This post was supposed to go up earlier this week, as is the common theme, which is a casualty of #momlife. The kids are on break this week, apparently a thing ALL of New England does in February, so we headed back to the Midwest. I was fully prepared with my pipedream of writing during the flight back to Boston but there’s something to be said about being stuck on a full airplane, at the gate, watching the Emoji movie because that’s the only way I could keep my kids from playing that game where they try to rip each other’s eyeballs out of their sockets. It didn’t end there. We ended up having to get off the plane- daunting with four kids- and then getting back on a little while later, after having to sit in the runway for a few hours- I just wanted to hurry up and get home and sink into my pajamas, a bunch of chinese takeout and Netflix.
Specifically, orange chicken- my most favorite chinese takeout dish ever- – the one with all the crispy bits of fried chicken perfection, glazed with the most delicious sweet, tangy, orangey sauce. I also rarely order it because it’s a little too indulgent. But it shouldn’t have to be, which is why I’ve been on a mission for the last year to give this indulgent classic a healthier, fresh ingredient list makeover, like my eggroll in a bowl or beef & broccoli, without skimping on the flavor. No added sugar would be a plus.
What I ended up with is even better than what I expected my iteration of orange chicken to be. I mean, think about it. These orange chicken meatballs are:
√ Flavorful, without the bloat inducing soy sauce. Or use soy sauce if you’re not into the whole whole30/paleo thing. I’ll stick to my beloved coconut aminos because I’m that person. Also, have you tried my cashew chicken stir-fry?
√ Unfried but still have every bit of that crispy bite with the crunch that satisfies you.
√ Sweet and tangy without using sweeteners, but feel free to use honey if you want to add a layer of richness. No judgement from me!
I swapped out frying battered pieces of chicken for ground chicken meatballs, with mixing in potato starch to keep the meatballs whole30 and paleo compliant. Or use cornstarch with the same results. The starch not only binds the meatballs but creates a crispy, browned exterior, which is sometimes just what I need/want/must have if I’m ordering takeout. I also swapped out the soy sauce with coconut aminos because I can still have this while I’m doing a round of whole30 or continuing to eat paleo; it adds to my menu and also gives me options for delicious bites.
Now let’s talk about my unconventional way to sweeten the sauce without actually using sugar or honey: balsamic vinegar and orange juice. With orange chicken, the balsamic vinegar compliments the tangy profile of orange juice. This a major trust exercise because why would you add balsamic vinegar in chinese takeout? But when it’s reduced, it becomes this syrupy goodness that makes everything it touches sweeter, without adding anything else. Seriously, just trust me. Combined with the fruitiness of fresh orange juice, the balsamic vinegar adds body to the sauce. Pro tip- zest the orange BEFORE you squeeze the juice out. I’ve done it the other way around in the past and it ain’t pretty. And when you’re zesting, just zest until you see the pith (white part of the orange). The pith is what makes citrus rind bitter so please, leave that behind.
The versatility of these orange chicken meatballs are totally me living my best life right now. They can be:
√ The perfect make ahead meal. Cook the meatballs, make the sauce and store each separately, in an airtight container in the freezer for up to 4 months. When you’re ready to eat them, simply thaw, heat and toss the meatballs in the sauce, thinning out the sauce if needed.
√ Served as the protein in a meal OR as an appetizer. That’s right. Put a toothpick in each meatball and serve as a bite-size, fun appetizer that’s both perfect as a make ahead sort of situation and portable. Your guests will thank you. And so will I.
√ Eaten by themselves- read, hovering over the stove, back to toward the kids so they can’t see you. That’s the real mom position when eating. Or serve with rice/cauliflower rice if you want to be nice and share. Maybe even atop lo mein style noodles in lieu of spaghetti and meatballs? I might be onto something here!
Did I mention that these are kid-friendly? Because apparently, if it’s in the shape of a ball, kids think you can play with your food and will eat them up. And for that reason, I made the meatballs on the smaller side- little fingers and little hands deserve a little bit of comfort too!
For the meatballs:
- 1 lb ground chicken breast
- 1 tsp ginger, grated
- 1 tsp garlic, minced
- ¼ tsp crushed red pepper or more if desired
- ½ tsp kosher salt (omit if using soy sauce)
- 3 tbsp coconut aminos (or soy sauce)
- 4 tbsp potato starch/arrowroot powder (or cornstarch)+ more as needed
- 2 stalks green onion, sliced finely (white and green parts)
- 1 egg, beaten
- 2 tbsp neutral oil like avocado oil (more if cooking meatballs in batches)
For the sauce;
- zest of one orange or 1 tbsp
- 1 cup orange juice (3 oranges)
- ½ tsp crushed red pepper or more to taste
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 2 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tsp garlic, minced
- 1 tsp ginger, grated
- 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup chicken broth (more if you like a thinner sauce)
- 1 tbsp potato starch/arrowroot/cornstarch dissolved in 2 tbsp cold water
- sesame seeds for garnish
- In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients, except the oil for the meatballs and mix well. Add 1 tsp potato starch/arrowroot/cornstarch at a time if the mixture is too wet.
- Wet hands with warm water or oil. Roll out golfball sized meatballs. For uniform size, scoop out with a tablespoon measuring spoon and roll until round, smooth ball forms. Set aside.
- Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large skillet, over medium heat. Cook meatballs, 3-4 minutes on each side, until browned and fully cooked. Cover and set aside. Repeat, adding 1 tbsp each time you cook another batch of meatballs, until all meatballs are cooked.
- In a medium saucepan, heat sesame oil over medium heat. Add ginger and garlic and sautee for 30 seconds. Add remaining ingredients, except for the potato starch/arrowroot/cornstarch mixture. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Let cook for 6-7 minutes, until sauce thickens and reduces. Add more broth if the sauce becomes too thick. Reduce heat to low and whisk in potato starch/arrowroot/cornstarch mixture. Remove from heat. The sauce should coat the back of a wooden spoon and have a slight sheen to it.
- Toss meatballs in sauce. If sauce becomes too thick after adding meatballs, return to low heat and stir in ½ cup chicken broth at a time, until sauce has desired consistency. Garnish with sesame seeds.
- Serve with white rice or cauliflower rice or as a stand alone appetizer.