Lion’s Head Meatballs to the Rescue

As comforting as it gets -- juicy pork meatballs in gingery, garlicky broth.
As comforting as it gets — juicy pork meatballs in gingery, garlicky broth.

So much is out of our hands these days: whether everyone wears a mask or not; whether a viable COVID-19 vaccine will be developed soon; whether kids go back to classrooms this fall; and whether life as we used to know it will ever be that way again.

One thing we do have command over, however, is meatballs. The way the malleable ground meat fits easily in our hands. The way we use our fingers to gently shape large ones or small ones. The way we form perfect spheres or slightly more lopsided ones (usually mine). And the way we season and cook them to create a pure taste of happiness.

That’s just what “Lion’s Head Meatballs” deliver.

This particular recipe comes from “Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes: The First Cookbook from the Cult Food Magazine” (Clarkson Potter, 2015) by Peter Meehan and the editors of Lucky Peach.

If Meehan’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he was recently forced to resign as editor of The Los Angeles Times food section, following a slew of allegations from former employees of verbal and sexual harassment over the years.

His might not be a name I now want sitting on my bookshelf. But the fact remains that many other editors and writers contributed to this fine cookbook, whose work should not be diminished now, but applauded for accomplishing this in a rather toxic environment.

Ground pork is seasoned with scallions, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and a touch of sesame oil, then rolled into 2–inch balls. They get seared before finish cooking in a pan with a little chicken broth, and a layer of bok choy or cabbage leaves. The recipe called for napa cabbage, but I used savoy, which made a fine substitute. The recipe also calls for 2 cups of chicken broth, but I found I needed about 1/2 to 2/3 cup more so that the level of liquid came close to the tops of the meatballs.

As the meatballs simmer gently, a wondrous alchemy happens: the chicken broth gets deeply infused with the pork juices, as well as the ginger and garlic. At the same time, as they cook in broth, the meatballs end up extremely moist and tender.

Spoon a couple of meatballs, some cabbage, and the fragrant broth in a bowl to enjoy with steamed rice or a tangle of rice noodles.

It’s rustic and comforting, and a perfect salve when life seems all too complicated.

So simple to make, a dish that truly delivers.
So simple to make, a dish that truly delivers.

Lion’s Head Meatballs

(Serves 4)

1 pound ground pork (preferably very fatty; have your butcher grind pork belly, for example)

1 cup chopped scallions

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 large egg

2 tablespoons cornstarch

Neutral oil

1 pound napa cabbage or bok choy, leaves separated, chopped if desired

2 to 2 2/3 cups chicken broth, as neeeded

White pepper, to taste

Cooked rice noodles or rice, for serving

Put the pork in a large bowl and break it up with your hands. Add the scallions, soy sauce, sugar, wine, garlic, ginger, salt, and sesame oil, and work the mixture to combine. Add the egg and cornstarch and vigorously mix, picking up and slapping the mixture back into the bowl a few times to create a tacky texture. Roll the meat into eight 2-inch balls.

Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a Dutch oven and add enough meatballs to fit comfortably in a single layer. Sear them until browned all over, about 2 minutes per side. Repeat with any remaining meatballs. Remove the pan from the heat and wipe out the pan.

Line the pan with the cabbage or bok choy, arrange meatballs in a snug single layer on top, and add broth to come within 1/4 inch of the tops of meatballs. Cover the pot and set over medium heat. Gently simmer until the greens are tender and the meatballs are cooked through, 20 to 30 minutes. Season to taste with white pepper and serve over rice noodles or with steamed rice.

Adapted from “Lucky Peach Presents 101 Easy Asian Recipes”

Another Lucky Peach Recipe to Try: Sichuan Pork Ragu

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  • This does sound like a comforting and flavorful meal. Are they are called lion’s head for their large size or is there a more interesting story behind the name?

  • This looks like a terrific recipe. Meatballs can be so versatile — they take on so many different flavors. I need to make these — these have exactly the sort of flavors I love. πŸ™‚

  • Karen: Supposedly the meatballs get their name because they are thought to resemble the shape of lion’s head guardian statues. I dunno about that. All I know is they sure taste good! πŸ˜‰

  • I have made these before and they are indeed wonderful! As for not wanting Meehan’s name on my bookshelf, I don’t care. It’s the content that counts, not the opinions of some arm-waving, Hollywood-oriented publicity seekers.

  • Ronnie: Very true, it’s the contents of the book that count. But I wouldn’t say the people accusing Meehan are necessarily publicity seekers. They’re people who worked with him, apparently had horrendous experiences when he was their editor, and left their jobs as a result.

  • I’m craving lion head meatballs lately because I recently got them at a restaurant and they were so light and fluffy. Did these feel light? I do prefer pork over meat so may give it a try!

  • Ben: Yes, these turn out pretty fluffy, and super moist. This recipe is so easy, too, that you should definitely give it a try. Just be sure to use ground pork that has a good amount of fat in it. Fat is flavor — and moisture. πŸ˜‰

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