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Pearly meatballs (zhen zhu rou wan)

Pearly meatballs (zhen zhu rou wan)
Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

Sunday afternoon. Cloudy. I'm reading Fuchsia Dunlop and getting very very hungry. I need a bowl of dan dan noodles immediately and make out a grocery list for that and her recipe for wontons. And then I'm off to Monterey Park, though none of the ingredients, really, are all that exotic.

An hour later, I'm in the kitchen making her Sichuan wontons with a simple stuffing of ground pork seasoned with Shaoxing wine, white pepper and spring onion greens.

I've found it makes an enjoyable afternoon to invite friends over to help make a batch or two. We'll sit around the table or stand side by side at the counter, talking, listening to music and folding wonton wrappers to our own rhythm.

The repeated gestures of dabbing a teaspoon of filling onto each square wrapper, slicking the edges with water, folding the wrappers corner to corner and then bringing the other two corners together are curiously soothing.

Daydreaming, I remember not Szechuan province, where I've never been, but Bologna, Italy, where I once spent a winter month learning to make gnocchi at a trattoria and hanging around a laboratorio where three or four elderly women made pasta by hand around a big wooden table. Their tortellini were the smallest and most delicate I'd ever seen, destined for tortellini in brodo (in broth), which, except in flavoring, isn't all that different from wonton soup.

The shape of the stuffed dumpling is the very same. Only in Italy, the shape is supposed to have been inspired by the goddess Venus' navel, while in Sichuan, Dunlop writes, they are known as "folded arms" (chao shou). "Some say this is because the raw dumplings look like the folded arms of a person sitting back in relaxation; others that it's because of the way they are wrapped, with one corner crossed over the other and the two pinched together."

As we finish each wonton, we line the dumplings up on a cookie sheet like columns of soldiers. Half of a double batch will go into the freezer and, once they're frozen, I'll transfer them to Ziploc bags. The other half we'll eat for supper (they take only minutes to cook), garnished in the bright heat of chili oil, crushed garlic and soy sauce infused with the flavors of Sichuan peppercorn, star anise, cinnamon and ginger.

Leftovers? Not on your life.

Another recipe ideal for making with friends is pearly meatballs. Dunlop's version goes together quickly, but you do need to remember to soak the rice in cold water overnight.

The meatballs are basically ground pork with a little dried shrimp and fresh water chestnuts for crunch. Forget about using a spoon or scoop to make the meatballs. Your hands are your best tools, and we all vie to roll the perfectly round, walnut-sized balls in our palms.

The fun part is then rolling them around in a mixture of translucent sticky rice, shiitake mushrooms and minced ham to give them a shaggy coat.

Like the wontons, you can't make too many. Piled high on a platter, the pearly meatballs disappear in a flash.

No need for advanced cooking skills to make either the wontons or the pearly meatballs. Yet the results are spectacular and soul-satisfying. All you have to do is trust the recipes. They work.

irene.virbila@latimes.com

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Total time: 45 minutes plus 3 hours soaking time | Makes 36 meatballs
Note: Adapted from "Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province" by Fuchsia Dunlop. The rice for this dish should be soaked for a few hours, preferably overnight, before cooking. In Hunan, the cooked meatballs are often piled into a bowl and then resteamed before serving. Glutinous rice, dried shrimp and Shaoxing wine are available at select well-stocked grocery stores as well as at Asian markets.
  • 1 cup glutinous rice
  • 2 tablespoons dried shrimp
  • 6 dried shiitake musrooms
  • 1 slice cooked ham, about 1 ounce
  • 12 canned or 10 fresh water chestnuts
  • 14 ounces ground pork, a little fatty if possible
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons potato flour mixed to a paste with 2 tablespoons water
  • Salt and pepper
  • Peanut oil
  • 2 green onions, green parts only, finely sliced
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons sesame oil

Step 1Rinse the rice thoroughly in cold water, and then soak for 3 hours in hot water, or overnight in cold water; drain and set aside.

Step 2Meanwhile, soak the dried shrimp and the shiitake mushrooms in separate bowls of hot water for about 30 minutes to reconstitute. After soaking, drain, squeeze dry and finely chop them separately. Finely chop the ham; set aside.

Step 3Peel the water chestnuts if you are using fresh ones, then chop them finely by hand.

Step 4In a medium bowl, combine the water chestnuts, ground pork, ginger, wine, egg and potato flour mixture. Season with three-fourths teaspoon salt and one-half teaspoon pepper, or to taste. On a plate or in a shallow baking dish, combine the ham and shiitake with the drained rice. Lightly grease a heatproof plate with peanut oil (choose one that will fit comfortably inside a steamer).

Step 5Shape the meat mixture into walnut-sized balls and roll in the rice mixture to coat generously. Lay the meatballs in one layer on the oiled plate; you might need to steam them in two batches, depending on the size of your steamer.

Step 6Steam, tightly covered, over high heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes; break one in half to check that it is cooked. Serve directly on the plate, with a scattering of green onion and sesame oil.

Each of 36 meatballs:
Calories 61; Protein 3 grams; Carbohydrates 6 grams; Fiber 0; Fat 3 grams; Saturated fat 1 gram; Cholesterol 15 mg; Sugar 0; Sodium 69 mg.
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