Beat the Wheat! Banh Mi Meatballs

By: Carol Blymire

AKA She Glutened Me with Meatballs (Beep Boop Boop)

My sweet friend Mel, an excellent cook, was hosting a lunch party at her house. She wanted the whole thing to be gluten-free so I could just relax and enjoy myself. A few days before the shindig, she emailed me a recipe for meatballs she planned to make, using gluten-free breadcrumbs as the binder and rice flour instead of regular flour to thicken the sauce. Perfect.

The next Sunday, we gathered in her second-floor apartment. It was a beautiful spring day, our winter blues were solidly in the rearview mirror, and the spread on her dining room table was lush — salads and fruits and cheeses and the meatballs. I heaped a few on my plate and grabbed a seat on the sofa to settle into the food and some good gossip. After devouring my third meatball, Mel came over and asked me to follow her down the hall toward the bedroom. She turned to me, pale as a ghost, and said: "I just realized I accidentally used regular flour to thicken the sauce. It was right there on the counter, and I'm so used to using it, and …. Oh, my God, oh, my God. I am so sorry. What should we do?"

I hugged her and told her not to worry. She'd taken such care in her planning, there was no way I could be angry. I quietly excused myself and raced home. Thankfully, my reaction was pretty mild.

But, darn it, did it make me miss meatballs even more than I already had.

When I'm procrastinating on work (about 627 times a day), I like to travel down Food-Memory Lane and think about all the things I used to love and now miss in this gluten-free world. One thing I had just started bingeing on right before my celiac diagnosis was an incredible banh mi sandwich at the nearby Vietnamese carryout: the perfect light and airy baguette, grilled pork belly, chicken liver spread, cucumber, greens, and vinegary pickled carrots and daikon radish.

I'd had only four or five of them before I found out they could no longer be my new obsession. So I reinvented it, because I couldn't stop thinking about banh mi and meatballs and merging the two. Thus was born a banh mi meatball, which I made and served to friends on a cold, snowy night. Porky, toasty, fragrant, with a lightly pickled vegetable crunch. Really easy, really delicious, and gone in minutes.

Banh Mi Meatballs
Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Prep: 1 hour
Cook: 20 minutes
Yield: 16 to 18 meatballs
Level: Easy

Traditional banh mi sandwiches are made with do chua — daikon radish and carrots pickled in a salty, sugary brine. I like to add the pickle-y bits inside the meatballs and as a crunchy topping too. There's a little bit of heat to these suckers, so the cucumber ribbon helps cool things off a bit and give the meatball balance. You can serve this as a party bite on a spoon, as a main course for dinner or just standing around the kitchen with friends as you get caught up on each others' lives.

Ingredients:
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into small dice
1 medium daikon radish, peeled and cut into small dice
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup water
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1 lb. ground pork
1 tablespoon mayonnaise (Duke's preferred)
1 medium egg, slightly beaten
1 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs
2 Thai chile peppers (seeded, minced)
1 tablespoon wheat-free tamari sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
pinch kosher salt
1/2 cup white rice flour
1/2 cup tapioca starch
1 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sesame oil
1 small cucumber
Directions:
  • In a small mixing bowl, combine carrot, radish, sugar, salt, water and rice vinegar. Stir to combine and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine pork, mayonnaise, egg, breadcrumbs, chiles, tamari sauce, fish sauce and salt. Using your hands, mix until all ingredients come together.
  • Add 1/2 cup of the pickled carrots and daikon (none of the liquid, though) to the meat mixture and use your hands to work it into the mix.
  • Gently roll meat mixture balls between the palms of your hands — slightly smaller than a golf ball is best.
  • Place onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  • In a medium-size serving bowl, whisk together white rice flour and tapioca starch.
  • Combine the oils in a large saute pan over medium-high heat and bring to a shimmer.
  • Roll meatballs in the flour mixture and shake off any excess. They should be lightly dusted.
  • Lower the saute pan heat to medium, and pan-fry the meatballs, browning them evenly, careful not to overcook or char them.
  • Transfer meatballs from saute pan to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place in oven for 7 minutes to warm through.
  • Using a vegetable peeler, remove peel from cucumber, then slice light green ribbons lengthwise from the cucumber flesh.
  • Remove meatballs from oven, wrap with cucumber ribbon and top with remaining pickled carrot and daikon radish.
  • Serve on a small serving platter or on individual spoons.
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