Play Me a Recipe

Francis Lam makes Chinese American Thanksgiving Meatballs

Episode Summary

Join The Splendid Table host, cookbook editor, and food writer Francis Lam as he makes his Chinese American Thanksgiving Meatballs recipe.

Episode Notes

On Play Me a Recipe, your favorite cooks will walk you through their most treasured recipes, offering all the insider tips, stories, and tricks you won't get from a written recipe—and you'll be right alongside them, every step of the way. Feel free to pause, jump back, or navigate the steps via the podcast chapters.

If you're cooking along, here's the recipe we're making today; go ahead and grab the ingredients below (Francis starts listing them at 3:17), and start the episode when you're ready to cook.

Chinese American Thanksgiving Meatballs


  1. Sear mushrooms: Heat the vegetable oil over high heat in a large saute pan. When the oil is shimmering-hot, carefully add the mushrooms and spread them out into one layer as best you can. Let sear, undisturbed, until richly browned, about 1 minute. Toss, spread out again, and let sear for another minute. Remove mushrooms from heat, season with salt to taste, and transfer to a medium bowl to cool.
  2. Mix marinade: In a small bowl, combine the oyster sauce, sesame oil, 4 teaspoons sugar, 2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt, and the chicken stock.
  3. Mix aromatics: Add ½ cup of the chopped scallion and 3 cloves of finely minced garlic to the bowl with the mushrooms and stir to combine.
  4. Make meatball mixture: Place the turkey and pork in a large mixing bowl and gently fold them together with your hands to start to combine. Pour in the marinade. Hold the fingers of one hand apart, as if holding a softball. Using that hand, stir the meat in one direction to mix in the marinade, being sure to agitate all the meat. When the meat has absorbed all the liquid and the mixture has gotten a bit sticky or tacky, stop. Add the mushroom mixture and gently fold to combine. Cover and let marinate for up to 4 hours.
  5. Make sauce: Set aside 2 tablespoons of scallions for garnish. In a Dutch oven or other large, lidded braising pan, heat the olive oil over high heat until you see the first wisps of smoke. Add 4 cloves of minced garlic and stir until very aromatic, about 15 seconds. Add the ginger and stir until very aromatic, about 15 seconds. Add the remaining scallions and stir for 15 seconds. Add the can of tomatoes, bring it to a boil, and reduce heat to a simmer. Season with 2 teaspoons sugar and salt to taste. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes.
  6. Form and cook meatballs: Meanwhile, use a large soup spoon to scoop up the meat mixture and using your hands, very lightly pat out 1 1/2-inch diameter meatballs. Set them on a plate. (You should have about 24 meatballs). After the sauce has simmered for 15 minutes, remove the lid and gently add the meatballs in one layer. Adjust heat to a bare simmer and cover the pot. Let poach / steam until the meatballs are just cooked through, 10-12 minutes.
  7. Serve: Garnish with the reserved scallions and serve.

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Episode Transcription

Francis Lam (teaser): We're just gonna go doo-doo-doo, doo-doo-doo—hey look, they’re al chopped!


Francis: Hey, you're listening to Play Me A Recipe. I'm Francis Lam, host of the radio show The Splendid Table. And I'm also a cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter and dear lord, a food writer for over 15 years. And today we're gonna make a recipe for what I like to call Chinese American Thanksgiving Meatballs. The recipe is linked in the show notes if you need to refer to it. But otherwise we'll just be getting our ingredients, searing, mixing, rolling, poaching all of it right here together. Feel free to pause or jump back if you need a little more time or to check the recipe.

But here we go.

Francis: So this recipe came about as—kind of a homage?—I guess you'd call it to my screwed up childhood. (Laughs) Well, my parents came from China, Hong Kong specifically, and I was born here. So when I was growing up, you know, it was the sort of common story of culture clash between the kid raised in America and the parents who came to America. And, you know, I grew up with Chinese food, and whatever my parents could preserve of their culture in our home. But I also went to an almost entirely white school and was just always feeling like, why didn't my family, you know, wear cardigans and drink hot cocoa around a fireplace and play board games like families on TV? And every year when Thanksgiving would roll around, it was me whining over and over. Why don't we have turkey like normal people? My parents were like, because turkey is dry and terrible?, like, why should we make ourselves eat turkey, like I don't understand why we’d do that? But I whined so much about it every year that one year my mom finally relented and she said, Okay, you're gonna have turkey on Thanksgiving this year.

