Lion’s Head Soup (pork meatball and Napa Cabbage Soup)

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Note: No lions were harmed in the preparation of this food blog post.

Traditional Chinese dinners always involve some kind of broth-based soup that has been simmering for hours to extract nature’s goodness from yummy veggies. This soup is usually the embodiment of love from a hardworking mother, father, or grandparent and sets the tone for the meal to follow. However, as a working professional, it is really difficult to devote that amount of time to make a soup when you’ve got other dishes to prepare as well. There are times I wish I were living with my family so that I can get spoiled with delicious soup. Stubborn as I am, I’m determined to live independently, so I’ve begun experimenting with soups that are nourishing, filling, and most importantly, less time consuming.

Lion’s head soup is a traditional Chinese soup. I’ve kept my version of this traditional soup relatively simple and healthy. This is a wonderful addition to a meal, especially in the fall and winter, when you want a bowl of something hot and steamy to warm your bones. Think of it as a low-carb deconstructed wonton/dumpling soup. This lion’s head meatball is very similar to the fillings of delicious pot stickers and wontons and can be used as a foundation for your next wonton/pot sticker party.

 

Cooking notes/tips:

Chinese-style meatballs are distinct in that they have a very springy and bouncy texture, achieved by working the meat and developing the gluten from the corn starch that has been added. What we are looking for in this meatball is not a loose, soft texture. Rather, we want these meatballs to be firm so that they do not fall apart as they cook in the soup.

You can easily turn this into a wonton soup by stuffing wonton skins with the meatball mixture rather than cooking the meatballs directly in the broth. To do this, you would need to use another pot of boiling water and cook the wontons separately in this pot, strain, and then serving with the broth at the end. In making Chinese noodle soup, it is always recommended to boil noodles and dumplings in a separate pot of water rather than in the pot of broth. This keeps the broth from thickening as a result of the starch from the noodle.

This next tip may sound more like a rant. Apologies ahead of time, but this is something that needs to change in American versions of Chinese/Asian cooking. Many Americanized versions of Asian recipes call for sesame oil in everything, but I feel that this addition is often gratuitous, and a misuse of a popularized Asian ingredient. In other words, it seems that recipes use sesame oil just because it is a well-known Asian ingredient and people want a surefire way to make their food bear a hallmark Asian flavor. Sesame oil has a potent earthy flavor that can overpower a dish when added without forethought. In other words, it can make your food taste like dirt. In Chinese cooking, sesame oil is only used in specific dishes, not in everything that is prepared. That said, it is my opinion that sesame oil should only be used in specific dishes, paired with specific ingredients. Examples of appropriate uses of sesame oil: a small drop in rice congee,  soy sauce & sugar sauce mixes for braising chicken (e.g., 3 cups chicken), marinating fried tofu, and marinating sweet/savory cucumber pickles. Superfluous/unnecessary uses of sesame oil: stir-fries, chow mien, fried rice. Vietnamese dishes rarely use sesame oil. If you find one with this ingredient, you might question its authenticity. Korean cooking, on the other hand, uses sesame oil heavily.

Serves: 6-8
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes

Broth
1 lb pork neck bones
2 tbsp fish sauce or 1-2 tsp salt to taste
4 carrots, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 cups chopped napa cabbage

Lion’s Head Meatballs
1 lb ground pork
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste
pinch of white or black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp corn starch

Directions

Heat a large pot with enough water to cover the pork neck bones. Place bones inside water and boil until meat becomes brown and begins to produce brownish foam ~7-10 minutes. Discard liquid and rinse pork bones. Fill with 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil. Add in carrots once water begins to boil and turn fire to medium low.

While waiting for water to boil, prepare lion’s head meatballs. Place ground pork, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, pepper, sugar, green onion, and corn starch into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients for meatballs. Knead meatballs for 5 minutes, lifting the mixture and using force to toss it back into the mixing bowl. Repeat at least 5 times until mixture begins to stick together. Set aside.

Check broth. Once carrots have softened, begin forming meat mixture into meatballs ~2 inches in diameter. Turn heat on high. Drop meatballs into the soup and allow to cook until their color turns from pink to light brown.

Once meatballs turn light brown, add in Napa cabbage, stirring gently to submerge into the broth. Cook for another 5 minutes or until cabbage has softened. Taste for seasoning and add salt, fish sauce, or sugar to taste.

Spoon into individual bowls and garnish with fresh green onion. If you would like, add a small drop of sesame oil to the broth and serve.

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Chipotle Smoked Pork Ribs

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I have shied away from making barbeque in most of my cooking, partly because I was avoiding something that intimidated me: cooking on a grill. There is usually a clear gender divide in how we cook-men grill; women bake. Most people follow this rule, but there is really nothing inherently different in men and women’s abilities in most things, especially in cooking. So, I put on my brave face and faced the grill with my tongs. Here is my first real attempt at making grilled ribs.

Within the world of barbecue, there are many factions and camps. First, you’ve got your dry rub vs. sauce folks. Then, you’ve got your sweet vs. vinegar divide. And I haven’t even gotten to the use of wood vs. charcoal. While there is probably an ounce of delicious truth to each of these camps, I decided to just go with what was the simplest for me: a dry rub with sweetness from brown sugar, and grilling with charcoal.

I am a huge proponent of using what I have in the kitchen and pantry for my cooking experiments. I happened to have a pre-made dry rub that had salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper and “spices”. I added some garlic salt to the mix. I wanted to add a bit of sweetness and spice, which brought Chipotle powder and brown sugar into the mix.

