OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian, food writer and ecologist, highlights different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week, she offers a recipe for lion’s head meatballs to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Between the deep-fried donuts of pre-Lent holidays (Feb. 8-13), National Pizza Day (Feb. 9), Lunar New Year (starting Feb. 10), Oregon’s statehood day (Feb. 14) and Valentine’s Day (also the 14th), we have a very busy week of feasting ahead of us. (Alas, we were remiss in forgetting Tater Tot Day on the 2nd, but it’s never too late for totchos.) It’s impossible to pick one dish that perfectly encapsulates midwinter, but this Saturday marks the year of the wood dragon in the Chinese zodiac — symbols of creativity, vitality and intelligence. It’s a year for big ideas and finding deeper meanings. In Chinese New Year celebrations, the dragon is the lion’s dance partner for bringing good luck and prosperity, so a juicy lion’s head meatball is kind of perfect, don’t you think? Symbolic Lunar New Year foods are varied, but one is shared with western New Year menus — do you know what it is? Read on to find out!
Eggciting news for animal welfare, canola: not-so-mellow yellow, unexpected treats, powered by coffee and good things in markets
Battery cages can go suck an egg
Eggs produced in Oregon and Washington may no longer come from caged hens, reports The Oregonian. The nearly identical laws, passed in both states in 2019, went into effect on Jan. 1, and other states are in various stages of following suit. Egg prices will likely reflect the new laws, but as the country’s largest egg producer Cal-Maine Foods reported a more than double increase in sales in 2023, some are already planning to expand cage-free operations.
Getting down to Brass(ica) tacks about canola
Is the rapeseed crop (aka canola) inherently bad for Oregon’s seed and vegetable growers? Organics advocates think so, but some farmers aren’t convinced. OPB’s new agricultural reporter, Alejandro Figueroa reports on the growing debate over canola in the Willamette Valley.
Your favorite “secret” spot is about to get busy
When it comes to food, Portland may be Oregon’s Marcia Brady, but Travel Oregon has a new guide to great eats outside the City of Noses (sorry, ROSES). Written by Northwest travel writer Matt Wastradowski, the guide uncovers spots previously known only to locals (including our favorites, Naveen’s in Netarts and Langlois Market in Langlois).
Scientific breakthrough: coffee as an energy source
Affogato? Ah, fagettaboutit. A new study reveals a novel way to derive energy from coffee: by converting the waste product — coffee grounds — into high-performance sodium-ion anodes for batteries. Using a process called phosphorus-doping, coffee grounds were found to be an effective precursor material for producing hard carbon for battery anodes. (We’ll stick with our regular cuppa for now.)
Good things in markets
Beautiful winter citrus is still turning our heads like the dude in the distracted boyfriend meme (while local crucifers and root vegetables glare at us indignantly) and once again, we ask all the winter crops to just get along. We had some really sweet and juicy Shaddock pomelo in a radish, carrot and radicchio salad recently and it knocked our socks off. Shaddock is a much smaller variety with a thinner pith than the standard mammoth citrus, whereas the thick and spongy pith on regular Chinese pomelos can be used as a substitute for pork belly in vegetarian and vegan braises. Other citrus is here to brighten your day, too — as the weather shifts back to cold, gloomy damp, bring the sunshine indoors with a jar of homemade lemon curd or fragrant marmalade burbling on the stove.
It’s a bit early yet to begin noting what’s happening in the “Superabundant” garden, but we’re happy to report that our crops of crown daisy (chrysanthemum greens), chervil and cilantro were unfazed by last month’s winter blast. The once-bushy flatleaf parsley was completely flattened, but under the sad mass of slimy stems, new leaf buds are emerging from the basal rosettes. It’s still a fine time to go through your stash of seeds, too — older seeds may benefit from a bit longer germination time and thicker sowing. If last week’s February Fake-Out had you champing at the bit to start gardening, you can always plant a tray of indoor alfalfa or radish seeds to keep yourself supplied with salad and sandwich sprouts. Peas, beans and carrots can be sown directly outdoors next month but summer crops like peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes won’t be ready for life outdoors until May at the earliest.
It’s also time to finish up any winter fruit tree pruning before buds flush. Need help getting started? Over the next few weeks, the Oregon State University Extension Service is offering classes around the state.