And I was so excited for it that when I got to the dinner table, I didn't even really get suspicious when there was still like the usual rice and vegetables, and, you know, whatever other normal dishes would be in a Chinese meal on the table. And then my mom goes over the oven, takes out a platter and takes the foil off the platter, and it was literally slices of turkey she got from the deli counter at the supermarket. Which, you know, was totally deflating, like I'll never be normal! Thanks, Mom! But obviously now is hilarious!

And the reason I make turkey into meatballs is because on another Thanksgiving, my parents took us on vacation and, you know, they were cheap, so we always flew on Thanksgiving Day—so another not normal thing, right? But when we got to where we were going for our, you know, ostensible Thanksgiving dinner, in order to make up for it, my mom brought along my absolute favorite food in the world back then: a huge order of meatballs from Pizza Hut.

You know, she always wanted to do right by us, even if none of us really knew what that meant all the time. So this recipe is for turkey meatballs made with a little ground pork and mushrooms, like in the style of a Chinese dumpling filling. And we cook it in a Chinese-style tomato sauce with ginger and scallion.

Ingredients & Equipment

Francis: Okay, so for this recipe, you're gonna need a little vegetable oil. About a quarter pound of stemmed fresh shiitake mushrooms, a full bunch of scallions, seven garlic cloves, a little chicken stock—just about a quarter cup. Not a whole lot. Some oyster sauce and sesame oil, sugar, good old Diamond Crystal kosher salt. If you have Morton Kosher salt, use about a third less of the amount called for in the steps. But mostly it's to taste anyway, so don't sweat it.

Oh, you're gonna need obviously a half pound of ground pork and a pound of our star, ground turkey. Get dark meat if you have a choice, prove my parents wrong: turkey can be delicious.

Also for tools. Very simple. You know, knife, cutting board, all that stuff and just a large sauté pan. I actually like to use a cast-iron skillet, but your call. And, like a braising pan or stock pot or soup pot or rondeau. A few mixing bowls—small, medium and large—and a soup spoon.

Step 1: Prep the vegetables

Francis: Okay, so the first thing we're gonna do is we're just gonna work on dicing our vegetables. There's not a whole lot, but there's a little bit. So I have about a quarter pound of stemmed shiitake mushrooms, the fresh kind. Now, if you were being traditional about this and using shiitakes for Chinese dumpling filling, they would almost always be dried mushrooms. Actually, I never saw a fresh shiitake mushroom growing up, but the dried mushrooms are a little bit richer and flavor. They have more depth, and actually, after you reconstitute them, they get a little bit of a bouncier texture. But fresh mushrooms are easy to find in the U. S., so we're just gonna go with that and, you know, we're gonna sear them later to give it a little more depth. But nothing about this dish is traditional, so it's fine,  just do whatever you want. If you can't get shiitakes, no sweat. Just use a quarter pound of whatever mushroom you can get, and we're just gonna cut them into, I don't know, about somewhere between a quarter- and a half-inch dice. Really not a big deal.

Francis (while chopping): I love mushrooms. I know not everyone does. It's OK. You could be wrong about your choices in life. But most people who don't like mushrooms, it's about the texture—they don't like the sponginess, and I say to them, well, have you tried really, like, searing them hard and really cooking them well? Because it takes a lot of sponginess out, gets them crisp and delicious and beautiful. But sometimes when I handle a raw mushroom like this, you do hear a Styrofoam-like squeak, and I kind of understand what they're talking about. There is something a little bit like...uh that's not going in my body.

Francis: Okay, here we go. Mushrooms all chopped. You can't see them, so I'm going to tell you they were a perfect quarter-inch dice. But the reality is somewhere between a half- and quarter-inch. It's fine. We're gonna live. The Chinese will still be there. The Americans will still be there. Thanksgiving will still be there, and we're still gonna keep cooking.

Francis: Okay, So next we're gonna get to our scallions. A whole bunch. I mean that literally. Like a full, singular bunch. Not just like a lot. You know, some people say, like white parts, green parts, separate the scallion. The whole thing is a scallion. I don’t understand why there's like, this intense need to, be segregationist about your scallions. There’s no need to keep the whites and green separate; they're all friends. They're all people. It's fine. Let's keep it all together. So I'm gonna take this whole bunch of scallions—and if chopping the whole bunch of scallions a little bit too much for you, like if it maybe feels like too much to deal with in your hand, that's totally okay. To speed things up, I like to cut him in half and then, like, scoop the green part back down to the white part, so you're just not having to make as many cuts. And here we go.

