Sunday, December 4, 2011

Steamed Tangerine Meatballs

I love Pat Tanumihardja's The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. The recipes are enticing and the interviews with the grandmothers are very moving. For someone like me who never had the chance to get to know her grandmothers very well, it's fun to get a dose of grandmotherly love via these dishes.

Furthermore, the book is beautiful. The combination of the photographs and graphic design is really breathtaking. There is also a great guide to ingredients used in Asian cooking, and this knowledge, combined with what you can learn by reading The Asian Grocery Store Demystified, should get you through any shopping trip or provisioning adventure. You should also check out this visual guide to Asian fruits and vegetables. I can't recommend this book as a gift (or present for yourself) highly enough. It satisfies on all levels.

As soon as I saw the recipe in Patricia's book for Steamed Tangerine Meatballs I was instantly intrigued. I had to try it! The recipe is quick and simple, and the addition of tangerine peel to the meatballs gives them a wonderful flavor. (You can read about my previous personal history with meatballs here.)

Making the Meatballs

I looked in the local Asian and specialty markets for dried tangerine peel but there was none to be found, even though I know I've bought some in the past. Since I couldn't find any dried tangerine peel I bought a fresh tangerine, peeled it, took a knife to the back (inside side) of the peel and made sure I got as much of the pith (soft white part) off the peel as I could. I twisted the fresh peel over the ground meat to catch as much of the oil that was expressed when I twisted it as possible. Then I popped the peel into the toaster oven for a few minutes. It didn't have the same great concentrated flavor and slightly bitter bite that you get with dried tangerine peel, but it was still good.

I chopped the ginger and scallions and added the cornstarch, sugar, salt, and black pepper to the ground beef. I made a double batch since there were six of us for dinner. I rolled the ground meat into balls and then steamed them. They were delicious on their own but I decided to make a dipping sauce to accompany them. I threw together a sauce made of tamari, ginger, garlic, scallions, honey, sherry, and black pepper, and I also added some tangerine juice and pulp from the innards of the tangerine that I had peeled. (My friends who had dinner with me said I should write down the recipe but I was playing Scrabble with them while I was making the sauce, so I was just going by taste and not paying attention, but I will make the sauce again sometime soon, record the amounts, and post it on this blog.)

The meatballs were delicious and I served them with rice and a chopped cucumber salad that my friend made. Six of us devoured the entire batch. I can't wait to make these again and to delve deeper into more of the recipes in Patricia's book.

The Recipe

Steamed Meatballs with Tangerine Peel

(Niu Rou Yuan)

Denver-based nutritionist Mary Lee Chin and her mother Bow yee Lee Chin have always made their own dried tangerine peel, a common ingredient in Chinese dishes. Just save the skins after peeling a tangerine (or orange, mandarin, or tangelo), place them in a covered basket to dry for a week and then store in an airtight container. The peels can also be dried out in a very slow oven or in a dehydrator. Mary says it’s important to scrape the pith (the white inner part of the peel) before drying to remove the bitterness.

Time: 45 minutes

Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family-style meal

2 green onions, greenparts only, finely chopped

1 1/2-inch-square piece dried tangerine peel, soaked in water until soft pith removed, and very finely chopped

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated (1 tablespoon)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 pound lean ground beef (preferably sirloin)

In a large bowl, mix together the green onions, tangerine peel, ginger, cornstarch, salt, sugar, and pepper. Add the ground beef and mix gently with your hands. Set aside for 15 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.

Set up your steamer. Fill the steamer pan half full with water and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium until you are ready to steam.

Shape the beef mixture into about 16 one-inch balls. Arrange the meatballs in a single layer on a greased pie plate (or rimmed platter) that will fit inside a steamer without touching the sides. The size of your steamer will determine how many meatballs you can steam at a time.

Return the water in the steamer to a rolling boil. Place the plate of meatballs in the steamer basket or rack. Cover and steam the balls over high heat for 7 to 8 minutes, or until they are firm to the touch and cooked through.

Turn off the heat and wait for the steam to subside before lifting the lid. Lift it away from you to prevent scalding yourself and to keep condensation from dripping onto the meatballs. Carefully remove the meatballs and set aside to cool. Repeat as many times as necessary.

When the meatballs are cool enough to handle, transfer to a serving platter and serve.

Pat's Notes: Tangerine peel is used to flavor meat and poultry dishes. Large pieces are added to braised dishes, but the peel is usually ground or minced for stir-fries. Dried tangerine peel can be found in plastic packages where seasonings are shelved.

Meatballs: A Personal History

I grew up in a (mostly) Irish family and we never, ever had meatballs, so my introduction to meatballs was via the school cafeteria hot lunches I ate when I was a kid. On Mondays we had meatloaf and then on Wednesdays we had spaghetti and meatballs and I suspect they just crumbled up the leftover Monday meatloaf and threw it into the spaghetti sauce.

I absolutely adored spaghetti (which we rarely had at home) but I never quite warmed to the meatballs. I would eat the starch and ignore the protein (even though I had been trained by my mom to do the exact opposite. I could hear her voice in my head: "Eat the protein first! Only when you're done with the protein may you have some starch!") I really didn't care for the meatballs, though, and never got into enjoying them until years later when I tasted my first Swedish meatball.

Encountering Swedish meatballs for the first time was one of those "Where have you been all my life?" moments. The combination of creamy sauce and savory meat flavor was an instant winner in my book. I still, however, eschewed the classic Italian meatball.

The only Chinese food I ever had growing up was the awful boil-in-bag frozen stuff my mom loved to serve because it was so easy to prepare. LaChoy may have intended to make "Chinese Food... Swing American!", but the dinners we had were sad, gray affairs, featuring lifeless boiled bean sprouts as the main attraction. Nothing had any texture, color, or flavor. (And coming from someone who grew up on Irish cuisine, trust me, that is quite a damning statement!) Blech! I thought I hated Chinese food.

When I was a senior in high school one of my friends invited me to go out to dinner with her family at a local Chinese restaurant. I had never been to a Chinese restaurant before. I couldn't believe the tastes and smells. I found out that I really liked Chinese food that had actually been made from fresh ingredients and cooked in woks rather than boiled in bags. I had what is now my #1 comfort food - Hot and Sour Soup - for the first time that night, thus beginning a very satisfying lifelong affair.

Still, I didn't encounter Peking Ravioli until I moved to Boston right after graduating from college. I love Peking Ravioli but the quality of the dough that surrounds the delicious nugget of meat varies vastly. Sometimes you can get Peking Ravioli with a thin, delicate layer of dough encasing the savory morsel of meat. Other times, the ravioli are covered with twice as much dough as there is filling.

When I am faced with a dumpling that is too doughy for my taste, I use my chopsticks to perform a meatballectomy and I carefully extract the savory meat from the doughy shell. After having done this a few times in restaurants I decided to try to make Peking Ravioli meatballs at home. I experimented with different combinations of ground beef, scallions, garlic, and ginger, and sometimes I would add five spice powder. Usually I'd cook the meatballs in a little bit of beef broth and then serve them over rice using the broth as the sauce. It's delicious!

As soon as I saw the recipe in Patricia's book for Steamed Tangerine Meatballs I was instantly intrigued. I had to try it! The recipe is quick and simple, and the addition of tangerine peel to the meatballs gives them a wonderful flavor. To read my account of making - and tasting! - the meatballs, see this previous post.