I said I was in search of something a little different to do with the bok choy and I'm pleased to say that "a little different" is a pretty good description of this dish. "A little silly" would be a good description too considering it's giant meatballs in a bed of shredded cabbage. The story goes that it's called lion's head because the fringe of cabbage resembles a lion's mane; Judging from the Google Image search results, most folks try for something a bit more dignified. Not me, though.
First things first, though. The meatballs:
1/2 pound ground pork
2 ounces (by weight, 1 ounce by volume) water chestnuts, chopped
1 green onion, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger, minced
1 Tablespoon dried shrimp, soaked 30 minutes and minced [I don't like little hard bits of ginger and shrimp in my meatballs, so I ran them, along with the green onion, through my spice grinder.]
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 Tablespoons rice wine
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 beaten egg
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1. Mix gently but well and form into two or more meatballs depending on the serving size you're aiming at.
2. Heat 2 inches of peanut (or other high-smoke-point oil) in a wok until shimmery. Add meatballs and fry 3 minutes, turning halfway through, until the outside is well browned. Set meatballs aside to drain. Let oil cool and drain off all but 1 Tablespoon.
Now the cabbage. Napa cabbage or bok choy, whichever you've got seems fine judging by the recipes. Select two large leaves for each meatball. My bok choy didn't have enough large leaves so I used some small ones too which caused a little problem later on. Separate the thick stems from the leaves, break the stems into serving-sized pieces and shred the leaves. I sliced the leaves thickly; next time I'd go thinner, I think.
And for the sauce:
1 clove garlic, minced
1 quarter-sized slice ginger, minced
3/4 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch white pepper
3. Reheat the wok. When it's quite hot add the garlic and ginger and stir fry a few seconds.
4. Quickly dump the bok choy stems into the wok and adjust them until they form a single layer. Place the meatballs on top so they're well elevated. Pour in the chicken broth (and some water to compensate if a lot evaporates immediately). Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer uncovered five minutes.
5. Toss bok choy leaves with sugar, salt and pepper. Layer leaves in the wok to cover the meatballs, cover the wok and cook gently for 15 minutes more. Optionally, remove the meatballs and cabbage from the wok when they're done and cook down the sauce a bit.
Serve each meatball with a couple pieces of cabbage stem surrounded by a wreath of cabbage leaves and topped with a couple spoonfuls of the sauce. Some recipes suggest mixing the leaves with bean-thread noodles (2 ounces for the halved recipe I made). It seemed like a good idea so I included them.
The texture of the meatballs is a little off, pretty clearly from the cornstarch. Just leave that out and and think it would be fine. Actually, now that I consider it, I think the cornstarch got misplaced into the meatball ingredients from the sauce ingredients in the recipe I cribbed that aspect from. The sauce could have done with some texture.
The flavor of the meatball is good, though; the seasonings are subtle and nicely enhace the porkiness. And it's a good match with the flavor of the bok choy.
The bok choy leaves still have a bit of flavor and bite to them as do the larger of the stems. The thinner ones got mushy, though. The rice noodles are a nice addition; They add some textural interest and hold on to the sauce which is important since it wasn't thickened.
So, overall, not bad, but not the classic dish it's cracked up to be. That's probably my fault. I should try a restaurant version to see what I should have been aiming at.
That reminds me, I finally had restaurant mofongo recently. I wasn't all that far off from my disappointing homemade version which turned out to just be too heavy on the raw garlic. There really is nothing much to it. I don't understand the enthusiasm some folks have for it.