Francis (while slicing scallions): How's that sound? Sounds good, right? Sounds like I know what I'm doing. You don't see them bouncing all over the place and landing in my eyes, ears face. OK—that's all chopped. And what we're gonna do, actually, with this whole bunch is, like I said, I believe the whites and greens can be used together in almost all scenarios, so I'm just gonna kind of toss them together on my cutting board, and then I'm gonna take about a quarter cup and put that into a little ramekin. That's gonna go into our meatballs later. Take about, I don't know, two tablespoons or whatever, something like that, for garnish at the end. Just a little nice green freshness at the end. And then the rest I'm gonna put into a bowl, and that is going to be part of the base of our tomato sauce. The tomato sauce is really delicious. Really super easy. I'm gonna talk about it later. Not too many spoiler alerts now, but you will want a fair amount of scallions for it.

Francis: Okay, what's next, ginger? And this is pretty much it. Just one more thing after that. So, ginger, I have about a one-and-a-half to two-inch piece of ginger. Doesn't really matter. If you like more, use more. If you don't love it as much, use a little less. I like to peel the ginger completely. Honestly, I don't think it's always necessary to peel ginger, but I just kind of do. I don't really know why, but I have a really easy way to do it, too: You grab a spoon, like a teaspoon. You don't have to use a peeler or a knife because the skin of ginger is so fine and so thin. Just go ahead and hold the ginger in your hand. Hold the spoon in your other hand and just kind of scrape the ginger and the peel should come right off.

What you really want is ginger that feels still wet when you do this. Ginger lasts a super long time in your fridge, or we actually always just kept it under the sink because we went through so much of it that we didn't really have to stress about preserving it for a long time, but it does tend to dry out after a while. So ideally, you still want it still fresh and juicy. So once it's peeled, cut it into thin slices against the grain. You can see that there's fibers in the ginger—it'll be pretty obvious to you what the grain is like. You're going to cut it the way the ginger wants you to cut it. Cut it through the length and you'll see that the little fibers are being sliced through, so slice as thinly as you can. But again, don't go crazy—you don't really have to, because what you're gonna do is pile it right back up, and go through it with your knife again [for a fine mince]. Maybe this is like ASMR and makes you fall asleep and takes your mind off the election and all that stuff.

Francis: So we have our seven cloves of garlic. I mean, I don’t really have to tell you how to cut garlic, right? You know how to do that?

Francis (smashes cloves): Taking off that peel.

Francis: Okay, yeah, and now whenever a recipe says “a clove of garlic,” like what does it really mean? Because some of this garlic is huge and some of it is small. Usually in my mind, I think of a clove of garlic as being a solid medium-sized clove. If you have two small ones, maybe that equals a medium one. If you have a large one maybe that equals one and a half medium ones. But for the most part, it's like, you know, cooking's about you. It's about your vibe, what you like. Don't stress out about the number of cloves of garlic you have.

I mean, generally speaking, you want it to sort of match the flavor profile that the recipe writer was going for. If they say “eight cloves of garlic” and you're like I only have two, you know, maybe that's fine. But if garlic is like a featured flavor, maybe it's time to make something else, until you have more garlic. But for the most part, if you're like, you know, plus minus 30 to 50 percent, like no one's feelings need to be hurt here.

Francis: Okay, let's go ahead and run your knife through all those nice cloves. (Fridge hums) Oh, that's the sound of my janky refrigerator! We call her Bess. We don't really call her Bess, but she's loud, so she is sort of like a character in her home.

Francis: Just keep chopping the garlic. You want it pretty fine, but really don't stress about it. You definitely don't want, like, big, giant chunks in that a lot of this is gonna go into the meatball mixture, and so you want that to be able to spread it around nicely. You don't want one meatball to have a giant half clove of garlic in it. But if you just kind of run your knife through the pile on your cutting board? I don't know. Maybe, like three, four full passes? Five, six, whatever floats your boat, you're gonna be OK. Pretty small, smaller than BBs, but you don't have to, you know, pulverize it.