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Cooking tips:

Marinating meat overnight is a great way to ensure that flavor is packed into every morsel of your dish. Again, it is best to under-salt rather than over-salt. When mixing my own rub, I made sure to dip my finger in the rub and taste it before I placed it on my meat. If it is too salty, then add more spices/seasonings that do not contain salt. If it lacks sugar, I’ll add some more brown sugar.

When grilling, as in searing meat, do not, I repeat, do not overdo it with turning and touching your meat. Allow your meat to be enveloped by the wonderful heat of the coals. Turning your meat too much could interfere with the searing and caramelizing process that is happening to your meat.

Recipe

Serves: 2-3
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Marinade Time: 4 hours-overnight
Cooking Time: 28-30 minutes

Ingredients
3 pork ribs
½ c brown sugar
4 tbsp barbecue rub (1 tbsp cayenne pepper, 1 tbsp black pepper, 2 tsp salt, 2 tbsp garlic powder)
1 tbsp chipotle powder
1 tbsp garlic salt

Directions

  1. Light charcoal using directions on the bag.
  2. When coals are covered in grey ash (~15 minutes) place pork ribs on the grill and cover the lid.
  3. Allow to grill for approximately 7-10 minutes each side, depending on the heat coming from your grill. My grill was at medium-low, so it took about 10 minutes each side. After turning your meat, cover the grill and allow to cook.
  4. When your meat has seared nicely and become golden brown on all sides, remove from heat and allow to cool. Serve with your favorite sides and enjoy!

Vietnamese Beef Stew (Bo Kho)

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It always amazes me how many doppelgangers exist in the world of cuisine. Almost every culture I can think of has its own version of beef stew. Comfort food at its best, sipping bowls of this warm elixir can seemingly chase away any ills of the body and mind. The Chinese enjoy a thin broth-based star-anisse infused beef stew with carrots and daikon radish as companions, whereas the French have a more sumptuous version which is thickened with a buttery roux and imbued with mixed floral notes from red wine and mushrooms. The beef stew that I grew up with is a hybrid of these polar opposites. The blending of cuisines and cultures that tantalize our modern palates has always fascinated me. Vietnamese food embodies the meeting of Eastern and Western flavors with its buttery baguettes borrowed from French cuisine, filled with Eastern flavors of barbecued meats marinated in lemongrass and garlic, pickled vegetables, topped off with spreads borrowed from France-rich and smooth liver pate and garlic aioli. Whereas the Chinese enjoy their beef stew with linguine-like egg noodles, the French and Vietnamese prefer to sop theirs up with warm, crispy baguettes. Similar to the melding of cuisines is the melding of cultural influences within people. My family background pulls from both Chinese and Vietnamese cultures; on top of that, I was born and raised in the United States. Everything has a context, and the context of my cooking is one of multicultural blends and fusions. So here’s my take on this delicious comfort food that feeds both the body and soul.

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Cooking notes/tips:

I am a strong proponent of tasting food as you cook it because everyone has a unique palate with different sensitivities to salt, sugar, bitter, sweet, and sour flavor profiles. Although I have given ballpark amounts for seasonings, I really encourage you to be daring enough to make this recipe your own by adding or tweaking things to suit your tastes.

If you dislike the pungent bitterness of daikon radish, then by all means substitute with potato, making the stew heartier. I have slowly grown fond of eating daikon radish. An often misunderstood ingredient, daikon radish leads with bitterness; but beneath this gruff exterior, there is a subtle sweetness within that is often missed. One mistake that I made when I first starting experimenting with making bo kho was adding the daikon and carrot at the same time that I added the beef to cook. All the bitter notes of the daikon permeated the broth of my stew, which made for an unpleasant experience for my tastebuds. The vegetables also had a mushy texture at the end. This is why I recommend boiling the daikon in a separate pot of water to allow some of that bitterness to be extracted first before adding the daikon to the beef stew.

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Another choice you may have to make is whether or not you can tolerate the flavor of fish sauce. Pungent with seafoody-goodness and umami, fish sauce is like the Lady Gaga of the culinary world-adored by those who know how to appreciate it, polarizing at its core, with a presence that cannot be ignored or denied. Recognizing that not everyone has a taste for this strong serum that derives from fermented fish and salt, substituting for soy sauce is also a delicious option.

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I chose to make my beef stew in a slowcooker for the sake of convenience because I am not required to stay at home and watch my stew. However, I believe that you will build a thicker, richer stew if you choose to simmer your stew directly on a stove. This would also cut down on cooking time.

Recipe

Serves: 10-12

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Cooking Time: 6 hours

Ingredients

5 lbs beef shank/stew meat
5 large carrots
2 large daikon radishes
1 onion
½ package of Chinese beef stew seasoning
1 can tomato paste
¼ c brown sugar
¼- ½ c fish sauce, to taste
1 tsp salt
3-4 quarts water

Cut beef into 2-inch cubes and season with salt, beef stew seasoning, and tomato paste. Allow the meat to sit for 10 minutes.

In a heated oiled skillet on high heat, brown the beef.

Place beef into slow cooker along with 4 quarts of water and fish sauce/soy sauce. Allow to slow cook for approximately 4 hours

Cut carrots and daikon radish into 1-2 inch pieces. Slice onions. Set aside.

When beef is tender, taste broth and beef for seasoning. Add brown sugar and additional fish sauce/salt to taste. Then add carrot and onion and allow to simmer in the slow cooker for an additional hour.

Meanwhile, in a separate pot, boil 1 quart of water. Place daikon radish into boiling water and allow to cook for 10-15 minutes, until radish is tender. Remove radish from water and drain, then place radish into the slow cooker for the remainder of the cooking time.

Top with sliced scallion and cilantro and enjoy with a buttery warm baguette!