Wednesday 17 February 2010

CNY Potluck, Pearl Balls and Healthy Treats

It started with a picture in a food magazine and ended with a vegan Chinese New Year's potluck. No actually this story goes back even further to my first vegetarian student house where I first encountered Helen Stephen's The Australian Family Vegetarian Cookbook. When we left the house Yarrow offered me the book and I took it, thinking that one day it might come in handy.

Helen Stephens cookbook is full of virtuously healthy recipes - they are the sort that give vegetarians the image of being mung bean loving sandal wearing hippies. But it is quite useful, now that I am trying to feed Sylvia virtuously healthy food. I have had my eye on this recipe which HS calls Apricot Goodness Balls for some time.

Loving dried apricots as I do, I feel that a gluten free vegan apricot ball is an important thing to be able to make. I have experimented before but never before been brave enough to try this recipe which contains red lentils. How bizarre! At first they tasted a bit pasty like lentils but I just added lots of coconut, which I am beginning to realise I love in these sort of balls. I used a little apple concentrate rather than honey. Not too sweet, substantial, lots of calcium and iron, lots of dried fruit. They were healthy and quite good. Not scrummy-yummy-must-eat-them-all-right-now good but I-could-eat-one-or-maybe-two-for-a-snack good.

I was glad of an excuse to try them. Steph from Vegan about Town had decided to hold a bloggers Chinese New Year vegan pot luck to celebrate CNY despite her family being far away across the continent. I tried to explain to my little niece Grace that it was Chinese New Year and there were Chinese people in Australia who celebrated. But when I told her I was off to a Chinese friend's place for CNY she asked if I was going by car or plane to China!

A fellow blogger, Kristy, has recently been diagnosed as celiac so of course we made an effort to make sure there was food she could eat. I knew this was my chance to try some vegan gluten free apricot balls. I also thought the they would be baby friendly for Sylvia.

But my main contribution was inspired by a recipe for Pearl Balls that I saw in an advertisement in a magazine. I don't have many Chinese recipes in my repertoire and was a little stumped for ideas till I saw these and thought they looked so gorgeous. The recipe I saw was for little pork dumplings with soaked rice pressed around the outside and steamed so the rice expands to make them look like little hedgehogs or jewelled balls. It suggested they were traditional for CNY. Slashfood has a list of CNY food traditions and symbolism that lists dumplings as symbolising good luck, fortune and family togetherness.

I searched the net for a vegan version without success. I found one site that called them Zhēnzhū Qiú or jun jiu kao (in Cantonese). The recipes I found had some recurring ingredients - sticky rice, water chestnuts, spring onion, ginger, soy sauce, shaohsing rice wine or dry sherry, sesame oil. I decided I could make a vegan version. My first attempt was a disaster as you can see from the photo above. I substituted tofu for pork but it didn't stick together well and when I added corn flour it was a gloopy mess. In despair I threw most of the rice in the pan and turned most of the tofu into scramble.

I forgot about them for a while until I made the recent walnut ravioli in the parsnip soup. Blending the tofu with nuts in the food processor made it stick together better. I had enough walnut and tofu mixture leftover to experiment with steaming small dumplings. The tofu I used was quite firm and I also used some flax eggs for extra 'glue' to hold them together. Unfortunately I forgot to soak the rice so I used couscous instead. They weren't gluten free but they tasted good.

On the morning of the potluck I remembered to soak the rice and set out to the supermarket to buy more firm tofu. I seasoned the tofu and then pottered about and fed Sylvia before getting the dumplings made.

The task of rolling up dumplings and rolling them into the rice was not easy. The wet rice stuck ok but not as much as I had hoped. I had soaked more rice than I needed which gave me a good amount to roll them in and then I put the leftover rice with my leftover lentils from the above apricot balls and cooked that up in a stew the next day.

When it came to steaming the pearl balls, it would have been useful to have a multilayer bamboo steamer and a wok. I had to work with my stockpot and inserts. I managed to get three layers. The bottom was a glass saucepan lid on an upturned bowl, the second was my steamer insert and the third was a plate balanced on the steamer. A bit complex but it worked so that I only had to steam one lot.

As you can see, the ones that I finally took to Steph's weren't too bad. Once cooked the plump grains of rice are sticky enough to stick to the dumplings - and anything else. They were also a bit fragile. The sticky rice made them a little difficult to handle but I put them all on a plate and covered it with foil. I wrapped it in a towel and put it in the bottom of Sylvia's stroller.

