Good cooking is an exercise in the balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami flavors. And no cuisine does it better than that of Southeast Asia.
The ingredients are typically vibrant in flavor. So vibrant, in fact, that it would seem difficult for one to not overwhelm the others. Still, they manage to come together in a complementary way, with each flavor playing an important role in relation to all the others — like instruments in an orchestra.
This week's recipe, Pork and Lemongrass Meatball Lettuce Wraps, is a good example. Ground pork is combined with finely chopped lemongrass, garlic, shallot, ginger and fish sauce before being formed into meatballs. It would be logical to assume that the pork would be lost in the powerhouse of all the intense tastes, but you'd be wrong.
The porkiness of these little meatballs finds a way to shine through — even after they've been tucked inside lettuce leaves, along with thin rice noodles, shredded carrots, chopped peanuts, cilantro leaves and a drizzle of a standout dipping sauce made with fresh lime juice, more fish sauce, sugar and chiles.
A few ingredients in this recipe may seem unfamiliar and even intimidating if you haven't yet discovered the joys of Southeast Asian cooking. For instance, one whiff of fish sauce can seem like a deal-breaker to someone who has never tasted it in a dish. While the aroma may be off-putting, its flavor in a curry, salad, soup, dipping sauce or any other of its myriad uses is unparalleled. Like soy sauce, it brings a complex element of salt to a dish, along with a unique savoriness. Fish sauce, though, also comes with an added bit of "funk," which may not sound like a good thing, but turns out to be a great thing.
Lemongrass, an aromatic grass (hence the name) extensively used in south and Southeast Asia, may look strange, but its lemony, slightly gingery flavor will brighten any dish. It can be finely chopped and eaten raw in a salad or cut into large pieces and simmered in a curry or a soup, which it infuses with its aroma and flavor.
Thin rice noodles, also called maifun, are easy to cook, just needing a few minutes in boiling water, and are the perfect vehicle to soak up the juices from the meatballs and the sauce.
Thai chiles may be small, but they are seriously mighty when it comes to heat. One is plenty for those who prefer things on the milder side. Two or even three will make any chile lover happy.
Unlike five or 10 years ago, when procuring these items would have involved a trip to an Asian market or online ordering, all of these items can now typically be found in either the produce or global sections of most grocery stores.
It's never been easier to try something new. And once you do, you'll be thinking of all kinds of ways to work these delicious, versatile ingredients into your favorite dishes.
Pork and Lemongrass Meatball Lettuce Wraps
Note: While the ingredient list may seem complex, this flavorful dish couldn't be easier to make, and all the ingredients can be found in the produce and global sections of most grocery stores. To mince the lemongrass, cut off the lower bulb with the woody center and remove tough, outer leaves. The tender portion of the stalk (the light yellow section) is usually about 4 inches long. From Meredith Deeds.
For the meatballs:
• 1 1/4 lb. ground pork
• 1/4 c. finely chopped shallot
• 3 tbsp. minced fresh lemongrass, light portion only (see Note)
• 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 1 tbsp. grated fresh ginger
• 1 tbsp. fish sauce
• 2 tsp. cornstarch
• 1 tsp. sugar
• 3/4 tsp. salt
For the dipping sauce:
• 1/4 c. fresh lime juice
• 2 tbsp. fish sauce
• 2 tbsp. sugar
• 1 or 2 small hot chile peppers (Thai, Fresno or serrano), finely chopped (seeded, if desired, to tame the heat)
For the wraps:
• 4 oz. thin rice noodles (maifun), cooked according to package directions, drained and rinsed with cold water
• 1/2 c. shredded carrots
• 1/4 c. chopped salted peanuts
• 1/4 c. cilantro leaves
• 16 medium bibb lettuce leaves, rinsed, patted dry with paper towel
Preheat broiler. Place rack about 6 inches below the broiler element.
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and use your hands to gently mix. Shape the meat mixture into 32 walnut-sized balls (about 1 inch in diameter) and arrange on a greased rimmed baking sheet. Broil until lightly browned and cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chile pepper until sugar is dissolved.
Serve meatballs with rice noodles, carrots, peanuts, cilantro, lettuce leaves and dipping sauce and assemble into lettuce wraps.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.