Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chinese Lion's Head Meatballs

I find it totally fascinating that in general most people across the planet are eating the same things: sandwiches, fried dough, bread, stew, sausagemeatballs... It's not surprising - since our ancestors learned how to farm and cook grains, it wasn't a far jump to begin milling the grains to produce dough that could be baked into bread, fried, or used to make things like noodles, dumplings, or pie. Bready concoctions provided a cheap vehicle for all other foods in the form of sandwiches, wraps, pizzas, etc. Stew is the ultimate one-pot-cookery. Every culture has some form of "put everything in a pot and let it cook until it's done". Stew is simply an efficient way to make do with whatever you have. Sausage and meatballs are a method for making delicious use of cheap and otherwise unexciting or unappetizing parts of the animal.

Meatballs made of entirely pork seem to be surprisingly uncommon. Rather, ground pork is frequently used across the globe as an additive to increase the deliciousness of other meats. Pork fat is especially sought after for it's excellent ability to add moisture to leaner meats. (The sensation of "moist" or "succulent" food usually comes from fat, not water). Anyway, the Chinese don't shy away from pork. A popular meatball in eastern China (particularly Shanghai) is known as the Lion's Head (the meatball is the head, and the bed of cabbage it's served on is the mane). According to Wikipedia, Lion's Head meatballs can be up to 10cm in diameter!

Lion's Head Meatballs
1# Ground Pork
~1 tsp Fresh Ginger, minced
1 1/2 Tbsp Cornstarch
1 Tbsp Water
2 tsp Soy Sauce
pinch salt
(add 2-3 eggs to make these fluffier)
(chopped mushrooms are also a common addition)
oil for frying
1 head Bok Choi or Napa Cabbage
More Soy Sauce
(optional garlic)
Green Onion for garnish

Put pork, minced ginger, and salt into a large bowl. In a second bowl, stir together the cornstarch, water, and soy sauce until it's a smooth slurry - add this to the bowl with the pork in it. Thoroughly mix together and use your hands to form whatever size meatballs you want - I made roughly walnut-sized balls. To avoid an impossibly sticky mess on your hands - wet your hands with water before diving in to form meatballs. 

I think it's easiest to form all the balls, then wash your hands and start frying. Otherwise you could risk getting pork everywhere or burning your balls while you're trying to wash the pork off your hands. Alternatively, if you don't like cooking with your hands - you can use an ice cream scoop or spoons to make each ball.

Heat up some peanut oil (or sesame, or grapeseed, or canola) in a wok or heavy-bottomed pan on medium to low heat. Meanwhile, get some rice cooking!

When the oil is hot - add your balls! You should have enough oil to come at least half-way up each ball.

Don't touch the meatballs immediately after you put them in the frying oil! They will likely be stuck to the bottom, but if you give them a minute, they will unstick themselves. Whereas in my experience, if you try to unstick them right away, they will inevitably turn into a sticky mess. Let the meatballs fry for a few minutes until browned on the bottom and then turn them over and fry until they are nicely browned all over.

Move browned meatballs from the frying oil onto a paper towel to let the excess oil drain off.

Prepare the mane of the lion: Chop up some bok choi or cabbage and use it to line a large pan.

Drizzle maybe a 1/2 cup of mirin, 1/2 cup of stock, and a few Tbsp of soy sauce over to the bok choi. I also added some sliced garlic (fresh ginger also would have been good!). Place the fried meatballs on top and let simmer for about 20 minutes until the bok choi is wilted and tender. Season with salt.

Serve with rice and fresh green onions.

Two Red Bowls
The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mom's Spaghetti and Meatballs

I had this idea for a cooking project that I affectionately refer to as Balls of the World! The original plan was to make a flight of meatballs, featuring traditional meatballs from across the globe. However this would inevitably result in an incredible amount of meatballs - I would either have to organize a meatball party, or Alex and I would be eating nothing but meatballs for weeks. These things may still happen, but in the mean time, I think I'll explore the vast world of spherical meats one at a time, and what better place to start than the traditional meatballs of my family - my mom's meatballs.

Pasta was the staple food at my mom's house when I was growing up. Often just plain pasta with parmesan, sometimes with broccoli. Every couple of weeks though, my mom would get fancy and make meatballs and tomato sauce. I have fond memories of these meatballs adorning our daily pasta and of course there was the excitement of patiently watching/smelling/hearing the meatballs cook at the back of the stove.

Mom's Meatballs
Ground Beef
Diced Onion
Diced Carrot
Bread Crumbs
Salt & Pepper

To be honest, I just made up this recipe from memory with a few modifications. I'm pretty sure my mom used dried oregano and far less onions and carrots than I did. In the picture above, I used 1# beef, 1/2 onion, 1 small carrot, and a few sprigs of oregano fresh from my garden. I also used cornmeal because I was all out of breadcrumbs. My mom used to grind up stale sandwich bread in her food processor and then save the crumbs in a gallon ziplock bag in the freezer for later use in meatballs or other things. So, these aren't exactly my mom's meatballs, but I'm inclined to say they're close enough.

What defines these meatballs for me is that they're cooked in the tomato sauce. You can get the tomato sauce going before or after mixing and forming the meatballs.

Mom's Tomato Sauce
Diced Onion
Canned Tomatoes
Tomato Paste
Salt & Pepper

Sauté the onions just until they're translucent. Then add two large cans of tomatoes and a small can of tomato paste. Rinse out the cans with a little bit of water and add that too.

Canned tomatoes come in many shapes (diced, whole, crushed...), any will do. If you're working with whole tomatoes, you can squish them against the side of the pot with a spoon. Or my favorite method is to first pour the whole tomatoes into a bowl and squish them with my bare (clean) hands. 

Bring the sauce up to a simmer and then add the meatballs to it.

Make sure to stir often to keep the sauce from burning on the bottom. After adding the meatballs, start cooking some spaghetti.

When the spaghetti is al dente, strain it and serve it with meatballs and sauce on top. Ideally sprinkled with parmesan cheese too.

It was fascinating what strong memories this brought back for both me and Alex. I imagine that most people who grew up in the US have a childhood connection to classic spaghetti and meatballs. Alex exclaimed a few bites in that this is the ultimate comfort food. I wasn't so sure, for me this was one of those kid foods that just doesn't have the same magic as an adult. If I were to make this again, I would at least add garlic and omit the tomato paste in the sauce. Really, this dish is a blank canvass ready for herbs (oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, chives, cilantro, parsley, basil...), cheeses (fresh cheeses, salted and aged cheeses, maybe even some stinky blue cheeses), and vegetables (fresh tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, summer squash, corn, mushrooms, peppers...).