Last week a tiny princess was born. My niece, Nina, with dark-grey-blue slanted eyes, beautifully carries a hint of her ¼ Japanese heritage. For the occasion, feeling like the proudest aunt in the world, I reserved a train ticket, packed gifts in a suitcase (including two small, magnificent pieces of art by the talented Elena Megalos) and set off for Washington, D.C.
My mother had already decided what she would cook today: Chinese stewed meatballs with cabbage. My train departed at eight in the morning, and I was too frazzled to think about breakfast, a rare occurrence, so I arrived starved. The meal was ten minutes from being finished. I haven’t felt this relieved, and thankful, in a long time. So though I didn’t cook the dish – my mother receives full credit – I had her walk me through the steps so I could share it with you. I did spend the last ten minutes watching the meatballs, smelling their delicate shoyu fragrance and poking at the soft bed of cabbage. True, I was hungry, and perhaps not the best judge of flavor (by this point anything could have satisfied me), but the meal was a dream. The meatballs, made with beef, were firm but tender and easily broke apart with the back of a fork. The leeks added a creamy flavor, less obtrusive than onion, and the ginger brought depth and heat. The broth, made with white wine and soy sauce, was a perfect, discrete backdrop. I spooned my last grains of rice drenched in sauce. I was most amazed by the softness of the dish: the flavors were subtle, the Chinese cabbage melted in my mouth, and I was left feeling pleasantly full, entirely satisfied.
I spy Hugo’s drawings in my mother’s kitchen:
Stewed meatballs with cabbage
Adapted from Cook Chinese by Nancy Chih Ma
1 lb. pork, round fine (or beef, or combination of beef and pork)
1 stalk leek, washed and chopped finely
1 tsp. ginger, minced
1 egg lightly beaten
1 tbsp. white wine
1 tsp. sea salt
1 tbsp. cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsps. water (my mother uses arrowroot)
1/3 cup oil
1 lb. Chinese cabbage, washed, leaves separated, and cut coarsely
2 tbsps. soy
2 cups water
3 tbsps. white wine
Using chopsticks or a fork mix meat well with leek, ginger, egg, 1 tbsp. wine, and salt. Divide into 4 equal portions. Wet hands with cornstarch water and shape mixture into 4 balls. Heat oil to 340 degrees and sauté meatballs until golden brown. Remove to platter. Use the same oil to sauté the cabbage for about two minutes. Spread cabbage over the bottom of a skillet, place meatballs on top, add soy, water, and 3 tbsps. wine, cover and simmer over low heat for about one hour. Serve hot, with white rice. Don’t hesitate to add more soy sauce if you like your food on the saltier side.