Asian Meatballs with Sweet and Spicy Tamarind Sauce

Can you tell that these meatballs are made from tofu and pork? Neither can your family and guests!
Can you tell that these meatballs are made from tofu and pork? I didn’t think so, and neither will your family and guests!

I’ve been on a meatball kick lately, which is a little strange since I’m not a huge meat-eater. Maybe it’s the cooler weather. Maybe it’s all the spaghetti and meatball recipes I keep seeing. Who knows?

That being said, I didn’t want my meatballs to be too stodgy so I decided to lighten them up.

Scouring the Web and my cookbooks, I found suggestions for using extra fillers (breadcrumbs, oats, rice), adding beans, hiding veggies in the meatballs, etc. Then it came to me: why not add tofu just like the Japanese hamburger recipe in my cookbook (pg. 153).

After experimenting with ingredients and proportions, I first tossed the resulting meatballs into my favorite tomato sauce with spaghetti. My husband and son gobbled dinner up none the wiser!

About a year ago, my friend Jill O’Oconnor interviewed me for an article she wrote for the San Diego Union Tribune about Asian ingredients. We had talked about various ways to use Asian ingredients in very American recipes and she developed a recipe for Asian Turkey Meatballs with Honey-Tamarind-Chili BBQ Sauce.

Inspired by Jill, I decided to tweak her sauce and came up with my own sweet, sour, and spicy version.

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Asian Meatballs with Sweet and Spicy Tamarind Sauce

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These half-tofu-half-pork meatballs are awesome as party appetizers. I’d make several batches because they will go fast, especially when chased with a cocktail or beer. They’re that good. And your guests will never know they’re made with–gasp–tofu!

Time: 45 minutes
Makes: 30 1-inch meatballs

7 ounces firm or medium-firm tofu
1 pound 4 ounces ground pork, turkey, or beef (not super-lean please!)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons chopped green onions (1 stalk)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.

Place the tofu in a non-terry dish towel or sturdy paper towel. Over the sink, wring out as much excess liquid as possible. Do this a few times until the tofu is dry and crumbly.

In a medium bowl, combine the tofu, ground pork, soy sauce, green onions, cilantro, sea salt, black pepper, and mix until smooth. Hint: use your hands! I like to microwave a little of the mixture and taste it to see if it needs any more seasoning.

Roll into 1-inch balls and place them on the prepared baking sheets about an inch apart.

Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the meatballs are golden and cooked through. Toss cooked meatballs with warm sauce and serve.

 

Sweet and Spicy Tamarind Sauce

Makes about 3/4 cup of sauce

1/3 cup wet tamarind (about 3 ounces)
3/4 cup water
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (About 1-inch chunk ginger, peeled and grated)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons palm sugar (or light brown sugar)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons sambal oelek (chili paste)

In a medium saucepan, combine the tamarind paste with water. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and stir until the paste softens into a thick puree. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and chili paste. Keep stirring to prevent the sauce from burning or sticking, until the sauce becomes thick and sticky, about 10 minutes. Press this mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl or deep dish to remove any solids. Gently toss the cooked meatballs in the warm sauce.

This sauce can also be made a few days ahead of serving and reheated when needed.

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Recording recipes … behind the scenes

When I first started working on my cookbook, I really didn’t know what to expect.

I was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Grace Young at the 2007 IACP conference in Chicago. The author of two family-based cookbooks, Grace gave me a behind-the-scenes overview of cooking with grandmas and aunties. Be prepared, was her number one advice.

And so I am.

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Some tools of the trade

Every time I pay a visit to someone’s kitchen, my bag is packed with the following arsenal:
-Measuring cups
-Measuring spoons
-Stopwatch
-Camera
-Notebook and pen
(I decided against a tape recorder though)

As you can imagine, it’s not easy juggling so much gear. I often feel like a character straight out of a Merry Melodies cartoon (though if I had to choose, I’d like to be the smart and feisty Road Runner … beep beep). Yes, it’s been comical–having to stop cooks at every step of the way to measure out the salt (2 teaspoons), the sesame oil (1 tablespoon), or the galangal (1-inch equals how many tablespoons minced??) And it’s not even funny anymore how many times I’ve had to fish packages out of the trash can to note down how many pounds of pork went into the soup.