It was when we had walked the first few blocks to Steph's that I remembered that I had been going to make a dipping sauce. These balls were nice but not too seasoned. I had been wary of too much liquid making them fall apart. A sauce was just what they needed and below the recipe I have copied the sauce that I intended to make.

I felt quite disorganised by the time we were leaving. Sylvia and E came along so I wanted to make sure we got there early so we could get back in plenty of time for Sylvia to get a decent sleep. At the last moment I thought about her dinner and threw in some chopped cucumber and grated carrot which is an easy meal for me to prepare. I had forgotten how messy it is and was a bit embarrassed at how much mess it made on Steph's carpet. She was very gracious and explained that it is traditional not to do cleaning on Chinese New Year so she would be cleaning up later in the evening.

There was heaps of interesting food. I am not great at making sure I know all the names of dishes and who made them but I will try to list what I can remember. When we arrived the appetisers were on the coffee table. Steph had made the pineapple kuih (see her post on kuih for background information on these). Peanuts in batter and spicy mock chicken (gluten free!) wrapped in leaves were also on offer. Cindy and Michael arrived and cooked up some tofu dumplings. I was impressed that they made their own gluten free wonton wrappers. And Toby made some very tasty Chinese Radish Cake.

Then the mains came out. Rachel made the Nasi Goreng just out of the picture (very spicy for me), Tahn made a tempeh, corn and peanut dish - at the top right - that I found very spicy but E loved. Pip made the snake eyes (dried tofu skins and mushroom scrolls) in the green container. Vicki made the san choy bau in lettuce leaves.

My pearl balls are bottom right, which no one had heard of so maybe it is not as traditional as the recipes I found suggested. Sylvia enjoyed one but there was too much seasoning for me to give her too many. I was glad of Tahn's snow pea and capsicum dish and Steph's choy sum because there weren't lots of vegies. There were also some curries that didn't make it into the photo and some rice. It was quite a job keeping Sylvia away from all the food as she was very keen, particularly on the rice.

The showpiece was the yee sang that Jo and Emily brought along. Steph wrote about this traditional dish. It was a dish of colourful chopped vegetables (see above) with dried stuff (pappadams) and sauce. Part of the tradition is using chop sticks to toss it all together - the higher the toss, the greater your abundance. It was lots of fun as you can see below by the movement of the chop sticks.

Then came the desserts. By now Sylvia was tired and we had to get her home to bed. I told Steph I was going and she cut me a chunk of Vicki's delicious gluten free sponge to take home. I left a bowl of the apricot balls. But as we were preparing to leave E spied the ice cream and had to taste it. I had a quick taste of his. It was intense but good. Cindy had made an Orange Szechuan Pepper Ice Cream, and Kristy had made green tea ice cream and red bean ice cream. I was glad I tried these while I had the opportunity. I am sorry to say that I can't tell you much about the rest but I am sure it was interesting and delicious.

We walked home along Sydney Road. It is a rare Saturday night that sees us out on our local strip and we were amazed at how noisy and lively it was. I made sure we detoured past the house with all the dolls in the front garden because they were specially dressed up in red for Chinese New Year. It seemed a fitting end to the night.

Tofu and Cashew Pearl Balls
makes about 25-30
  • 350g firm tofu, crumbled
  • ½ cup cashews - mine were roasted and salted
  • 1 tbsp shaohsing rice wine or dry sherry (I used sherry)
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • ½ tsp white sugar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp chili paste
  • 1 tsp piece ginger, finely grated
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 3 tbsp flax plus 2-3 times water
  • 1 spring onions, finely sliced
  • 1 large button mushroom, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped water chestnuts
  • ½ - 1 cup sticky rice

Soak rice in water for at least 2 hours and as much as overnight. I did it for 5 hours which was the amount of time I saw in most recipes.

Once the rice has soaked long enough, prepared the dumplings. Mix flax and water in a small bowl and set aside until it becomes gloopy. Blend tofu, cashews, sherry, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil, chilli, spring onion, garlic and ginger in the food processor until it becomes a thick coherent mixture. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add flax mixture, water chestnuts and mushrooms. At this stage you can let this mixture rest a while so the tofu can absorb the flavours.

