Healthy Vietnamese Meatball Bowls

As it nears the end of the year, work commitments increase as offices prepare for the Christmas period. For Night Owl and I, neither of our offices shut down, but instead will be running on skeleton staff- and we have sacrificed our annual leave for a worthier cause, to be spent over the course of the next year for optimum holiday satisfaction. I don’t enjoy forced annual leave over the Christmas/New Year period, as the prices of flights and accomodation hikes up, finding parking at the beach is impossible, and it’s too hot to lounge around at home.

As the days grow longer, it means that the balmier, sticky evenings are on their way. I’m always on the lookout for dinners that are quick to throw together, as both of us will hit the gym most weeknights after a day in the office, and only return home between 8 and 9pm. These meatballs are perfect to make ahead of time and freeze – all you need to do is throw them in the oven while you prepare the vermicelli and salad.

There’s quite a few elements to these bowls, but with preparation prior it all comes together very quickly. This is one to prep on a Sunday for a couple of meals during the week ahead.

The pickle

It’s a big bowl of goodness, crunch and flavour. The pickled daikon radish and carrot is not a typical Vietnamese ingredient, but a Japanese one. I find that adding a vinegar-y element to your food aids with digestion and a nice acidic tang.

You can make the pickle by shredding daikon/carrot into julienne. One cup of shredded vegetables will require a mixture of 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon sake, 1 tablespoon salt flakes, 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes, and 1/2 cup caster sugar. Combine all of the ingredients together until the sugar dissolves. The pickle tastes best after a day or two in the fridge – you may want to keep the daikon pickle in a sealed box/jar and plastic bag, as it will release quite a pungent aroma the first couple of days!

The meatballs

For the meatballs, I like to use chicken mince, or pork and veal, but it’s entirely up to you what meat you prefer. This recipe makes a lot of meatballs (much more than will serve two!) so do freeze the rest. Make sure you leave the meatballs to fully cool, spread out on a tray and freeze the tray. When the meatballs are all frozen, then remove them and seal them in a ziplock bag/box – this way they won’t stick together when they freeze.

Nuoc Cham

Nuoc Cham is a popular Vietnamese dipping sauce and you will find it at the table of every self-respecting Vietnamese eatery. You can probably find it bottled at an Asian grocer, but it tastes so much better when you make it yourself. I use a few shortcuts like lemongrass and chilli from a tube (gasp!), and caster sugar instead of palm sugar because those are ingredients that I don’t utilise all that often.

Sue me – I’m on a budget and hate it when things go off in the fridge before I even get to use it up! If these are ingredients that your household uses on a regular basis (or you’re just a purist), by all means use the raw ingredient in its natural form.

Mix together 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup fish sauce, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon caster sugar, one teaspoon finely chopped lemongrass, 2 teaspoons of finely chopped red chilli, and one crushed garlic clove.

You will need:

For the meatballs:

  • 500g mince of your choice;
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs;
  • 2 large eggs;
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce;
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint; plus more for serving;
  • 2 teaspoons lime zest;
  • 2 full spring onions, whites and greens, chopped; plus more for serving;
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger;
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced;
  • 2 tablespoons rice bran oil.

Bowls for two:

  • Nuoc cham sauce, recipe above;
  • 1/4 cup each of pickled carrot and daikon, recipe above;
  • 50g mung bean vermicelli (or rice vermicelli);
  • 2 cups mixed green salad leaves;
  • 1/2 cup Thai basil leaves, picked;
  • 1/4 cup crushed roasted peanuts;
  • Deep fried shallots, to taste.

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celcius. Line a large baking tray with foil.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, spring onions, lime zest, and mint. Whisk to combine. Add the mince and panko crumbs, and using your hands, mix until evenly combined.

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Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the oil while you wet your hands lightly.

Roll the mince into golf-ball sized meatballs and drop directly into the pan – don’t over-crowd it! Picking up the frypan, roll the meatballs around so they form nice spheres. They shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to brown – you want a decent amount of colour on them, but don’t want them cooked all the way through yet.

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Transfer to the foil-lined tray when they are nicely browned, and repeat with the remaining mince. When all meatballs are done, place in the oven for 15 minutes to continue cooking.

When the meatballs are done, serve immediately or leave out to cool if freezing.

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To make the bowls

Boil a kettle of water. Spread out the mung bean vermicelli in a heat-proof bowl and pour over the boiling water, stirring to ensure all the noodles are submerged. The noodles are done when they are semi-transparent. Carefully drain and rinse under cold water, and use kitchen scissors to cut the noodles roughly.

Combine the salad greens with the Thai basil and extra mint.

Divide the vermicelli between two bowls, then add the pickled daikon and carrot. Add the greens on the side, and a few hot meatballs. Scatter over the crushed peanuts, extra sliced spring onions, and deep fried shallots. Drizzle over the nuoc cham and dig in!

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