Monday: Leftover Chicken Soup and Broccoli with Roasted Peppers, Feta, Olives and Herbs
Tuesday: Toasted Corn Salsa with Tortilla Chips / Beef Birria Tacos / Mashed Avocados with Sesame and Chilies
Wednesday: Pasta with Tomato, Olives, Mozzarella, Basil
Thursday: Vietnamese Meatball Lettuce Wraps with Rice Pilaf
Friday: Shrimp with Red Pepper, Olives and Feta / Radishes with Crème Fraîche
Saturday: Steamed Mussels with Tomatoes and Chorizo
Sunday: Barbecued Chicken, Coleslaw, Sweet Potatoes and Black Beans / App of Avocados and Scallions with Pita, Ice Cream with Stewed Berries
When I was a child, we considered it a great treat when Dad, on the way home from his office, would pick up a dinner of ‘Chop Suey’ at some joint in Greenfield. This consisted of bean sprouts and other vegetables to which clung a delicious, slightly gelatinous and definitely MSG-forward sauce. It was served over Chow Mein noodles (dry and crunchy) and, I suspect, bore no resemblance whatsoever to anything that had been eaten in China for the last 5,000 years. But we loved it – and it gave Mom a break from the task of feeding 5 ravenous boys – and it gave us an adventurous streak which most of our neighbors, a strict meat-and-potatoes crowd, did not understand.
All this is by way of introducing you to a cuisine I am increasingly drawn to – that of Southeast Asia, not China proper. Chinese cooking is fantastic, but often complicated and time consuming. For all I know, Thai and Vietnamese cooking is the same – but not in the recipes I’ve been glomming onto. And the dish we cooked last Wednesday – Vietnamese Meatballs in Lettuce Wraps – is, I can guarantee you, even more delicious than that American-Chinese hybrid chop suey we had back in the day and, I’d bet, even easier to cook.
The lime juice, fish sauce and a bit of sugar give these meatballs an addictive taste. You will need to get your hands on some butter lettuce (usually sold with the roots and a small clump of earth still attached in plastic clamshells at the market) so that you’ll be able to wrap a couple of these babies with some sauce. Iceberg is too thick and brittle, Boston or Bibb leaves are usually too small.
I won’t vouch for the authenticity of this recipe – only for its popularity at Chez Stuarti.
I can’t help but observe that during a time when many people are sick or dying, most of us aren’t suffering much at all. Here are we, in suburban Pittsburgh, and able to gather fish sauce, cilantro and a million other items unknown to our parents, with recipes on the internet for whatever it is we have laid our hands on. So, I’m thinking we all need to think of those who are really suffering through this – medical personnel, the poor in the inner city, the very old in your own neighborhood. I’m not sure that all these folks would go for Vietnamese Meatballs – but I’ll bet dollars to donuts that they wouldn’t refuse a nice bowl of chicken soup.
*Widely known reference, back in the day, but perhaps not so much now, to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Ballad of East and West” which contained the line: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Kipling, a brilliant writer but not exactly ambassadorial material, was wrong, of course – East and West meet every day in our high schools, our universities, our neighborhoods and, increasingly and with my strong support, in our kitchens.
VIETNAMESE MEATBALLS IN LETTUCE WRAPS
(adapted from Milk Street Magazine, May-June, 2018)
Timing: 30 minutes (including 15 minute refrigeration of meatballs)
1 pound, ground pork
1/3 cup chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, and some sprigs to serve
6 scallions: white and light green parts minced, dark green thinly sliced
5 tablespoons fish sauce, divided
2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons of white sugar, divided
½ cup lime juice
1 or 2 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and thinly sliced
3 teaspoons grapeseed or other neutral oil, divided
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 carrots, peeled and shredded (about 1 cup; 1 large carrot might do it)
Fresh cilantro sprigs (about 1/3 cup, lightly packed)
The dark green part of the scallions (above) sliced thinly.
Butter Lettuce Leaves
Mince and slice scallions
Select and wash lettuce leaves
Measure out other ingredients
Make and cook meatballs:
Coat a large plate with 1 teaspoon of the oil; set aside. In a medium bowl, combine the pork, 3 tablespoons water, cilantro, pepper, minced scallions, 2 tablespoons of the fish sauce and the 2 teaspoons of sugar.
Mix vigorously with your hands or a rubber spatula, 30 seconds or more. You want to really work the meat, here, to give the meatballs a springy texture when they’re cooked. With lightly moistened hands, form the mixture into 20 balls and place them on the prepared plate. Note: the mixture is going to be soft and a bit sticky – just roll the bit you’ve pinched off between the palms of your hands and it will become spherical. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, stir together the lime juice, the 3 remaining tablespoons of fish sauce, the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and the chilies until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Line another plate with paper towels. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil until beginning to smoke. Add the meatballs and cook undisturbed until the bottoms are golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes.
Turn each meatball and continue to cook, turning again from time to time, until golden brown all over, 4 to 5 minutes. Note: you’ll need to watch the temperature and adjust so they don’t burn. Transfer to the prepared plate, tent with foil and let rest 5 minutes.
Make Garnish and Serve:
In a small bowl, toss the shredded carrots with 2 tablespoons of the lime juice sauce. Serve the meatballs with the carrots, cilantro sprigs, sliced scallions and lettuce leaves for wrapping. The remaining sauce can be spooned onto the wraps.
Rusty, a true sybarite, finds the most comfortable spot on the porch