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Lion’s Head Meatball Soup

Lion's Head Casserole w/vermicelli noodles

My first three years out of college, I lived in the East Bay. The dot-com boom had yet to bust and living in San Francisco was an unaffordable dream. During that time, I ate out a lot and fell in love with a little Shanghainese restaurant that is sadly now closed–Claypot Seafood House. Until I started eating here, my exposure to Chinese food was limited to dim sum (which I love) and your American Chinese staples (which I really dislike).

At this restaurant, I discovered xiao long bao–juicy, broth-filled dumplings that are so good I can easily inhale an entire serving on my own (and believe me, I have). I discovered that I liked Chinese food–I just didn’t like the greasy, fried, brown-gravy sort that I ate growing up. And I discovered Lion’s Head Meatball Soup–tender braised meatballs with sweet, melt-in-your-mouth napa cabbage in a meaty, mushroomy broth.

It had been years since I’d had this lovely soup. I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for a long time but never got around to making it. After a friend posted a picture of her lion’s heads, I knew I had to make it for myself.

Lion's Head Casserole

Making meatballs. They didn’t retain their round shape but that’s ok–they tasted great!

Lion's Head Casserole

Lion's Head Casserole

Oh, and it is called lion’s head because the large cabbage leaves that are brushed aside after cooking are said to resemble the lion’s mane (the meatball being the head). This is what you get after an hour of simmering:

Lion's Head Casserole

I made a few substitutions based on what I had on hand. Napa cabbage is hard to find in my neighborhood and I had forgotten to pick some up at the Asian market but I found savoy cabbage at Whole Foods. Regular cabbage would have been fine too, though Napa cabbage is ideal. I didn’t feel like buying a huge thing of Chinese rice wine just for one recipe but I had wine vinegar at home. I didn’t realize I had forgotten to buy green onions until my hands were dirty so I subbed shallots. I bought an extra pound of ground pork and used the same meat mixture to make won tons (not pictured because I didn’t cook them until the next day and they kind of stuck together–lesson learned!).

Lion’s Head Meatball Soup (adapted from Epicurious)

  • 3/4 ounces dried shiitake mushrooms (mine were pre-sliced)
  • 1 lb ground pork
  • 1 large bunch scallions (white and pale green parts only), minced (SUB: 1 shallot)
  • 10 canned whole water chestnuts, rinsed, drained, and minced
  • 1 Tbsp Chinese rice wine (SUB: wine vinegar)
  • 2 tsps sesame oil
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 Tbsps fresh ginger, minced
  • 2 Tbsps soy sauce
  • 1.25 tsps salt
  • 1 (2.5- to 3-lb) head Napa cabbage (SUB: regular or savoy cabbage)
  • 1 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • vegetable oil
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  1. Cover mushrooms with 2 cups boiled water in a bowl and let stand 30 minutes. Drain & reserve soaking liquid. Squeeze excess water from mushrooms and set aside. Slice mushrooms if they aren’t already.
  2. Mix pork, scallions, water chestnuts, rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, 1 Tbsp ginger, 1 Tbsp soy sauce and 1/2 tsp salt in a large bowl. Pack together tightly, cover, and chill in fridge.
  3. Remove & reserve 4 large cabbage leaves. Core cabbage and chop into 2-inch wide pieces.
  4. In a small bowl, stir together cornstarch, pepper and 1 Tbsp soy sauce.
  5. Divide meat mixture into quarters. Coat hands with cornstarch mixture and use to form 4 large meatballs.
  6. Heat large cast iron pot and add enough vegetable oil to pan fry meatballs (~1/4 inch of oil is more than plenty). Fry meatballs: gently turn with a slotted spoon until all sides are golden. Mine fell apart a bit, but that’s ok. You really want the meatballs to brown because that’ll add flavor to your casserole. Set meatballs aside.
  7. Drain oil from pot, leaving about 2 Tbsps behind. Stir-fry mushrooms, cabbage and remaining tsp of ginger until cabbage begins to wilt. Add 3/4 tsp salt and 1 cup of mushroom soaking liquid and cook until cabbage is fully wilted.
  8. Arrange meatballs on top of the sauteed vegetables. Add chicken broth and cover meatballs with the 4 reserved cabbage leaves. Bring liquid to a boil and reduce to simmer, covered for about an hour.
  9. Season broth with salt, add more mushroom soaking liquid if you want. Sweep large cabbage leaves aside to reveal the meatballs and create your lion’s heads/manes.
  10. Serve over white rice or vermicelli noodles

24 palm trees for #24 Willie Mays who played in 24 all star games!

We participated in a scavenger hunt in SF yesterday to benefit the Lymphoma & Leukemia Society. The picture above was from one of our clues. Did you know? In front of the ballpark, there are  24 palm trees to honor #24 Willie Mays…who also played in 24 all-star games!

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