When I develop recipes, I like to begin by whipping up an experimental batch for dinner, and then feeding the results to my guinea pigs (a.k.a. husband and children). Rarely does my first try hit the mark, but lo and behold, these meatballs were an instant success. They reminded me of my mom’s pork and shrimp wonton filling, and I was pleased as punch that everyone else loved them, too. Even Ollie, the pickiest one in the family, gave this recipe his enthusiastic seal of approval. (In other words, he finished his dinner in minutes rather than hours.)
My loyal Nomsters on Instagram seemed to dig the look of these Wonton Meatballs, too. I posted a peek at the tasty meatballs on my feed to announce that a new recipe was on the way, and received plenty of encouragement for me to get this dish on our newly-updated site pronto.
No problem, I thought. I was feeling pretty smug. My first attempt was already 95% of the way there; I figured I’d add a bit of fresh ginger to the recipe, and maybe form slightly larger balls, but I had all weekend to polish the recipe.
But my hubris quickly changed to puzzlement the next morning when I made a second batch of meatballs.
They looked fine—every bit as pretty as the ones I’d made the previous night—but when I bit into a meatball, it disintegrated in my mouth. The wonderfully umami-rich flavors were the same, but the texture of the meat was powdery and off-putting and all-around gross. Was it me? I fed some meatballs to my
unsuspecting family taste-testers, and they nearly spat them out. “WHAT DID YOU DO TO THE MEATBALLS?” they demanded.
I had no idea.
Dejected, I made tray after tray of Wonton Meatballs all weekend long, modifying different factors to try to recreate the texture of the original. Was it the fat content of the meat? Did I work the mixture too much? I chopped the prawns more coarsely in one batch, barely mixed the meat in another attempt, used chilled pork and shrimp in the third batch, and added a binding agent to the fourth one. Nothing worked, though Henry and I forced ourselves to eat EVERY MEALY MEATBALL I MADE, because we don’t waste food around here. The kids, on the other hand, had no qualms about wasting these meatballs.
Wracked with self-doubt, I started having nightmares about my powdery pork predicament. The flavor profile remained fantastic, but the texture was so off-putting and so different from the original batch that I knew something was terribly wrong. Did I just imagine that the first meatball was delicious? Had I lost my cooking mojo completely?
After wracking my brain to remember what I did differently the first time around, I realized that I’d only made one modification to the ingredients after the initial batch: I’d added freshly minced ginger. But that couldn’t have been the culprit, right?
WRONG. It was the fresh ginger that made my meatballs mealy! After a quick Google search and a scan of my Cook’s Science book, I learned that—similar to pineapple—fresh ginger contains a powerful enzyme called zingibain that breaks down protein. The grated ginger I’d added to my meatball mixture was breaking down the collagen in my pork, literally turning it into mush. (By the way, my fellow science nerds, this only happens with fresh ginger. It turns out the enzyme is inactivated when the ginger is cooked, dried, or countered with acid like vinegar or citrus.)
Armed with this knowledge, I made a fifth batch of Wonton Meatballs—this time sans fresh ginger. And as soon as I bit into a hot meatball, I did a celebratory dance. The bouncy, springy texture had returned! And that’s how Nom Nom got her groove back.
The moral of the story? In the immortal words of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart, NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER SURRENDER.
(By the way, if you want to hear our whole family talk through the trials and tribulations of testing this recipe, go listen to Episode 18 of the Nom Nom Paleo Podcast!)
So, without further ado, I present to you a batch of thoroughly tested Wonton Meatballs! (Psst! With the new blog redesign, there’s now a printer-friendly recipe card at the end of the post!)
- ¼ ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in water for at least 30 minutes
- ½ pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2 scallions, finely chopped
- ¼ cup cilantro, minced
- 1 tablespoon coconut aminos
- ½ teaspoon Diamond Crystal brand kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon fish sauce
- ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
- ¼ teaspoon sesame oil
- Ghee or cooking fat of choice
- 1 scallion, sliced on the bias (optional garnish)
- Sriracha (optional)
- Small bowl
- Large bowl
- Chef’s knife
- Cutting board
- Measuring spoons
- Measuring cups
- Small frying pan
- Silicone spatula
- Large cookie scoop (a.k.a. #20 disher)
- Rimmed baking sheet
- Parchment paper
Check that your dried ’shrooms are hydrated. I like to throw a bunch of dried mushrooms into a bowl of water in the morning so they’ll be ready by the time I make dinner. When you’re ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400°F, and squeeze the water out of the shiitake mushrooms. Cut off the hard stems, and finely mince them.
Finely chop the shrimp until you’ve got a chunky paste.
Transfer the chopped shrimp to a large bowl and add the pork…
…mushrooms, scallions, cilantro…
…coconut aminos, salt, fish sauce, white pepper, and sesame oil.
Use your hands to squeeze and mix the meatball mixture until a sticky and tacky mass is formed. I know that most meatball recipes warn against over-mixing the ingredients lest the balls turn tough, but this is the method my mama uses to make her deliciously springy shrimp and pork cakes. She swears it’s the secret to the bouncy texture, and she’s also the best home cook I know, so I’m gonna follow her advice.
Heat up a small frying pan over medium heat and add a little cooking fat. When the pan is sizzling hot, form a little patty and cook it in the pan. Taste it and see if the seasoning is right. Adjust with additional salt if needed. (Not ready to cook just yet? You can keep the meatball mixture in the fridge for up to 12 hours.)
Form the mixture into 1½-inch balls. I like to scoop the balls out with a #20 disher, which holds 3 tablespoons. Roll the mixture into round balls…
…and arrange on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet. You should end up with about a dozen balls.
Bake the meatballs in the oven for 15-20 minutes…
…or until cooked through.
Top with scallions and serve immediately. These savory Wonton Meatballs are incredibly flavorful on their own, but if you insist on eating ’em with some kind of sauce, add a squirt of my Whole30 Sriracha.
Leftovers can be stored in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 4 days and frozen for up to 3 months. I like to reheat my meatballs by cutting them into thick slices and pan-frying them until crispy on the outside.
If you feel like making a bunch of Wonton Sliders instead, smush the balls into ½-inch patties and fry in a greased pan over medium heat, about 2 minutes on each side. Serve immediately with a squeeze of sriracha.
Lesson learned: Recipe testing can be a chore, but it’s a necessary one, and the results are gratifyingly delicious!