豚団子鍋: Toasty Japanese Pork-y Meatball Hotpot

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After the hot, droughty extended summer apparently monsoon season has hit the Pacific NW. (We’ll just gloss over the fact that the Indian Ocean is over 7000 miles away, shall we?) In a spectacular bipolar display, old man weather has altered the local landscape from uncharacteristically arid to “maybe I should start building my ark?” Water has literally been flowing down the sidewalks with standing pools in the street demonstrating the basic tenets of Newtonian physics. Luckily for us we live half-way up a hill. So, what to do when it’s cold and wet all day long? Eat something that will warm your bones and belly🙂 鍋物 (nabemono), basically food that’s stewed in a hotpot or 土鍋 (donabe, an earthenware pot perfectly made for stewing dishes over a flame or in the oven) are perfect for the brisk fall and winter days to come. Why? Cuz the hot broth warms you up and while filling, it’s not food coma inducing, in fact it’s a great way to lose weight not only cuz it’s low fat but also most of the ingredients are low calorie yet making you feel full from all the broth. Add to that, the fact that you can clean out your refrigerator as most foods are amenable to stewing and it’s a win-win. So bust out your stew pot and start rooting through the refrigerator.

The basic ingredients in nabemono or Japanese hotpot are dashi stock, veggies, and either rice or noodles to soak up all that flavorful broth. Everything else is pretty free-flowing so you can make this vegan, kosher, porktastic, it’s all up to you. Usually this version of hotpot is made with chicken meatballs or dumplings and called 鳥団子鍋 (tori dango nabe) but well, we like pork? You could also easily make this vegan by using tofu either as meatballs or in blocks as well. Traditionally the vegetables involved are cabbage, green onion, and mizuna (Japanese mustard greens) but call me a rebel, I put in whatever’s looking good at the market or looks like it needs a new home in the vegetable drawer. That and mizuna and traditional Japanese negi are a pain to find even in Portland. I tend to like kale in stewing dishes because it’s a great source of nutrients (1 cup of kale contains 1000% the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin K, 200% of vitamin C, 180% of vitamin A, and 5g of fiber!) as well as the fact that it retains some texture and doesn’t turn into slimy mush or become bitter like many other greens. Carrots always seem to have a home in our veggie drawer cuz of the sweetness and bright happy color. And meaty earthy shiitake mushrooms tend to lend themselves well to broth-y foods, no? But don’t worry if you can’t find all of these ingredients, most veggies, except for maybe eggplant and beets, would work well with this type of preparation and that’s why it’s so fun🙂

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Troubleshooting:
1) Why are my meatballs so dense and hard? One of the secrets to a tender meatball (or even hamburger for that matter) is not in the seasoning or cooking but the handling. Let your ground meat sit at room temp for 5-10 minutes so it’s easier to mix with the seasonings and then just mix until they’re blended in. When forming the meatballs, apply just enough pressure to give them a round shape but they don’t need to be tightly packed or perfectly round. The more you handle the meatballs, the more compacted and hard they’ll become. I pinch off about 1 1/2 tbsp of meat and loosely form it together with my fingers with 2-3 pats so it looks roundish.
2) Do I really need a fancy donabe? Nope, this cooks just fine in a pot as well. I like using my donabe cuz it looks nice at the table and then everyone can serve themselves. If you’re in the market for a donabe, you’ve probably noticed that they’re pretty expensive since they’re imported from Japan. I was lucky enough to find mine from an Japanese restaurant supply importer in NYC that also sells online at about 1/4 the going price and it’s been going strong for over a year. w00t!

Ingredients
8 oz ground pork (or medium-firm tofu if cooking vegan)
1/2 c bread crumbs **if cooking gluten-free substitute 2 tbsp potato starch
1 large egg
3 green onions, white parts finely chopped
1 tsp (1 clove) crushed garlic
1/2 tsp (1/2 inch) crushed ginger
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 tsp vegetable oil
4 c konbu (seaweed kelp) dashi stock or substitute low-salt vegetable or chicken stock
1 tsp mirin or sake (optional)
1 tbsp soy sauce (I like Yamasa, **look for tamari soy sauce with no wheat in the ingredients label if cooking gluten-free–not all tamari is wheat-free)
8 leaves kale, large veins removed and torn into 1 inch pieces
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
6 shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and cut into 1/2 inch slices
Shichimi togarashi seasoning pepper (optional)
2 c steamed rice

In a small mixing bowl combine pork, bread crumbs, egg, green onions, garlic, ginger, salt and ground pepper. Mix together with hands and roll into 1 inch balls. This makes ~24 meatballs.

Heat oil in donabe or ~3-4 quart pot over medium heat till aromatic but not smoking. Brown meatballs while sipping a refreshing cocktail and resisting the urge to move them around cuz they’ll do just fine all by themselves😉 ~ 1 minute per side.

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Using a paper towel and tongs blot out the excess oil from the donabe. Add dashi stock, mirin, soy sauce, kale, carrots, and shiitake and simmer with cover on for 15-20 minutes. Serve over steamed rice and sprinkle with shichimi togarashi. Post-dinner snuggling optional. Serves 4-6.

About Cam

Enjoying the hippie life in Portlandia :)

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