Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Art of Dumpling Making

Dumpling making is a delicate and time-honored tradition of the Asian cuisine that... who am I kidding? I don't know anything about the history of the dumpling; only that they taste amazing.

The dumpling is a delicious item that can be eaten either as a main dish or as an appetizer.  There are a number of varieties available, depending on the place of origin, the preparation, and the filling.  I suppose if someone wanted to be creative enough, a dessert dumpling could be made.  You can fry, boil or steam them, and could be filled with any meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish, or a mix of any of those) or even vegetables for that matter.  Even the dipping sauce could be different, although personally I'm all for soy sauce, vinegar and ginger. But, for now, I'm only focusing on the most basic of dumplings.

Now I'm sure most, if not all of us, have had the famous Ling Ling potstickers, sold at your friendly neighborhood market or Costco.  And while they are a fast fix for that dumpling craving, they don't quite measure up to the taste of dumplings made by hand. 

Having been privy to a number of dumpling making parties in college, I found it only natural to document my most recent foray into the Chinese dumpling production business for personal consumption, otherwise known as making dumplings for dinner for accountability group.

The ingredients to make dumplings are fairly simply, although they vary depending on who you ask, and often how you've made it before.  The skins are fairly standard, being the round wonton or dumpling skins you can find at any Asian market.  I've heard some people say they like to use square skins, which also work.  You can also make your own skins, combining flour, salt and water together to make a dough you can roll out.  That is a little more time consuming, and can come in handy should you run out of pre-made skins and still have a lot of meat filling leftover (you'd be surprised how often that happens).

As for the filling, ground pork is standard.  This was the first time we actually ground the pork ourselves, using the handy kitchen tool known as the food processor.  Let me just say, the food processor makes this incredibly easy, and you don't have to chop up everything finely for the filling to be a uniform mixture.  For this filling, we added a mix of pork, shrimp, shitake mushrooms, green onions, cabbage, garlic, sesame oil, and salt and pepper.  Normally, I would add dark soy sauce, to add more flavor, but as one of our esteemed company is allergic to soy, the sauce was left out.  On that note, I would also say this is not the only way to make the filling.  There are many other possible combinations and it really is up to you what you want to add or leave out.  As to the proportions, it does not really matter: as long as it tastes great, then you have a filling worth putting into a dumpling.  You can always tweak the filling after you've made and tried the first few.

To the actual construction of the dumpling, it does not require a great deal of dexterity, and can be as complicated or simple as you would like it to be.  Having a small bowl full of water will help you seal the edges adequately, so the dumpling does not explode when it is being cooked.  Also not putting too much filling inside will also help in that.  I am notorious for putting too much filling in, and end up having to take some out just so it will close.

A spoonful should be enough for you to adequately fill your dumpling without bursting the skin.  Wet your fingers and run it around the edges of the skin, then press the edges together.  You can make it completely flat, or crimp and fold the edges.  As long as you get a good seal, it doesn't really matter what it looks like.  The "pretty" ones and the "ugly" ones all taste the same after they are cooked.

Cooking the dumplings is just as easy: Boil some water and throw in your finished dumplings.  Swirl the water and the dumplings so they don't stick to the bottom of the pot or to each other.  Let them cook for about 10 minutes, then remove them.  Put them in a bowl, get some sauce, and enjoy!

If you should find yourself with extra dumplings that haven't been cooked, you can freeze them and eat them later.  All you need to do is make sure they are spread out on a metal surface (I like to use pie tins), and not touching each other, and stick them in the freezer.  Once they are frozen, you can put them in a Ziploc bag, and take them out whenever you get the hankering for some dumplings.

So there you have it.  The story of a dumpling-filled night, and now, a dumpling-filled freezer.  It definitely is a team effort, and much more fun with people to eat and enjoy them with.  Make a night of it, invite some people over, and partake in the delicious art of dumpling making.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Homemade Gnocchi: The Adventures of the Yu Sisters

This being a long weekend + my sister needing to do laundry + a mutual desire to do some experimental cookery = food explosion!

As it were, we both wanted to try and make gnocchi from scratch.  What is gnocchi some of you may ask?  It is, plainly put, a potato dumpling (or ricotta if you like), and is of Italian cuisine origin.  Why the sudden desire to make it?  I can't really say, except that it is notoriously difficult to make, and seeing as we had some time to kill, why not?

And so the scene is set: Gnocchi is to be the main dish, but what else to make with it?  Roasted vegetables instantly pop up in our mind, and  I decide to make some bread: Our meal is complete.

With our daunting task in front of us, we set out to make a meal to remember.  I began with the bread, using Jim Lahey's famous no-knead bread recipe, as it would take less effort, and could easily be put together.  And what a beautiful loaf of bread!

Seeing as we couldn't just eat bread by itself (although quite delicious I might add), and our gnocchi would need some kind of sauce, a pesto seemed like a perfect accompaniment.  But, our basil had wilted, so our alternative was a broccoli walnut pesto, from Serious Eats: Recipes.  And boy did it look amazing!   The only thing I would change is to roast the garlic before adding it to the food processor, just to cut some of the sharpness of raw garlic.

 We bought around 7 pounds of potatoes, and it turned out to be just right, considering we messed up our first try.  The recipe we were using called for 3 pounds of potatoes, and said to bake them, to "get creamer gnocchi".  So bake them we did.  But alas, they were not quite done after the state 1 hour of baking, and we ended up trying to grate them to get them down to the consistency and texture we needed.  After adding the flour and egg, we found ourselves in a potato pancake-like dough, and nowhere near a dough for gnocchi.  So potato pancakes we made, and they were delicious.

This is not what your potatoes should look like.

On to round two:  We decided we needed to boil them instead, and we got a much softer and fluffier consistency, albeit with a few lumps here and there, but we got it down to manageable dough, and started kneading.  *Tip: Don't add all the flour in at once.  It'll make it easier to knead it in if you add it in a little at a time, about a 1/2 cup.*
A So we get our lovely potato dough together, and start creating the potato dumplings, rolling it out into ropes and then cutting them into small little pieces.  We weren't quite sure which way the ridges were to go, so we ended up forgoing them and just tossing them into the pot of boiling water.  And this is what we got:  Beautiful, tender and tasty gnocchi!  Success!!

Admittedly, we weren't really quite sure what gnocchi were supposed to taste like, but nonetheless, our first foray into making homemade gnocchi yielded edible potato dumplings.  Plus, they didn't fall apart when they were cooking, which is apparently the worst thing that could happen when you make gnocchi.

As to our roasted vegetable medley, what a colorful medley we had!  Carrots, butternut squash, red onions, and red and yellow bell peppers made up our mix, with a roasted acorn squash.  We modified recipes for the roasted vegetables and the roasted acorn squash.  Let me just say, having never cooked any type of squash, I never realized how difficult it is to cut and peel a butternut squash, much less cut in half an acorn squash.  Never have I been more grateful to have my trusty Cutco chef knife with me.  That being said, despite the difficulties we had in preparing the dish, the vegetables came out perfectly caramelized and deliciously tender.

And there you have it: 5 hours of cooking and eating for a fully satisfying meal and a wonderful time laughing together with my sister.