The first time I made Lion’s Head Meatballs (紅燒獅子頭), I forgot to write down the recipe. I had looked at a hundred variations, but none of them stuck. I planned to serve the wok-fried then braised meatballs with bok choy, then finish them with Sichuan ‘strange flavor’ sauce (Guaiwei 怪味) to add a bit of lip smacking flavour to what seemed like a plain sort of meat and greens dish with a punchy name. When I got home, annoyed at myself for having lost the recipe I wanted to riff on, I unpacked my groceries and realized I had compounded my mistake and somehow bought ground turkey instead of pork. Thus, this crackpot Chinese-American Thanksgiving holiday mashup recipe was born.
The dish works like a charm for a bunch of reasons: turkey meat is primarily dark and packed with rich, gamey flavour, but famously dry and texturally boring. The meatballs are heavily seasoned and fried, giving a deep caramelized brown to the exterior and a bit of crunch to the exterior while sealing in the natural juices. Then, they’re braised in chicken stock suffusing the potentially dry meat with succulent moisture and ensuring a delicious and juice-packed meatball. The Sichuan strange flavour sauce has a tahini and sesame base, ingredients not native to Sichuan which were introduced via the Silk Road, hence the unique name. The nutty chilli sauce adds a layer of salty sour sweet and spicy umami bang to the dish that will give you a bit of leo pride when you lay it down on the table beside the sliced cardboard, dry beast meat everyone else is serving.
Lion’s Head Meatball Recipe (紅燒獅子頭)
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 35-40 minutes
Makes 8-10 meatballs, serves 4-6 people
- 900g/2 lb ground turkey
- 30ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
- 45ml soy sauce
- 15ml sesame oil
- 15ml neutral oil
- 10ml cornstarch
- 2 scallions, slivered
- 1 finger of ginger, in matchsticks
- 200ml Shaoxing Rice Wine
- 500ml chicken broth, simmering
- 45ml soy sauce
- 45 ml neutral oil
- 30ml tahini
- 15ml chinkiang black rice vinegar
- 15ml sesame oil
- 10ml sugar
- 20g ginger, roughly chopped
- 20g garlic, smashed
- 10g Sichuan peppers
- 2 whole dried chilis
- 1 head of bok choy
- In a mixing bowl, beat together turkey, soy, shaoxing wine, and sesame oil until the meat forms a smooth paste.
- Stir in cornstarch and neutral oil, then form 10-12 large meatballs, cover and refrigerate for 15-20 minutes.
- Heat oil in wok or frying pan until smoking point. Add ginger, garlic, chilis, Sichuan peppers and scallions.
- Remove from heat and stir rapidly for 30 second as the oil cools.
- Blend mixture in a food processor, coffee grinder or mortar. Stir in remaining ingredients and set aside. (Note: this is an awesome all purpose umami rich dipping sauce.)
Meatballs (Not using a wok):
- If not using a wok, line a roasting pan or crock pot with cleaned and stemmed leaves of bok choy. Preheat oven to 350F.
- Heat a frying pan over a medium flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
- In two or three batches, fry the meatballs, cooking evenly on all surface areas. As they brown, set meatballs on waiting bok choy leaves.
- When the meatballs are all browned and set aside, deglaze your frying pan with shaoxing wine, add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions and stir rapidly as moisture evaporates.
- When the wine sauce is reduced by half pour it over the meatballs, add simmering chicken stock.
- Cover with aluminum or parchment and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes.
Meatballs (With wok):
- Heat wok over high flame, coat in a thin layer of neutral oil, rolling oil around the cooking surface.
- At smoking point, add meatballs and roll around cooking surface to brown, careful not to burn as you must work fast.
- Once the meatballs have all browned, push to the side of cooking surface, deglaze wok with shaoxing wine, and add ginger matchsticks and slivered scallions, toss mixture together as moisture evaporates.
- Slip bok choy leaves under meatballs, add simmering chicken stock, and cover wok with a large lid. Turn down heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Serve & Plate:
- Serve as Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs in a larger meal, such as a Thanksgiving or a pot luck. Plate meatballs on bok choy leaves and drizzle with odd sauce.
- Don’t ditch the broth! Make a soup, or freeze for stock.
- Alternatively, if you’re making Turkey Lion’s Head Meatballs for a weekday dinner or your family, serve swimming in the broth, atop noodles or rice. These meatballs and their cooking broth make a hearty and pungent soup, served over a starch.
- This dish will be the most talked about addition to any holiday dinner. It tastes delicious, looks intense and has a bad ass name. It might even be healthy.
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