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July 15, 2020

Lion’s Head Meatballs | The Mixing Bowl

This meatball recipe evolved hundreds of years ago in Huai’an, China, at a crossroads where northern traders, who were bringing their goods south along the Grand Canal, met southern traders who had traveled north by road. The 30-mile distance from the end of the canal to the start of the road at the South Gate was filled with restaurants which in order to be successful, had to please both northern and southern Chinese tastes. 

Out of this, Huaiyang cooking emerged. It is one of the Four Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine which also includes Cantonese, Shandong and Sichuan. This cuisine is known for having a slightly sweet and mild taste that focuses on one main ingredient. This recipe fits the profile as you can see in the ingredients below. It is also one of the easiest Chinese dishes to cook. 

The restaurant competition was very stiff in Huai’an and over time, what had been a low-level job as a cook rose in status. As status increased, it became more difficult to become a cook and requirements were instituted that included a county level imperial exam prospective chefs had to pass. You also had to be the right size to work the long hours; they couldn’t be too tall or too short, nor too fat or too thin. Cooks also had to be presentable and verbally adept in order to bring in customers.   

Ground pork is the main ingredient in these meatballs and more authentic recipes call for up to 50 percent pork fat. To live up to their name, these meatballs are large. The bok choy is supposed to represent the lion’s mane. I made mine half size so I guess they’re called Baby Lion’s Head.

Lion’s Head Meatballs

6-8 water chestnuts (chopped) 

 1 teaspoon ginger (minced) 

3 tablespoons soy sauce 

1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil 

1 dash white pepper (optional) 

2 teaspoons sugar

2-3 tablespoons potato starch, or cornstarch

1 pound bok choy or chard 

1-2 green onion (minced) 

1 beaten egg 

1 pound ground pork

3/4 teaspoon salt 

2 tablespoons rice wine or pale dry Sherry 

2 tablespoons vegetable oil 

1 1/2 cups chicken broth 

Wash, drain and dry bok choy or other greens. Cut crosswise into thin 3″ strips

In a medium bowl, combine ground pork with green onions, ginger, salt, sugar, dry sherry, sesame oil, pepper, only 1 tablespoon of the soy sauce, and beaten egg. Mix ingredients thoroughly. Starting with 2 tablespoons, add the potato starch, then add 1 teaspoon at a time as needed to dry it out enough to hold the balls together. 

Form ground pork into four large meatballs or 8 smaller ones. Flatten a bit so that they are not completely round.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in skillet or wok on medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add meatballs. Cook five minutes until browned on bottom. Flip and cook other side also.

In a flameproof casserole dish or large saucepan, heat chicken broth and the final 2 tablespoons of soy sauce to boiling. Add meatballs, reduce heat to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes. Add the bok choy, simmer for another 15 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through and there is no pinkness in the middle.

You can also thicken some of the broth with a cornstarch and water thickener poured over the meatballs. Serves four.

Just a note about my February 21 column for Citrus Crinkle Cookies. An error was brought to my attention. There is no cream in the recipe. You will beat the butter and sugar together until it resembles cream. 

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