I've always loved The Good Earth for many reasons, and one of the more interesting insights into the early 1900's Chinese home comes in the passages when Wang Lung observes his wife cooking. Even O-lan's most advanced kitchen skills seem easy and effortless from her husband's point of view, which just goes to show how much he takes her labor for granted.
Excerpt: "and she took the fat and the sugar and she mixed and kneaded rich New Year's cakes, called moon cakes, such as were eaten in the House of Hwang..."
If I, in the style of Wang Lung, could sum up the complicated recipe for a mooncake in one sentence, this blog would have no need to exist.
Well, I didn't actually make mooncakes (on the to-blog list), but what follows is a long-winded recipe that did end up taking a full afternoon - Wang Lung would've succinctly summarized my Saturday as "a little bit of this and that and the Lion's Head Meatballs were ready to eat". The actual time spent monitoring this dish is not significant and you can cut down the prep time further if you use store-bought chicken stock. However, I always prefer using homemade, and didn't have any leftover in the freezer, which basically tripled the prep time. No complaints though - chicken stock tops the list of amazing homey smells you want in your kitchen, right up there with yeasty fresh bread or melted dark chocolate. (Ahh!! Drool.)
The name Lion's Head Meatballs (狮子头, or shi zi tou), like many Chinese dishes' names, requires a stretch of the imagination. Supposedly, each meatball resembles the head of the lion framed by a cabbage leaf mane. As for the recipe, there are many varieties; I filled my meat mix chock full of vegetables and tofu for texture and moisture. Starch is also traditionally used as a binding agent, but I hate being able to taste the gumminess so I kept that to a minimum and just handled each with Extreme Care.
Rather than deep frying the meatballs prior to braising them with the leafy greens, I gave them a 2-3 minute sear on each side. The trade-off for healthiness here is that it does require a bit more stoveside concentration. I find that deep frying also results in a chewy, tough meatball whereas these are dense but quite soft. And rather than red-braising, I used a gingery stock base - wasn't feeling up to the heft of a dark soy sauce base. There really are quite a lot of permutations of this dish! Common to all Lion's Head Meatballs recipes though is the middle / tail end of the braise when the cabbage stems start to wilt, all the vegetables exude liquid, and the meatballs slide into the broth to finish cooking.
Obviously I'm much ramblier than Wang Lung when describing culinary stream-of-consciousness - he really couldn't have chosen three better words than "fat" and "sugar" and "rich" to jumpstart food cravings. But "pork" and "broth" and "savory-tender-delicious-fragrant-amazing" don't have quite the same ring, and still fall short at describing how good this is!... add "must-try-crazy-good-FOMO-if-you-don't" and maybe you come close to summing it up.
Lion's Head Meatball Recipe (serves 2-3)
- 0.75 lbs ground pork (I used 85% lean)
- 2 scallions, white and light green parts (cut off the tough dark green portions)
- 1-2 cloves garlic
- 1.5 tsp of fresh sliced ginger
- 1 carrot
- 3 oz tofu (silken or soft)
- 1 shiitake mushroom
- 1 egg
- 2 cups chicken broth (homemade, or store-bought low sodium - I use a very gingery homemade version for anything Chinese)
- 2 tbsp soy sauce, plus another 2 tbsp
- 0.5 tbsp sesame oil
- 0.5 tbsp corn starch
- 3 Szechuan peppercorns
- 1 lb bokchoy
- 5-6 leaves of cabbage, sliced in half along the stalk
- Vegetable oil, for searing
Roughly chop scallions, garlic, carrot, mushroom, ginger, mushroom and grind into small pieces with a food processor. Don't go too far or the mixture will turn into juice, but this has to be ground very finely otherwise the meatballs may fall apart. Dissolve the corn starch into the soy sauce and mix in the sesame oil. Combine ground pork, tofu, and egg into a bowl.
Mix together the chopped veggies, meat mixture, and corn starch mixture in a bowl using your hands. I prefer using my hands so I can gauge the texture and also to prevent overmixing which can make meatballs tough (although this is a fairly watery meatball).
Roll into balls that are slightly smaller than the palm of your hand. Pack them as firmly as you can without overworking them, just enough so that they hold the shape.
Chill meatballs in fridge for 1-2 hours to help them firm up. In the meantime, you can prepare the chicken stock (if using homemade). This article is a great resource for stock tips and tricks, but mine is very simple - 1.5 lbs chicken backs, 0.5 lbs wings, 2 quarts of water, 1 onion, 1 carrot, 2 stalks of celery, thyme, scant amount of salt, lots of pepper, bring to a boil and simmer on low for 4 hours. I add 3 inches of ginger and a few Szechuan peppercorns if I'm doing an Asian recipe.
When ready to start cooking the meatballs, line a plate with paper towels and heat oil over high heat until shimmering / smoking. Handle the meatballs with care at this point; I picked them up using a large ladle and a spatula. Sear 1-2 at a time on all sides for 2-3 minutes until browned; don't overcrowd the pan as this will lower the temperature of the oil. Because of the amount of tofu and veggies (and liquid in general) in this mix, you're not going to get the same sear and browning as you would on pure meat. After the searing is finished, place each meatball onto the paper towels and dab them to remove excess oil.
Rinse out your pan of excess oil. Place bokchoy and cabbage leaves in flat layer on the bottom and pour in stock plus 2 tbsp of soy sauce. Gently place meatballs in the stable parts of the cabbage pile, and cover and steam for 40-50 minutes.
Best served with rice or glass noodles.