Step 2: Sear the mushrooms

Okay, so now we're gonna sear off these mushrooms. Here I am at my stove. That sound you just heard was my igniter not really wanting to go off until it incinerates my eyebrows….but I survived it. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. Like I said, you can use a sauté pan here. I just have, like, a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. I like cast-iron for this only because cast-iron skillets have a really flat bottom. And, like a sautpan or a frying pan have a more sloped, curved edge, which is great for tossing and stuff like that. In this case, I want more of the mushrooms to contact the bottom of the pan. So a nice flat bottom with straighter sides seems to work well here, but doesn't really matter that much. It's fine. Get your pan nice and hot. I'm doing it over like a medium, medium-high. You know, when I used to be a cook in restaurants, everything was high heat. I started to think the only cool way to cook was everything over high heat. It turns out, at home, you don't really need to do that. Most things you could do at medium or medium-high. In fact, you probably want to because you want to give it time and super high heat could make it scorch rather than brown. So I'm just doing this over a medium heat. Here's two tablespoons of vegetable oil into the pan.

Francis (adds oil to pan): And just kind of let it hang out. I'm gonna get a little spoon. So when I am cooking, the way I check for the oil is if you actually look at it, you'll start to see it, sort of dance. Like the heat will actually wanna move the oil around a bit. And as the oil gets hot, it gets a little thinner, gets a little more fluid, so it will flow a bit. And usually if I'm editing or writing recipes, I'll say, like, wait for the oil to shimmer, and, um, that just kind of means like it's trying to look like it's really dancing around, and yeah, just sort of catching the light in a different way. Just cause the heat is making it sort of move.

Francis: That is usually a pretty good temperature with mushrooms, but I might take it a little bit hotter than that. I don't need it to be smoking hot for this small amount of mushrooms, but, uh, it's not a terrible idea. You don't want to smoke for too long because then it starts to taste really smoky and gnarly. Okay, so my oil is really pretty fluid. It really wants to flow around right now. The heat is definitely making it dance a bit, and so, here comes the mushrooms.

(adds mushrooms to pan)

Francis: Now notice what you're hearing. You're hearing a nice sort of mellow sizzle, and what you're not hearing is me being all cool-guy line cook and throwing the pan and slapping the pan around and tossing everything everywhere. Just scraping it with my spoon, just kind of like gently pushing the mushrooms around. Most of them are touching the bottom of the pan, but if you wanna be super O.C.D. about it, you could sit there and make sure every single mushroom is flat against the pan with a little room around it. But we're fine. The mushrooms are pretty spaced out there, not piled on top of each other. It was just enough to fill the bottom of the pan without having to really do that much. So I think they're in pretty good shape. Let’s let them sear for about a minute, maybe two.

I'm also not seasoning them right away. Usually, when I put things in a hot pan, I will want to season them with salt pretty soon after they go in, but I’ve been rethinking that a lot lately, I've been rethinking when to season. You definitely want to season when food is hot because what happens is that when things are hot, they expand—they push outwards, they push the liquid out, and then when they start to cool back down, they suck back in. So you definitely want to season food with salt while it's hot, so that when it does cool, it sucks the salt back in and sucks the seasoning in, especially with mushrooms, because mushrooms also tend to have a lot of water in them. If you season them right away, they just exude that water. And then it just makes the bottom of the pan steamy rather than sear-y. And you just have to sit here until it cooks all the water off before it starts searing. Which is its own technique! There are definitely people who really swear by that technique of searing mushrooms by getting all the water out and then letting it cook off. But in this case again, I'm just searing them for a little bit of browning. I'm not cooking them all the way here, because this is not the only cooking they’re gonna get. So I don't care if there's a little bit of water left in them.

Francis: Okay, Now I'm seeing some like nice brown edges around the sides. So I'm gonna give it a little toss, a little scrape and obviously, if you're scraping and tossing, you're not gonna flip every single mushroom over. Some mushrooms will still stay on the one brown side and keep browning on that side, but again, it’s not the hugest deal in the world.

Just wanna give them another minute to sear the other side, if most your mushrooms have landed on their non-brown sides. But this is a nice color. It's not super dark. It's like, what do I call it… it’s like a chestnut brown? Not like a dark, dark brown.

Francis: Now, if you're a really a super, hardcore flavor hound, you can keep going here. But I'm happy. A little bit of salt now, just before you take out of the pan, and just into a bowl or onto a plate, to let them cool down.

