High-Altitude Bison Meatballs with Simple Marinara

Runner Shalane Flanagan and chef Elyse Kopecky teamed up to create a cookbook for runners, and they’re excited to share three recipes with Fitbit readers. They aren’t afraid of red meat, and these juicy meatballs take your post-run pasta to the next level. Don’t forget to check out Run Fast, Eat Slow, their collection of delicious recipes that go the distance.


Photo by Alan Weiner

High-Altitude Bison Meatballs with Simple Marinara
for recovery and preventing iron-deficiency

Bison’s bright red hue comes from iron, and for a runner, iron is key to keeping your red blood cells efficiently transporting oxygen to your hardworking muscles. Even a slight iron deficiency can seriously impact your energy level. Not good when you’re training to break records!

These rock-star meatballs are Shalane’s saving grace when training at high altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona. Bison, aka buffalo, is also high in protein and essential fatty acids, making this dish a perfect recovery meal after a 24-mile training run at 6,910 feet (or, for the sane, a 6-mile trail run!).

1 egg, beaten
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1 cup finely minced kale (about 4 leaves), stems discarded (a food processor works great for mincing)
¼ cup almond meal or almond flour or fine bread crumbs
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½  teaspoon fennel seeds
¾  teaspoon fine sea salt
½  teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 pound ground bison or ground beef (preferably not lean)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 recipe Simple Marinara Sauce (below)
12 ounces dried spaghetti (gluten-free if sensitive)
8 fresh basil leaves, torn (optional)

In a large bowl, stir together the egg, Parmesan, kale, almond meal, garlic, oregano, fennel seeds, salt, and pepper flakes. Add the bison (or beef) and use your hands to thoroughly combine the meat. Form the mixture into 12 meatballs, about 2 inches in diameter. Roll each meatball firmly in your hands to ensure they hold together.

In a large Dutch oven or wide heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Place the meatballs in the pot in a single layer without crowding them, and cook, turning the meatballs so they brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Scrape the brown bits off the bottom of the pot as you go. Set the meatballs aside on a plate. (If using ground beef, pour out all but 1 to 2 tablespoons of the fat prior to making the sauce.)

In the same pot, make the Simple Marinara Sauce. Add the meatballs. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens, 30 to 45 minutes. Cover and keep warm over low heat until ready to serve.

While the sauce is simmering, cook the pasta according to the package directions.

To serve, divide the pasta among 4 warmed pasta bowls and arrange the meatballs on top along with a generous ladle of sauce. Garnish with Parmesan and fresh basil, if using.

Serves 4*

Nutrition Facts (per serving)

Calories 873*
Protein 44 g
Total fat 38 g
Saturated fat 11 g
Carbs 91 g
Fiber 14 g
Sugar 16 g
Sodium 1880 mg

*Editor’s note: Shalane eats these pasta and meatballs after running 26 miles at altitude, but if you’re not an endurance athlete, this is a bigger plate than you need. Stretch the recipe for 6 servings, instead. Meatballs make great leftovers!

Simple Marinara Sauce
for endless options

This basic but mighty marinara sauce makes a terrific base for endless dishes. It’s a jumping-off point for our Marathon Lasagna, Pasta Primavera with Tempeh “Sausage”, and High-Altitude Bison Meatballs (above). It’s also superb smothered on top of our Millet Pizza Pies with any assortment of your favorite pizza toppings.

If you’re serving it straight up without adding seasoned ground meat, we recommend adding a few pinches of red pepper flakes to heat up the flavor.

Make a double batch in a large pot and freeze half—you’ll be one step ahead of the game. See the recipe ideas at right.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cans (28 ounces each) whole or diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon minced fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional, if you like spice)
Handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped (optional)

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the carrots, onion, garlic, and salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft but not brown, about 8 minutes.

Add the tomatoes (along with their juices), oregano, black pepper, and pepper flakes (if using). If the tomatoes are whole, break them up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered, until the sauce thickens, stirring occasionally, at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour 30 minutes for a thicker, richer sauce.

Leave the sauce chunky or blend with an immersion (stick) blender until smooth. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed.

Just before serving, stir in the basil (if using).

Makes 2 quarts

Nutrition Facts (per serving)

Calories 190
Protein 4 g
Total fat 11 g
Saturated fat 2 g
Carbs 22 g
Fiber 10 g
Sugar 14 g
Sodium 1081 mg


Reprinted with permission from Run Fast, Eat Slow by Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky, published by Rodale.

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