March 09, 2014
Vietnamese-inspired Lemongrass Pork Meatballs
What do you do when you have a surplus of lemongrass? Well, you could make meatballs, of course.
Living in this small city in Germany, access to Asian cuisines is rather limited, and often quite different from my previous experience of those cuisines in Vancouver. There are some tasty options, but there are also some notable absences, and much less variety than I've been accustomed to. I've taken on the challenge of making some of the things that I miss from Vancouver, and my list grows bigger every day.
That being said, I don't believe this to be any kind of authentic Vietnamese dish; rather, it is me playing with the flavours of Vietnamese cuisine and having fun while I do it. If you are looking for the springy sort of meatballs that one gets in Phó, you'll need to look elsewhere, as these are more in the Italian meatball school of texture (if not flavour). But if you want a tasty Vietnamese-inspired meatball treat - lordy, check these out! Bursting with flavour.
As I slowly build up my pantry, each new ingredient opens another door to new items to cook. My latest ingredient is fish sauce - essential for Vietnamese and Thai cooking. Because my fridge is a tiny German bar-sized fridge, shelf space for bottles is at an absolute premium, so I looked for the smallest bottle of fish sauce that I could find. That turned out to be a brand that also has red chiles in it. At first I balked - I tend to stick to the more neutral versions of basic ingredients, especially for cuisines outside my own - but as I turned it over in my head, I realized that I never use fish sauce without also adding chiles, so it was probably going to be okay. And it was. There's something about the chiles that actually takes the edge of the odour of the fish sauce, and that's kind of a relief, actually. It means that I get that all-important flavour that is so necessary in a lot of the dishes, without flinching my way through the adding of it.
Vietnamese-inspired Lemongrass Pork Meatballs
Makes 20 meatballs
500 grams finely ground lean pork
2 stalks lemongrass (preferably young)
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 large cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fish sauce (with chiles)
1 long red chile pepper, seeded and finely minced
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
¼ cup minced cilantro
4-5 basil leaves (preferably Thai or Vietnamese basil), minced
¼ cup panko-style flakey breadcrumbs
Into a large mixing bowl, grate the tender, white part of the lemongrass using a microphone grater. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the pork) and mix well with a fork. If the mixture seems quite dry (it should look crumbly but a bit moist), add up to another tablespoon of the fish sauce. I use fish sauce with chiles, because there's simply no application that I have for fish sauce that doesn't call for chiles, and I find the added chile flavour takes some of the edge of fish sauce, while still allowing it to contribute its essential fish sauce qualities to the dish.
Crumble or tear the pork into little bits, allowing the bits to fall onto the seasoning mixture. When all the pork is added to the bowl, use a fork, or your impeccably clean hands, to gently work the seasoning mixture through the pork until it is evenly distributed, but try not to overwork the mixture - you're not kneading bread here, just trying to combine the ingredients.
Preheat your oven to 400 F. Use about a teaspoon of peanut oil to grease the bottom of a 7x11" glass baking dish or a rimmed baking sheet. Divide the meat mixture into twenty golf ball sized meatballs (a 1-tablespoon disher is what I use; I scoop all of the meatballs out, and then go quickly back over them to make sure they have a nice, round shape all the way around, since the disher tends to make them a bit flat on the bottom). Bake uncovered for 25 - 30 minutes. Serve hot, or allow to cool and freeze on a plate until firm before bagging them up for a future meal.
I've served these over a plain version of Coconut Ginger Noodles, with a marinated vegetable salad - essentially, fresh shredded carrots, julienned cucumber, minced chiles, green onion, cilantro, basil, with a (chile) fish-sauce vinaigrette (if I'd had daikon on hand, or even any other radish, I'd have thrown that in, too). Given the added chile in the fish sauce, it was quite spicy, but added a wonderfully fresh crunch to contrast against the soft noodles and luxurious textured meatballs.
Since there were only two of us for dinner, we restrained ourselves at consuming half the batch and the rest were stashed in the freezer for a future dinner - very likely a banh mi choose-your-own-adventure meal within the next week or so. I can hardly wait.