Step 3: Mix the marinade

Francis: Okay, now we're gonna mix up our marinade. It's very, very simple. Take your oyster sauce, that's two tablespoons. Get yourself a little spoon just to get all of that oyster sauce if you have it pre-measured. The really good stuff, which, frankly, is not the easiest stuff in the world to find, is actually made from oysters. It's actually made by sun-drying oysters and then cooking them down, and it gives you that just really beautiful briny flavor and doesn't taste fishy. It shouldn't taste fishy, just incredibly super dark and sweet and umami.

Okay, so you have the oyster sauce. You have one tablespoon of sesame oil, four teaspoons of sugar; I use two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt here. Again, if you have Morton's, I would go maybe more like a teaspoon and a half, because that's a denser, saltier salt. Stir those things together. Then, a quarter cup of chicken stock. If you don’t have chicken stock, go ahead and use water. You might want to add a little more salt, maybe a little more oyster sauce for a little more seasoning and depth. But really, that amount of liquid is actually more for working into the meat to make the meat juicy. It's sort of a funny technique. It's not a technique that I've seen much in Western cooking. It was really something I learned in Chinese cooking, specifically dumpling-filling making, where you actually kind of like beat water or, in this case, chicken stock into ground meat and the ground meat can actually form gluten and hold it like a dough does. Stir that [the marinade] to make it all nice and blended. All right, let's move.

Francis: Okay, so now you have your mushrooms—they're cooked, they’re cooling. You’ve seasoned them with a couple pinches of salt. Just go ahead taste one. Are they good? If not, try another pinch of salt. There you go. It doesn't have to be super, super crazy, salty or well-seasoned yet; into that, add your quarter to half cup of chopped scallions from before. Go ahead and add three of the minced garlic cloves. Obviously, you put all the garlic cloves together, they're all mixed up. So I mean, whatever, there were seven total, you want three of them, so about half, or a little less than half, Usually, three cloves of minced garlic means about a tablespoon, maybe a little bit more. So go ahead and mix that up with your mushrooms.

You don't really even need to do this. You can mix it right into the meat mixture, but I like to do it with the mushrooms so the mushrooms can absorb some of the flavor of the garlic and scallions, too. But it's just a little tip, not a huge deal. Now we're gonna make the meatball mixture, and this is a super cool technique. I'm super psyched to...not actually show you how it's done, but I think you'll figure it out. (Laughs)

Step 4: Make the meatball mixture

Okay, so in a large mixing bowl, add your half pound of ground pork. Now add your pound of ground turkey. I hope you like getting really closely acquainted with your meat, because this is going to be extremely intimate and highly sensual. Okay, so you have that meat together and you could go ahead, fold it together with a spoon, if you like, sort of delaying the inevitable of you just jamming your hands in there and getting all cozy with it, but just kind of start to blend the two together. Don't work it too hard now, but also don't be too stressed. I know a lot of times when you're making meatloaf filling or burgers, there's a lot of recipes that are like, Oh, don't over handle it! Your children will hate you forever! In this case, you don't have to worry about it because you're going to intentionally over-handle it. And I'll tell you why in just a second.

Okay. The meat is kind of folded together. So all that marinade you made in that little bowl, go ahead and pour it in. So I know you’re thinking, Francis, I'm making meatballs. Why did you just make me drown all this meat? So what you're gonna do is you're gonna get into this meat mixture with all that marinade, all that liquid. Hold your hands as if you're holding a softball—like a big ball in your hand, like a big extended claw. Put it into the meat and start to mix the meat.

Do it gently at first, a little slowly. You don't wanna splash that liquid around too much, but as you do it, you'll start to see that it gets incorporated into the meat a little. You might feel like you’re “overmixing" it by Western standards, but you'll start to feel the meat, get a little stickier, a little tougher, it's not sliding around as much. And what you're actually doing is very similar, like I was saying before, is very similar to developing gluten in bread dough. The protein in the meat—rather than the gluten in the flour—is forming nets and it's absorbing that liquid. And you can tell because it starts to get sticky and starts to get a little harder to work. You're using muscles a little bit.

When I was trained to do this by a Chinese chef, she actually had this technique where you would lift the whole thing out of the bowl, slap it back in again, that sort of action. That sort of like intense, almost violent mixing. You don't have to do that, but I just don't get that much of a chance to do it, so I'm gonna do it.

