment to arrive.”

    Thank you for acknowledging this! I know not everyone lives in a climate where summers are an actual firey hellpit, but I’m always beside myself when summer recipes featuring lovely seasonal produce ask me to pre-heat my oven to 425. I’m not trying to cook myself, here!

  34. I’m always looking for recipes to use up my zucchini, yet my kids are not a fan if I sneak it in. Does broiling the zucchini with the meatballs help give them a crunch? I ask because my kids eat most veggies cooked, but they keep telling me they don’t like zucchini. I think it’s because of the soft texture. I wonder if broiling after roasting is the key.

  35. Claire

    Made this as written tonight; it was delicious. Next time, I’ll use 1.5-2x the zucchini. To save a bowl, just toss the zucchini on a sheet pan first, then nestle the meatballs in. No need to dirty another bowl for the zucchini.

  36. Kristin

    Made this for dinner tonight. Absolutely delicious. My zucchini-hating 9 year old asked for seconds, and was specifically hunting out pieces of zucchini to eat. High praise indeed! Adding this to our frequent rotation. Lots of room to play with other seasonings!

  37. ella edelman

    This was delightful. A perfect way to use up more of my zucchini abundance. I followed the recipe, with the substitution of ground pork for the turkey because I had it in the freezer. I threw in some brocolli rabe greens from the garden and (sadly!) had to use store-bought pesto instead of fresh because my basil gave up weeks ago. I cut back slightly on the pesto because I was wary of the amount of garlic in there! In conclusion, the perfect late-summer main.

  38. Rae Francoeur

    I made this pasta dish and it was delicious. How many meatballs should we make? I made 12 but it looks like Deb made more than that. Also, I didn’t have zucchini but I did have some fresh Brussels sprouts that I sliced and roasted with the meatballs. That was a fantastic substitution. The roasted slices hold up well. I think there is too much pasta in this dish — not quite enough liquid, either. Finally, I could not find orecchiette and used bow tie (farfalle) pasta instead. I think the orecchiette would have worked better.

  39. Sarah

    This meal was truly delicious, thank you! Made it exactly as written and loved it. I’ll make other versions of it when local zukes disappear! The meatballs were so good!

  40. Maggie

    Do not sleep on this recipe, people; it is fantastic!

    Ingredient-wise, I made it as directed. My only material change was to roast the meatballs and zucchini on separate pans, swapping top-to-bottom halfway through (the one pan I started with ended up looking a little crowded but the time everything was on there, and I was afraid everything would just steam instead of browning). I used cavatappi, because I had it already, but I highly recommend using a flatter pasta, like orechiette or farfalle instead for pan volume reasons (cavatappi takes up a lot of space). Next time I might make smaller meatballs, up the zucchini by half, and drop the pasta to 12 ounces, but that’s just to suit my family’s preferences.

    It’s definitely best the first day, but leftovers were still good with a bit of broth added just before reheating, and the whole office was asking me what smelled so good, so it definitely gets the desk lunch stamp of approval.

    Oh, and I ate it with a big ol’ soup spoon!

  41. Kathyrn

    This was very tasty indeed! I upped the quantity of zucchini a bit and I would add still more. Next time I would use two baking sheets. Because it was all crammed in, the zucchini mostly steamed and I wasn’t able to get any nice colour on it, even by broiling. It just wants a little more space on the pan. Will definitely be making again!

  42. Jennifer

    Very delicious! Something a little different and was able to roast the vegetables and meatballs earlier in the day, then add the pasta/broth once ready.
    I recall a few years ago Deb saying she had an aversion to pasta and chicken combo dishes-and that was when I realized I did too!! I like this recipe because the turkey meatballs were so flavorful and there wasn’t a weird texture issue like I find with chicken/pasta!