Don’t forget that in between all this activity I’m taking photos (wait, hold that spatula in mid-air so I can capture your stir-fry motion!), and writing down notes (slice carrot on the diagonal not straight across), and timing (garlic is fragrant, add chicken to wok, start stopwatch now).

Everyone I’ve cooked with has been so very patient and they never fail to humor me. For this, I am very thankful.

Despite the flurry of activity that goes on when I’m out “in the field,” I feel that it’s actually the easiest and most accurate way to record recipes. And I get to taste the–always yummy–results immediately.

That being said, let’s turn to my other route for gathering recipes. Friends and strangers alike have been very generous in sending me their family recipes. Some have been easy-to-follow, requiring minimal tweaks here and there, yet others have been quite amusing. Take this list of ingredients my friend Luwei emailed me for her mom’s bakso goreng (crispy fried meatballs) recipe:

Bakso Goreng
==========

(Luwei’s comments are in parentheses)
Ingredients:
– 1kg minced pork
– 0.5kg minced prawn (you can halve the prawns and add 0.25kg fish as well, which is my mom’s friend’s recipe, but my mom sticks with prawn only)
– 2.5oz cornstarch (this is the iffy part–not sure how they figured that out since they don’t measure!)
– 8 eggs (another iffy part–seems like a lot of eggs to me, but my mom seems quite comfortable with that number)
– fish sauce
– salt
– sugar
– optional: green onion and rehydrated dried cuttlefish, diced (for crunch, but I don’t like it, and my mom doesn’t use it)

Recipes like these are priceless :).

No measurements, or iffy measurements–I don’t know which is better. But therein lies the beauty of homecooking: everything’s fluid, a dish is perfect when your taste buds say it is, and ingredients vary according to what’s available in the fridge.

And of course, it’s my job to translate and test recipes to make it easy for even the most novice of cooks to follow. All it takes is patience, patience to add the salt teaspoon by teaspoon, or water 1/4 cup at a time, tasting every step of the way; and a keen eye for observation–hmm … does the mixture look too dry or too mushy?

Et voila, here it is, the bakso goreng recipe after a makeover.

Bakso Goreng or Crispy Fried Meatballs

Bakso goreng is originally a Chinese dish and was modified by Hakka immigrants to Indonesia. Halal versions use chicken or beef instead of pork. Instead of shrimp, try substituting with fish paste. The same mixture can also be used to stuff peppers, eggplant, or tofu, which can then be either steamed or fried. This variant is called Yong Tau Foo in Singapore and Malaysia. Bakso goreng is delicious eaten with rice and a side dish of vegetables for a meal, or as party poppers (appetizers you can easily pop in your mouth 🙂).


Time: 45 minutes
Makes: about 35 meatballs

2 pounds minced pork
1 pound shrimp, peeled and minced
2 eggs
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup green onions cut into thin ‘O’s (about 2 stalks)
2 cups canola oil

In a large bowl, gently mix all ingredients together using your hands. The resulting mixture will be moist and lumps well into balls.

In a 14-inch wok or skillet, heat oil over high heat until it registers 350F on a thermometer. Fry a small piece of pork mixture and taste to make sure it’s salty enough.

Shape pork mixture into golf balls (about one-inch in diameter). Grab a handful of the mixture and squeeze it out of the hole at the top of your fist. Scoop each meatball with an oiled tablespoon and drop it carefully into the oil. Make 6 to 8 meatballs per batch; do not crowd the wok. Deep-fry meatballs until golden brown and crispy, about 4 to 5 minutes.

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Lift meatballs from oil using a slotted spoon or wire mesh strainer, and drain on paper towels. Remove any debris from oil and continue frying meatballs in batches until done.

Serve with chili sauce and/or rice.