(lifts and slaps meat back into bowl)

Francis: Also, it might spray raw meat all over the kitchen, so your call. But it's a very satisfying feeling, and when you get the meat to a point where it's quite tacky and sticky, you can stop. If you do this technique more and more, you'll get a sense of how tacky and sticky you'll want it. It will get somewhat tougher, but I like that texture a little bit. I like the sort of bounciness of a dumpling filling. If you’re into very tender meatballs that fall apart, you know, do it less. This is where you add your own sort of vibe to it. Okay, so my meat is pretty sticky. Pretty tacky. It's not crazy, but it does feel like a loose bread dough. And this is when I will add the mushrooms and scallions—that mixture.

Fold it together with your hands or a spoon. And we’ll just let it hang out. If you used a salt other than Diamond Crystal, and you're not sure if you used the right amount of salt or not, you could go ahead, take a little pinch of meat mixture. Just microwave it, taste the seasoning, and if you want more sweetness, you want more salt, want more oyster sauce, or whatever, go ahead and stir that in. And when you're happy, go ahead and let it marinate. You can put it back in the fridge. I would cover it because it's raw meat. Four hours for me is sort of the sweet spot, but I've also cooked it right from this state, and it's also pretty tasty. But yeah, I'm gonna let this marinate for a while. I like to let it hang for a bit since I have time because...I'm home...and all I’ve got is time. Might go read a book, do some dishes clean up, you know, that kind of thing. I’ll talk to you after the break.


Hey, and we're back! Just to remind you, if you're like, who is this strange man talking to me in my headphones? I'm Francis Lam, host of The Splendid Table and cookbook editor at Clarkson Potter, and we're in the middle of making my Chinese American Thanksgiving Meatballs. The recipe was originally published in Cooking Light, and as a reminder it's linked in the show notes, and we’re gonna go through the whole thing right here. Feel free to pause and jump back if you need a little more time. And we're coming back to the recipe at the point where we have made the meatball mix, let it marinate and we're gonna make the Chinese style tomato sauce they're gonna poach in.

Step 5: Make the sauce

Francis: So let's take our scallions. If you already set aside the two tablespoons before, great. Leave them aside. If you haven't, take two tablespoons of them and set them aside so you should have like, I don't know, maybe, like what's this look like about a cup, cup and a half of chopped scallions? And do yourself a favor and go ahead and open your can of tomatoes now, because once we get to the stove, things get pretty fast. Very, very quick. Very, very easy.

So this tomato sauce—I call it “Chinese-style,” because, well, two reasons. One is because we start with what I think of as the Chinese mirepoix, or like the holy trinity of Chinese cooking, which is GGS: ginger, garlic, and scallion all minced up pretty fine and bloomed in some oil. And then we're gonna add these tomatoes and just let it simmer down. It's as easy as that. The other reason why I wanted to poach meatballs in the sauce, is this is actually how I make essentially the base for a different dish. One that’s a really, really, really super common Chinese home-cooking dish. A super homestyle nostalgic dish for me when I was growing up, which is, you basically make that sauce and then you take a whole bunch of eggs, scramble them really, really beautifully in a really hot pan until they're just cooked, usually seasoned with a little bit of sesame oil and I like to add a splash of Chinese cooking wine, and then you finish them in this sauce also. And that's a Chinese tomato and egg stir-fry that we eat with rice. That was always the go-to meal in my house growing up, and is now my go-to meal for my family. Okay, let's get to the stove.

Francis: I have a rondeau, like a little six-quart pan, sort of wider than it is tall; I'm gonna get it pretty good and hot, okay. And next to that. I'm going to set up really quickly. I have three tablespoons of olive oil, the four teaspoons-ish of minced ginger from before, the rest of the minced garlic from before, and all those scallions. I'm gonna throw that oil—not throw, pour—throwing oil is a terrible idea, never do it, into the pot. In this case, I'm gonna wait for that oil to get hot enough to just lightly smoke. The reason is it's not a ton of oil, and there is a lot of raw scallion and ginger and garlic, and you wanna actually bloom the flavors of those things. And part of that is oil to infuse and to carry that flavor through, and part of it is the oil carrying the heat to heat things through, take that raw edge off, get them nice and aromatic before you add the tomatoes. You could certainly add more oil if you want. With this amount of tomatoes, it’s not a bad idea, it won't make it greasy, but it’ll give it a little more richness. I wrote it with three tablespoons, but it could be five. You do you.