Recipe: Lion’s head meatballs with bok choy
Juicy lion’s head meatballs are a classic celebration dish for banquets and special occasions, but this time, there’s more to it than that. Since Chinese dragons look more like lions than the dinosaur-like dragons of Western lore, a lion’s head meatball seems especially apt to ring in the Year of the Dragon. Leafy greens, a common symbol of riches in the New Year (think collards and sauerkraut commonly eaten on the Gregorian New Year’s Day), are another food of the wood element. These meatballs are a mix of chicken (another wood-element food) with pork and include minced wood ear mushrooms along with the requisite water chestnuts.
Coincidental to wood, water chestnuts get their signature sog-proof crunch from a compound called ferulic acid, a building block of lignin (which plants use to make wood and bark). Ferulic acid is also found in other members of the sedge family (Cyperaceae), like the noxious wetland weed, yellow nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus, aka tiger nuts or chufa, the plant originally used to make horchata). Makes 18 large meatballs — 18 is a lucky number in Chinese numerology.
Note: These meatballs are steamed rather than simmered after frying because it yields a less-greasy end result. If you’d rather, you can simmer the meatballs directly in the brothy sauce for 6-8 minutes to cook them through.
In the last 5 minutes of steaming the meatballs, you can add the bok choy or cabbage to cook in the steamer.
3 dried wood ear mushrooms (kikurage) or 2 dried shiitake
1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground chicken or turkey (not breast meat)
2 scallions, finely sliced
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp white pepper
½ tsp five spice
½ tsp MSG (optional)
2 large eggs
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp light soy sauce
¼ cup Nu Er Hong or Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 5 oz can water chestnuts, drained and finely chopped
½ cup panko/plain breadcrumbs or cooked rice
Neutral oil (vegetable, corn, peanut, etc.) for frying
2 tsp sesame oil
1 scallion, cut into 1″ pieces
1″ ginger, sliced into ⅛” rounds
1″ piece of Chinese black slab sugar or 1 tbsp dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup homemade chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
1 tbsp cornstarch2 tbsp Nu Er Hong or Shaoxing rice wine
2 tbsp light soy sauce
9 Shanghai bok choy, halved (or 18 Napa cabbage leaves) for serving
- Soak the dried mushrooms in ½ cup of boiling water until they’re softened, around 10 minutes if you’re using wood ear, or 15 for shiitakes. (If you’re using shiitakes, break the stems off before you soak, but include them in the soak and discard them at the end.) Strain and reserve the soaking liquid, then finely mince the mushrooms and set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, combine all the meatball ingredients, including the minced mushrooms plus ¼ cup of the mushroom-soaking liquid (but not the oil for frying). Beat with a hand mixer or the stand mixer’s paddle attachment on medium until the mixture is well combined, smooth and fairly emulsified, about 4-5 minutes. If you’re mixing by hand, mix for about 10 minutes. The mix will be pretty wet and gloppy, but that’s okay. Pop the bowl in the fridge for 15 minutes to firm the meatball mixture up a little.
- Heat about 2 inches of oil to 400º in a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot or skillet over medium-high heat. Remove the meat mixture from the freezer and divide it into 18 portions, then form these into balls (or use a size 20/ ¼ cup portioner). Carefully lower the balls into the hot oil one at a time and cook, gently turning as needed, until they’re browned evenly, about 6-8 minutes. You may need to work in batches if the temperature of the oil drops too much, but don’t worry about cooking the meatballs all the way through — we just want the brown crust for now.
- Line a large (or tiered) steamer basket with cabbage leaves or wax paper and set the basket over 2 inches of boiling water. Alternatively, you can use a large soup pot with 2 inches of water and a small bowl set inside. Set a plate (big enough to hold 8 meatballs but small enough to fit in the pot) on top of the bowl. Steam the meatballs until they’re fully cooked (or an instant-read thermometer clocks the interiors at 165º), about 20 minutes.
- While the meatballs are steaming, prepare the sauce by heating the sesame oil in a small pot over medium heat. Stir-fry the scallions and ginger until glossy and fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add the sugar and stir it around a little, lightly crushing it with the back of your spoon. Add the chicken stock or broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the sauce tastes gingery and the sugar is fully dissolved. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch into the rice wine and soy sauce, then whisk the cornstarch slurry into the simmering sauce. Keep whisking until the sauce is glossy and thickened, about 2 minutes, then remove the ginger and scallions with a slotted spoon.
- Serve the meatballs with the steamed bok choy/cabbage and the sauce.