Baby Lion’s Head Casserole

小獅子頭

This is a “big affair” dish in China, a large casserole of giant meatballs and stewed cabbage afloat in a rich broth. The traditional taste is far too rich and bland for me, so I have up-dated the dish to suit my own tongue, using a leaner and spicier pork mixture and shaping the meatballs on a tiny scale. The fanciful Chinese name still holds, but these are baby lion’s heads rimmed by a cabbagy mane, and not their mommies and daddies.

  • I cook this dish in a large Chinese sand pot, which adds to the succulence of the meatballs and the intrigue of the dish, but any large and heavy casserole will do. The presentation can be cozy or dramatic, depending on the number of the guests and the mood of the meal. It is a pleasantly soupy dish, best served in rice bowls or in shallow pasta plates.
  • Preparations are extremely simple and may be done a night ahead. The stew should be put on to cook an hour to an hour and a quarter before serving.

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Ingredients

  • 2–2½ pounds Chinese cabbage, the pale green-white variety with densely packed, evenly broad leaves
  • pounds coarsely ground pork butt (ask your butcher to put it through the medium blade of the meat grinder, or chop whole butt by hand with one or two cleavers

To season the pork

  • 1–1½ teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
  • ¼–⅜ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • cup rich, unsalted chicken stock

To coat the meatballs

  • 1 tablespoon rich, unsalted chicken stock or cold water
  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • about ¾ cup corn or peanut oil
  • teaspoons coarse kosher salt, or ½ teaspoon Roasted Szechwan Pepper-Salt
  • 4 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • cups rich, unsalted chicken stock
  • thin (regular) soy sauce and/or coarse kosher salt to taste

To garnish (optional)

  • 1 pound tiny live clams, with tightly closed and unbroken shells

Method

Preparations

Cut off the cabbage about ⅜ inch above the base, so the outer leaves fall free. Discard the base and any wilted or ragged leaves, then put aside 3 large leaves to serve as an “umbrella” for the meatballs. Continue in the same manner to cut off the base that joins the cabbage and to free the leaves until the entire cabbage is separated, but do not discard these inner base pieces. Cut them pie-like into thin wedges about ¼ inch thick, then stack 1½ pounds of the innermost leaves and cut them crosswise into thick ribbons 1½ inches wide. Segregate the cabbage into 2 piles, one of crisp base wedges and thick cabbage ribs, and the other of the thin, leafier top portion of the leaves. Rinse the 2 piles and the reserved 3 leaves in cold water, then drain well and pat dry. At this point, the cabbage may be bagged airtight and refrigerated until use, overnight if you like. Leftover cabbage may be bagged in plastic and refrigerated for up to a week, for use in stir-frys.

In a large bowl combine the seasonings for the pork. Once blended, add the pork, then stir briskly in one direction with your hand to combine. Take the pork in one hand and throw it lightly and repeatedly against the inside of the bowl to further blend the mixture and tighten the texture. At this point, the pork may be sealed airtight with a piece of plastic film pressed directly on the surface, then refrigerated up to 24 hours. Bring to room temperature and throw lightly against the side of the bowl 3–4 times before using. The mixture will be soft, not solid.

If you are adding fresh clams to the casserole, scrub them well under cold water, then refrigerate covered with a wet towel until use, up to 12 hours.

Stir-frying the cabbage and pan-frying the meatballs

About 2–2½ hours in advance of serving, heat a wok or large, heavy skillet or stockpot capable of accommodating the cabbage over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 3 tablespoons oil, swirl to coat the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a piece of cabbage stem, add the pile of crisp stems and ribs. Stir-fry briskly to glaze the pieces with oil and heat them through, about 1 minute, adjusting the heat so they sizzle merrily without scorching. Add the leafier pile next, stirring to combine, glaze, and heat the mixture through, about 30 seconds. Sprinkle with salt or pepper-salt, toss several times to combine, then sprinkle with wine. Pause a second to allow the alcohol to “explode” in a fragrant hiss, then toss the cabbage twice more quickly and turn off the heat. Remove the cabbage at once to the bottom of a large Chinese clay pot or heavy, 3–4-quart casserole, spreading it evenly to the edges of the pot to form a cushion for the meatballs. Do not worry if the cabbage is glossy with oil; the oil will keep it from sticking to the pot.

Combine the stock, soy, cornstarch, and pepper for coating the meatballs, stirring until smooth and well blended. Forming the meatballs one at a time, scoop up 2 tablespoons of the pork mixture, dip your fingers and palms in the coating liquids, then quickly shape and coat the meatballs in one motion. Put the coated meatballs aside on a large plate about an inch apart. Work quickly and stir the coating mixture occasionally with your fingers to keep it smooth and blended. Also, do not worry if the meatballs look a bit flat. They will cook to soft and succulent ovals more than sturdy, high-rising rounds. When the last meatball is shaped, smooth any remaining coating mixture over the top, then proceed immediately to pan-fry them.

Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add enough oil to glaze the bottom evenly with a scant ¼ inch oil, then reduce the heat to medium-high. When the oil is hot enough to gently sizzle a single meatball, add the meatballs in quick succession to the pan, starting from the outer edge and working in towards the center (where the metal is typically hottest), and placing the meatballs about ¾ inch apart. Fry in two batches if necessary and do not crowd them so much that you cannot turn them easily. Adjust the heat to maintain a merry sizzle, then pan-fry the meatballs until golden on all sides, about 2–3 minutes, checking the bottoms frequently with a spatula and turning them gently with the spatula, spoon, or tongs. If they are sticking, dribble in a bit more oil from the side of the pan. When nicely browned, transfer the meatballs one by one to the casserole, spreading them evenly on top of the cabbage.

Stewing the casserole

(If you are using a Chinese sand pot, first read about it.)

Add the chicken stock to the casserole, then put the 3 reserved cabbage leaves over the meatballs like an umbrella, curving down. Place the pot over low heat if you are using a Chinese sand pot or over moderately high heat if the pot is made of metal, then bring the stock to a lively simmer. If you are using a sand pot, you may raise the heat to medium once the pot and the liquids are hot. Cover the pot, adjust the heat to maintain a slow, steady simmer, then cook the casserole for 1 hour. Check the pot after about 5 minutes to insure the simmer. If you are using a Chinese sand pot, check it once or twice thereafter. The superb heat conduction of the pot may cause the liquid to a boil even over moderate heat, and you may need to lower it as the cooking continues.

If you are garnishing the casserole with clams, add them to the pot after 55 minutes, removing the whole cabbage leaves and scattering the clams among-the meatballs. Replace the cover, raise the heat, and steam-cook the clams vigorously for about 4 minutes. Discard any clams that do not open, then remove the pot from the heat.

Taste the broth and adjust with thin soy and/or coarse kosher salt, or freshly ground pepper or a dash of pepper-salt as required. If the casserole is ungarnished, it will probably need 2–3 teaspoons of soy and a teaspoon or so of salt. If you have added ham or clams, it may need nothing more.

Serve immediately, portioning the cabbage “manes,” the “lion’s heads,” and the broth and any trimmings into individual heated bowls or shallow plates. If you have made the casserole in a Chinese pot, bring it directly to the table still covered, then lift the lid for the proper effect.

Replace the cover to keep the casserole warm for those who want more. The pot will retain enough heat to keep the mixture warm for about 30 minutes.

Leftovers may be refrigerated 2–3 days, and steamed in a tightly covered bowl until hot. They are still tasty, though not as savory as before.

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