So I'm starting to see a little bit of smoke—a light smoke, as my friend Hugh Acheson calls it, and I’m going in with the garlic. You don't have to wait 15 seconds if you keep an eye on it. If you start to see some browning in the garlic within the 15 seconds, you can go ahead and add the next thing. I don't want you to burn your garlic. A lot of it depends on how small you chop the garlic and really fine garlic will burn. Okay, so that's a little brown. Here goes my minced ginger. Stir it up, get it good and cozy with the oil  before adding our scallions. So again, what you're doing here is, in Cantonese we call this bao, which means to explode. So that's kind of what you're doing. You wanna get a sort of, like, really intense heat on these aromatics to bring out their aroma.

Francis: And because we're not working with, you know, like a hardcore wok burner, I will cook this for a little bit longer than you would in a traditional Chinese recipe again, to just cook off that rawness. Get that nice, beautiful, aromatic flavor but you’re not really trying to brown it, because—whatever, brown things are delicious—but it's just not the flavor I'm going for here. You still want the flavor to be pretty fresh: the ginger to be kind of fresh and bright, the garlic to be fresh and bright. Same with the scallions. So if I'm starting to see it start to brown again, just go ahead and add that can of tomatoes.

So it's gonna take this a minute to come back up the temperature. You wanna bring it to a simmer. didn't take long at all. I'm gonna add a few pinches of salt. Stir it in and taste. Pretty good! Pretty good with salt. Maybe another pinch. Because I also want to add a little sugar. Tomatoes are always sweet and sour in different proportions, so give it a taste. And obviously it's to whatever you like. For me, what I'm looking for is—because I do think of this as a Chinese-style tomato sauce—the sweetness should not be super sweet, not like wow, I'm eating dessert, obviously, but I do want the sweetness to be a little bit prominent, like people you can tell it's part of the mix.

And then to balance that I will add more salt. Okay, Now turn the heat down. So, like a pretty mellow simmer. And cover it. Cook for about 15, 10 to 15, minutes to blend the flavors. If you're using canned diced tomatoes and they're still kind of stiff, let it cook for a bit to really bring all that stuff together.

Step 6: Form the meatballs

Francis: So while the sauce is simmering, this is a great time to make your little meatballs. I don't know how you feel about, you know, perfectly formed meatballs, but I don't care; I don't need them to be perfectly formed. I just grab a big spoon, like a soup spoon, and go into the mixture. Maybe just enough to be like, you know, ping-pong-ball size. Maybe a little bit bigger, maybe like an inch-and-a-half wide. Scoop it and then I do like to roll it a little bit in my hands again to activate the proteins a bit to get them a bit sticky again. They should be smooth and glossy-looking. There you go. You could just make a bunch of these while you're waiting for that sauce to cook.

Francis: I think with about a pound-and-a-half of meat, you should have about 24 of these little guys by the time you're done. Now, I have in my production notes, very helpfully from the wonderful Coral a question. A guiding question for me to talk to you about while I'm doing this, so it's not just dreadfully boring listening to me form meatballs. And one of these questions is, “What does your family think of this recipe now?” And the reality is...I have never made this dish for the family I grew up with, my brothers and my parents. Um, they would probably be like this tastes pretty good, but I don't know why you’re using turkey when you could just use pork?, which, you know, some people don't change, and you know, we have that sort of family where we love each other dearly but we don't talk that much. We're not like, a super sentimental family. If I told them this story, they might think it was, you know, I think they would think it was cute. It was sweet, and they'd be like, what's actually for dinner?

But, you know, I do have to say sometimes, when I make this, and I tell the story—I do like this dish, don't get me wrong, I think it's a good recipe. But, man, I miss those old Pizza Hut meatballs. (Laughs) They were so good. They were so good. And, you know, I'm sure they were. You know, this was in the eighties. I don't know. Maybe they weren't made of horrible, horrible things yet, like, maybe science had not caught up and, like, told them how to make completely unreal food yet. But I just remember having this like, I don't know what it is. There are certain foods that are delicious when they're real but are also super delicious when they're like the fake-processed-food version of that food. You know, I'm talking about like, let's face it, like, yes, a beautifully breaded piece of chicken that you pan-fry is great, but a chicken nugget made by, you know, some awful conglomerate, is also really delicious, and it has, like, its own kind of deliciousness that you just can't make at home, because they have access to the latest technology to make that weird kind of deliciousness. I think those meatballs were my first introduction to, like, the glories of the industrial meatball.