Line a steamer insert with baking paper. Press into balls about the size of walnuts and toss in drained rice. Press the rice into the balls as you toss them. Place balls on baking paper as you prepare them so they are not touching. I needed three layers so you may need a few layers or to steam them in a few lots. Steam balls for 30 minutes. Serve with dipping sauce.

Soy Sauce Dipping Sauce
From the Cook Mobile

  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsps rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp chili garlic sauce
  • 1 tsp minced scallions
  • ¼ tsp sugar
Mix all ingredients together.

Apricot balls
Adapted from Helen Stephens

  • 1 cup cooked red lentils
  • 100g apricots, finely chopped
  • 100g figs, finely chopped
  • 2 cups dessicated coconut, plus extra for rolling
  • 1 tbsp tahini
  • 1 tbsp apple concentrate
  • zest of an orange – I forgot this but think it would be a good addition
Mix all ingredients. The recipe says to do this in the food processor but I didn't want to wake Sylvia who was asleep in the pram so I just finely chopped the dried fruit and mixed everything by hand. Roll into balls the size of walnuts and toss in extra coconut.

On the Stereo:
23 Carrot Purple: Deep Purple


  1. What a fabulous spread! When food bloggers get together, it is such a treat. Your tofu treats look delicious, although that's a lot of work you put in to make them.

    I love potlucks and the chance to taste so many unique creations at once. I'm planning a "winter comfort food" potluck at my place in a couple of weeks.

  2. Oh my, I saw the picture of the Apricot Balls and thought "I wonder if these are like those Yum Yum balls my mother use to make with weetbix..." then I saw red lentils and realised, "Definitely not". :P

    I'm also really impressed with your innovative pearl balls. I've come across (meaty) recipes for these, but have never bothered to make them... and then you go and create a vegan version off the top of your head! :)

  3. I am SO impressed with your gorgeous pearl balls! Such an intricate recipe, and the results are truly beautiful! The apricot balls sound so scrumptious and nourishing, too!

  4. The pearl balls were super delicious, even if I'd not before heard of them! Excellent, tasty work! :o) Thanks for coming!

  5. ps rachel made nasi goreng (nasi = rice, mee = noodles)

  6. I would have never guessed that there was lentils in the apricot balls, what a great idea!

    Thanks for making dishes that I could have. They were both yummy and so creative.

  7. The potluck sounds fun! I should be really embarrassed since I whipped something so simple and easy for our Lunar New Year celebration.
    Oh, the perl balls are eaten as snack in Vietnam. We don’t really eat them for the new year :D

  8. Yum! I especially fancy some apricot goodness balls.

  9. Yee Sang salad is so versatile and I think a vegan version of it would be quite good! Good effort on everything Johanna! :)

  10. Thanks Nupur - bloggers do great pot lucks - hope yours goes well

    Thanks Hannah - I am impressed with my pearl balls too - seems such a great idea - would even love to try some sweet versions - fortunately I saw the picture at the right moment for me to have the inspiration to follow my desire to try them

    Thanks Astra - they do looks wonderful and the apricot balls also looked right which helped with knowing they had lentils in them

    Thanks Steph - glad you enjoyed the pearl balls - and thanks for your pearls of wisdom on nasi and mee - will get this fixed

    Thanks Kristy - glad you enjoyed the dishes - I liked how nutritious the lentil balls were but I think next time a bit less coconut

    Thanks Anh - that's interesting - maybe the pearl balls are more vietnamese than chinese - am sure you will have other years when you have more energy for the new year

    Thanks Cakelaw - they were very good

    Thanks Lorraine - loved seeing your yee sang salad - it did work well having one that was vegan and gluten free! Nice that everyone could join in the fun

  11. I've never seen those pearl balls before! They're so cute.

  12. I'm a bit late catching up on your Chinese New Year post but I'm *so* impressed with the effort you went to for your pearl balls. They look extremely tasty and it looks as though you had great fun at the party (I love the tossing!). The apricot balls look interesting too - I'm always on the lookout for healthy snacks. I tried a variant on your carrot muffins the other week but they all went into the freezer without being photographed!

  13. Hi there, just letting you I tried the apricot balls and loved them! I keep them in the freezer and grab one out for a quick sweet bite. I actually used fresh figs (because I mistakenly thought that was what the recipe said at first), left out the orange zest because I didn't have any and decreased the coconut down to 1 cup and extra for rolling. Though I love coconut, next time I'd see if I can still cut down the coconut even more without any ill effects. Thanks for the recipe!


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