Once upon a time, I cooked these fun and colorful meatballs for a little girl…
OK, it wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t “once” upon a time—rather, multiple times over the better part of a decade. During a previous marriage, I had the joy of cooking for (and eventually, with) a bright and sassy, food-loving child who was my stepdaughter. From a distance, it was clear that this blue-eyed towhead was not a blood relative. Up close, however, one might swear that she must have been mine, given that she swooned over cooking shows such as Emeril Live, Good Eats and The Next Food Network Star. The child was obsessed, even, and she always had something intelligent to say about whatever food was being prepared on our TV screen.
“I’ll bet Emeril’s gonna put that skillet into the oven to finish it.” And, sure enough, that’s what he would do.
To nurture her curiosity and passion for food, I did the only thing that made sense to me—I bought her a junior-sized denim apron and put her to work alongside me in the kitchen. I passed down to her the food lessons and techniques that had been passed down to me, and it wasn’t long before she was the most excellent sous chef. I could ask her to “julienne those two carrots over there” and she’d return in short order with perfectly uniform little matchsticks. She knew what it meant to “chiffonade” fresh basil or “caramelize” onions without burning them. Her palate became even more sophisticated as she continued to help in the kitchen, and by the time she left home for college, she requested written copies of some of her favorite recipes that we had made together.
Whether this recipe was included in the request I cannot recall, but it was undoubtedly one of her favorites. I’ve tweaked it recently, opting to make my own dressing rather than depending on a bottled version from the supermarket, though we’d have no objection to anyone taking that shortcut. I’ve also discovered that coconut sugar produces a better glaze on the meatballs than my original method of rolling them in regular sugar. Coconut sugar is richer, both in color and flavor, and it’s lower on the glycemic index, so probably a better choice anyway.
This dish is similar to my copycat chicken lettuce wraps, but only in the fact that both contain ground chicken and Asian-inspired flavors. Although the “copycat” version is distinctly spicy and savory, this dish is more of a mixed bag of flavors and textures. The chicken is shaped into firm meatballs, each one carrying its own little confetti explosion of sweet bell pepper and sharp garlic and scallion, but softened on the outside by a sweet, sticky glaze. The sesame ginger dressing permeates the senses from the moment it reaches the table, and no wonder—it’s inside the meatballs, too.
Serve this on its own or with steaming hot jasmine rice. As a meal, it’s good for 4 servings. If serving as appetizers, the recipe makes 18.
1 lb. ground chicken (not chicken breast)
3 scallions (white and green parts)
2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper
1/2 large yellow bell pepper
1/2 cup unseasoned panko bread crumbs
1 tsp. sesame seeds
About 1 Tbsp. Sesame Ginger dressing (recipe below)
1/2 cup coconut sugar (to “frost” the meatballs before baking)
1 large romaine heart, rinsed, dried and separated into individual leaves
1/2 medium red onion, cut into thin slices
A handful of fresh cilantro leaves (optional, but recommended for serving)
Additional sesame seeds to sprinkle (optional, or serving)
Jasmine rice, if desired, for serving
Sesame Ginger Dressing
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or Tamari)
1 Tbsp. coconut sugar
1 tsp. sriracha (optional, if you like a little heat)
1 tsp. fish sauce
3 Tbsp. canola or peanut oil
1 or 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil (depending on taste)
First, the visuals:
- Combine the garlic, peppers and scallions in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 10 times, for 1 second each, until the mixture looks like colorful confetti. Sprinkle a generous pinch of kosher salt over the pepper mixture.
- Line a colander with double thickness paper towels and transfer the processed pepper mixture to it. Allow it to rest in the colander long enough to absorb the excess moisture from the mixture, about 10 minutes.
- In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the first five dressing ingredients. Slowly drizzle in the canola or peanut oil while whisking constantly. This will help to emulsify the ingredients. Whisk in 1 teaspoon of the toasted sesame oil and give it a taste. Add more if you like. This oil is very pungent, so generally speaking, a little goes a long way.
- Season ground chicken with kosher or sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Combine confetti veggies with chicken, egg, a splash of sesame ginger dressing, sesame seeds and panko crumbs. Mix with a wooden spoon or your hands. It will be a gooey mix, but if it’s too wet to hold together, add an extra sprinkle of bread crumbs. If it seems dry, add another splash of sesame ginger dressing.
- Add coconut sugar to a shallow dish or small bowl. Shape the mixture into meatballs about 1 1/2” diameter. Working quickly, roll the meatballs through the sugar, just enough to frost each one, and roll again in your hands to fully adhere the sugar, which will become a glaze on the baked meatballs. Place meatballs into a 9×13 glass baking dish, allowing space between them. Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes.
- Arrange romaine leaves on a platter, then bed your meatballs on them. Whisk the dressing ingredients again. Scatter red onion slices over the top and drizzle with the sesame ginger dressing. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and sesame seeds and serve (with rice, if desired).