Francis: Okay, so I am nearing the end of my meatball rolling adventures. I have 12, 16. 20. So I made them a little bit bigger than I had mean to. This was supposed to be 24 but you know, we’ll live.

Step 7: Poach the meatballs

Francis: Okay, so it's been about 15 minutes that the sauce has been simmering. Man, that smells good. Oh, man...that smell will always get me—the ginger, garlic, scallion and tomato. It just… thanks, Ma. God, it’s just really perfuming my entire kitchen right now. And so, what we want to do when you lift off the pan lid, is you wanna make sure it's still pretty juicy. If you need to add a little water, go ahead and do that. You don't want it like soup, but you don't want it like thick marinara. You want it somewhere in between. You want it to have enough juiciness to poach the meatballs in. What you also wanna do is give it another taste now, because now that's cooked down, you want to see how the seasonings have matched up. If you need a little more sugar, add a little bit more to this. And then you’re gonna scoop those nice meatballs and place them in the pot. If you're using a Dutch oven or something like that, you know, you should have a pretty good amount of surface area to lay these meatballs in—sort of nestle them in that sauce. What you really don't want is for them to sit on, literally sit on, top of one another. If there's like, a little bit of squish, all fully submerged in exactly the same way, that's kind of fine. I managed to get mine to fit, and now it's like a very gentle burble. That's kind of what I want. I'm gonna re-cover it. I write to cook these for about 10 to 12 minutes, but what I'm gonna do is set the timer for five and come back in, see how they're looking, and maybe flip so they’re all fully submerged. (Adjusts a meatball) So maybe give him a little turn. Um, let's see how they go.

(musical interlude)

Francis: It's been five minutes. I'm gonna take the lid off. It's still a really nice, gentle burble, which is exactly what you want for heat. You know, these babies were poaching along nicely. I'm gonna give them a gentle flip. Just make sure the bottom gets the same kind of cooking as the top.

Francis: Now they're not gonna be beautifully browned balls, if that’s what you are expecting. They’re going to be pretty light-colored because they're turkey, and because they're poached. But I think the texture is really beautiful. And I have to tell you like, yeah, I love a fried dumpling as much as the next person. But people need to get with the steamed dumpling. They're so beautiful. They're so smooth. It's just like a totally different experience. I know frying food makes it automatically delicious, but, you know, next time you have an option of steamed versus fried, try an order the steamed.

I'm gently flipping all these meatballs. You know I'm gonna finish the poaching here with the lid off, because the meatballs themselves will give off juice. Gonna finish the cooking with the lid off to let it reduce a little bit too.

(musical interlude)

Francis: So now it's been 12 minutes that they've been poaching. I'm gonna poke one with a thermometer because I'm like that. 170°F, 180°F is the safe temperature. If it’s a little bit less, it’ll be a little more tender if you're into that. Um, let's get to tasting. God, it smells good.


Oh, yeah! Do you get that? Do you get that bounciness? It's not like the really soft, pillowy meatballs that you would get with an Italian-style, with breadcrumbs or soaked bread and all that stuff. It should be bouncy. They should have that little chew, just like a really good pot sticker feeling, with, like the sweetness of the aromatics and sweetness of the tomatoes. You know, for me, this is a dish that I did not grow up with, obviously, but it does send my memory to like, four different places. You don't have those memories and that's okay; I hope you love this dish as much as I do.

Also, if you look at the sauce at the end and you feel like, oh, it's a little bit too soupy, a little too loose, go ahead and fish the meatballs out and bring it up to a boil to reduce it. Or make a little cornstarch slurry like you're really making Chinese food, thicken it to almost like a gravy texture.


Oh, man, I really loved making these with you today. I hope you enjoyed making them with me and thanks for sending me to all these weird, nostalgic places. But for you, hopefully it’s just a tasty dish. Again, you'll find the recipe in the show notes and on They're called Chinese American Thanksgiving Meatballs. Thanks for joining me. I'm Francis Lam; this is Play Me A Recipe. Happy cooking to you and yours. And if you have a kid that tells you they just want to be normal, tell them they already are.