Vietnamese Chicken Meatballs

Vietnamese meatballs, fined textured and chewy, are one of those polarizing foods; you either like them or you don’t. Don is a fan; I am not. I was, however, intrigued by the process of making them. They always tasted so overly processed that surely you couldn’t make them at home without a well equipped laboratory.

I’m pleased to report, however, that they can be made with just a solid food processor and ordinary home pantry ingredients. Whether you like them or not will depend on your tastes. They are, however, greatly enhanced when eaten in a spring roll with leafy greens and Hoisin sauce. With a little practice the rolls are easily made for an elegant presentation.

Chicken Meatballs

Based on the recipe in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen

Meat paste and ground toasted rice should be made in advance. Recipes below.

Recipe can be easily halved.

Meatball Mixture

2 lb chicken meat paste* at room temperature
3 oz. pork fatback, blanched for 1 minute, minced when cool.
¼ c ground toasted rice**

Vegetable oil for pan frying
Skewers for cooking meatballs
8 ½ inch rice paper rounds (found at Asian markets or in the Asian section of better grocery stores)

Hoisin sauce

Vegetable Garnish Options

Cucumber, peeled, seeded and sliced
Thai basil

Thoroughly combine the ingredients for the meatballs and roll into 1 inch balls with the palms of your hands lightly oiled to prevent sticking. Place balls on an oiled baking sheet or plate.

The meatballs are first pan fried to help them retain their shape and then finished in the oven. Preheat the oven to 475°. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat and fry the meatballs in batches to prevent crowding. Roll the balls around in the pan, searing them on all sides while keeping them as round as possible. After two minutes, when they have become whitish and hold their shape, remove to a paper-towel lined plate.

Slide the meatballs onto the skewers leaving about ¾ inch between balls. Place on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet and bake in the oven for about 12-16 minutes, turning them every 3 minutes or so, until they puff up and turn a light golden brown.

To make the spring rolls, first follow the soaking directions on the rice paper package. Place three meatballs, vegetables of your choice and Hoisin sauce in the lower middle of the rice paper. Fold like a burrito – first fold the bottom flap up over the filling, then fold in the sides and roll towards the top. Cut in half or serve whole.

Chicken Meat Paste

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 ¼ lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 T baking powder
2 T corn starch
1 T sugar
5 T fish sauce
3 T vegetable oil

Slice the chicken pieces across the grain into ¼ inch strips. Keep the fat for flavor but remove any silvery strips.

In a bowl large enough to hold the chicken, whisk to combine the ingredients for the marinade. Add the chicken strips and thoroughly mix to distribute evenly. Cover with plastic and let sit in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours or overnight.

The chicken pieces should be cold and stiff. Break the pieces apart and place in a food processor in batches. Works best when ground in about 4 batches in a normal sized food processor. Process until pink and super smooth with no visible bits of chicken. Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or freezer for up to 2 months.

Ground Toasted Rice

Place rice in a thin layer in a skillet and toast slowly over low heat, about 15 to 20 minutes. Occasionally shake the pan to toast evenly and prevent burning. When golden brown, remove from the heat and let cool.

Grind the cooled grains in a clean coffee grinder. (You can clean the coffee grinder by grinding regular rice in it and then discarding the dirty rice bits.) A hand-crank coffee grinder works best, running the toasted rice through twice. If using an electric coffee grinder, be careful not to turn the toasted rice into dust. Use a coarse-wire sieve to separate out the larger pieces and grind just those again. The finished texture should be like fine cornmeal.