There’s a whole genre of Chinese cooking involving ground meat – dumplings, won tons, steamed meat buns – that is full of juicy bite-sized goodness but is also preparation intensive. These cute little Chinese meatballs do away with the laborious wrapping of all those nuggets of filling and feature the meat for what it is – the main attraction. Over the years my mom has moved from ground pork to ground turkey, substituting crumbled tofu for some of the meat, and as a result the meatballs are lighter but every bit as flavorful.
The benefit of ground meat is short preparation. No marinating necessary, as the flavor gets mixed all through. These meatballs are seasoned with soy sauce, wine, sesame oil, scallions and a bit of vegetable for color and flavor. They take well to variation – cilantro is a wonderful addition, as is fresh ginger. Baked or fried, these small meatballs are quick to cook and fun to eat.
Extras are handy to store in the freezer. Because of their small size, they defrost very quickly for a quick meal or snack.
Searing quickly in hot oil is the secret to many great Chinese dishes. Frying gets a bad rap from a health standpoint, and it is a bit of a mess in the kitchen. But as a cooking method it quickly seals in flavor and juiciness, and un-battered food does not absorb much oil. Frying the key to my mom’s gorgeously bright green beans, and it’s the key to her dark, crisp-crusted meatballs.
I can’t stand frying, so I bake my meatballs. But I have to admit my mom’s method is both better and faster. Using her favorite appliance, a little electric deep fryer called the Fry Daddy, she quickly forms the meatballs on the spot and drops them in the hot oil, cooking about ten at a time. In the time it takes me to shape meatballs and wait for them to bake, she is already done.
Start with ground turkey and crumbled tofu to lighten things up.
Add soy sauce along with a touch of wine and sesame oil.
And a bit of cornstarch. My mom says even this small teaspoonful makes for a smoother surface on the finished product.
Now some finely diced vegetable. My mom recommends carrot, as it doesn’t have a lot of water. Sometimes she uses finely diced zucchini, but because of the water content it has to be salted ahead of time and squeezed well. This time we used a bit of asparagus, since we had it. But carrot is nice for the extra color.
And finally, breadcrumbs. My mom usually crumbles in by hand a slice of any old bread she has on hand.
Well-seasoned meat, ready to go.
I’m baking half.
And my mom’s frying the other half. My mom fries food outside the way other people grill. Less mess.
Hers are so pretty.
The baked ones are lighter in color and not as crisp. But even my mom admits they are still very good.
Some rice and vegetables make a simple, tasty meal. My mom likes to drop a few into a bowl of soup noodles. I would love a few pickled vegetables on the side, or a simple cucumber salad with vinegar and sugar.
But the reality is that we’ve already eaten a handful of meatballs before we even sit down to dinner. As with picking berries, it’s hard to pick up a meatball without immediately popping it in your mouth. So what you serve on the side isn’t too important. Here the meat is the main attraction.
Chinese Mini Meatballs
These savory little meatballs flavored with soy sauce and scallions make a simple meal with a bowl of rice or noodles. My mom used to use ground pork but now makes a fresher version with ground turkey and crumbled tofu – lighter and just as good.
- 1 pound ground turkey (7% fat)
- 1 cup crumbled firm tofu
- 1 tablespoon sake or white wine
- 1/3 cup soy sauce (Kikkoman is best)
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 3 tablespoons minced scallions (1-2 whole scallions)
- 1/2 cup finely diced carrot
- 1/2 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs (my mom crumbles by hand any old bread she has around)
- Cooking oil for frying or for greasing baking sheet
- Start with ground turkey in a mixing bowl. Add crumbled tofu and mix.
- Add remaining ingredients in turn, mixing well each time: sake, soy sauce and sesame oil; cornstarch (mix very well); scallions and diced carrot; breadcrumbs.
- Form meat mixture into small meatballs, about 1 inch in diameter.
- Frying meatballs: With no batter, the meatballs do not absorb a large amount of oil and form a dark crisp crust. You can deep fry so that the meatballs are bobbing in hot oil or pan fry in a shallower amount of oil, turning to brown all over. A small pan uses less oil but will require more batches. Oil should be hot enough that meatball sizzles when added. Do not crowd meatballs in pan. Cook until well browned so that interior is also well cooked. Drain on paper towels.
- Baking meatballs: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Bake meatballs on a lightly greased baking sheet for 20-25 minutes, until browned. Baked meatballs will be lighter in color than fried meatballs, and not as uniformly round (bottoms get a bit flat when baked).
- Optional adds: 1/4 cup chopped cilantro and/or 1 teaspoon fresh minced ginger.
- These meatballs freeze very well and defrost quickly because of their small size. My mom loves to pop a couple in when she’s making soup noodles.
- You can substitute other vegetable for the carrot – my mom often uses finely diced zucchini – but with a vegetable with high water content, it must be salted an hour or two ahead of time and all liquid squeezed out very well before adding to the meat mixture.
Here’s the link to a printable version.
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