This recipe is an adaptation of a recipe for Lion’s Head Meatballs from Pei Mei’s Chinese cookbook. Pei Mei was an amazing female chef in Taiwan in the 1970s and my mom learned to cook many dishes using this book. My mom has passed on her set of Pei Mei’s cookbooks, which are now out of print, to me. The original version of this recipe is the most authentic Chinese dish I make. It has my dad’s seal of approval for not only how to make it, but also the taste and texture of the final product. I’ve modified the standard by using escarole instead of napa cabbage and adding the water chestnuts and shiitakes for texture. However, I didn’t mess with the technique. It is old school and makes me feel like I’m following the traditions of centuries of Chinese cooking. You might ask “why stir in only one direction?” or “why throw it back into the bowl?”…I don’t know. But I do know that it is clearly the technique that makes these meatballs amazingly light and tender. This is home-style Chinese cooking. I hope you enjoy it. - monkeymom —monkeymom
Test Kitchen Notes
Monkeymom’s recipe was easy to follow and a breeze to make. The meat really does absorb all of that water and become sticky after throwing it into the bowl for a few minutes. It was delicious, with meatballs that were light in texture and a broth that had amazing flavor. The water chestnuts were a nice touch, adding a bit of crunch to meatballs, and so were the salty crisped shiitakes. I’d use a light broth in this, one that was made with just some bones in water, and I wouldn’t season it with soy sauce, as it might overpower the subtle flavors of the broth. My daughter, who works in the restaurant of her Chinese friend Xian’s family, loved it and said that it was just the sort of thing Xian’s mother might make. - SallyCan —The Editors
½ cup water
3 slices of ginger
1 green onion/scallion
2 lbs ground pork
2 Tbsp rice wine or dry sherry
2 tsp salt
3 Tbsp cornstarch
¼ tsp white pepper
1/3 cup of water chestnuts, diced finely but not minced
1 large head of escarole, well rinsed
4 cups of chicken stock
4 oz shiitake mushrooms thinly sliced
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
salt, pepper, and soy sauce
In This Recipe
Place ginger and scallion in ½ cup of water. Bruise with a pestle or spoon. The water should become slightly green and smell like ginger. Remove outer leaves from escarole heads. Lay them on the bottom of a large dutch oven or heavy pot.
Add eggs, wine, salt, cornstarch, pepper, water chestnuts, and ginger/scallion water (reserve the ginger and scallion) to pork in a large bowl. Stir with your fingers in one direction (never reverse the direction). Once it has become a uniform consistency, take the meat in one hand and throw it back into the bowl. Repeat this for 2-3 minutes. The meat mixture will be sticky.
Heat oil in a nonstick pan. Dust hands well with cornstarch and form a meatball. Place into hot pan. You will want 8 meatballs total, dusting hands well with cornstarch in between. Brown meatballs evenly on all sides. Brown in batches if necessary to prevent crowding. As they are done, place each on top of the bed of escarole in your dutch oven.
Cover meatballs with additional leaves of escarole. Add chicken stock. It should almost cover meatballs. Throw in the ginger and scallion that you used in the first step. Cover pot.
Stew on the stove on low heat or in a 325 degree oven for 1-2 hours. Check the liquid and add additional water if needed. If your pot lid doesn’t fit tightly, cover with foil first. Try the meatballs after an hour. If they aren’t tender enough, cook them longer.
While the meatballs stew, make the crisped shiitakes. Heat a nonstick pan to medium high. Add shiitakes and a small amout of oil. Add a pinch of salt. Toast in the pan until they mushrooms shrink, brown and the edges crisp up. Turn off heat and leave in pan.
After stewing, bring pot back to the stove top. Check the seasoning of the broth and add salt, pepper, or soy sauce to taste. Add rest of escarole and let wilt in soup for about 5-10 minutes (roughly chop tougher stem ends first). Remove the greens to serving bowl(s), then top with meatballs. Sprinkle shiitakes on top. Serve with rice.
Note: For the traditional version, use napa cabbage instead of escarole. Add it all at the beginning if you like a melted texture or near the end for a more firm cabbage texture. Omit water chestnuts and shiitakes.
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