Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'd Rather be Jazzfestin'.

As our Big Easy holiday ends, we linger on thoughts of crawfish (Acme's Craw Puppies!) and bumpin' and jazz... Big. Easy.

Come back soon for adventurous tales of eating and drinking along the Mississippi.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Chicken Breast Dumplings... and a Spicy Wontons EXTRA!

When the first cold rains come through the Bay Area, I spend a day making dumplings. The kitchen table transforms into an assembly line centered around an enormous stainless-steel bowl of dumpling filling-- traditionally, a ground pork, shrimp, gingery-oniony mixture. Beside the bowl I set up the filling station: wonton skins piled on a cutting board and draped with damp paper towels to keep them from drying out, a wet hand-towel for cleaning the raw meat off things, teaspoons (one for scooping in, one for scooping out!), egg-white... I stack a few Billie Holiday albums in the player, crack the window for air and to listen to the rain, and then get to work...

Filling with just the right amount and effectively crimping (the seam will not open when steamed, boiled, fried or attacked by small, vicious beasts) dumplings by hand takes practice. Especially if you want a fancy scalloped crimp like you see in dim-sum houses. Something seemingly simple enough for children, can be a baffling and annoying practice even if you choose to follow the "How to fill wonton wrappers" directions on the back of many packets of skins. These "How-to" drawings, also explained (uselessly, to me, at least) in Chinese are the biggest step-by-step line drawing hoax known to the human race... unless you want your dumplings to resemble a burrito.

Improving dumpling skills, winter after winter, requires practice. However, the volume of the task is all but a glaring excuse to fix-up a dumpling-filling-fete!

I've been to at least one "all-day dumpling-fest," in New York in my very early twenties: Half-sheet-pans filling up with dumplings, bottles of wine being consumed rapidly, cigarette smoke lingering in from the fire escape, bursts of laughter over failed crimp-n-twist techniques... And, a jar of Nutella being passed around (for eating not filling!). Three girls of Asian persuasion (2 Korean, 1 Filipino) including myself, managed the evening's effort never questioning how the growing mound of pale-yellow dumplings would be consumed.
If you're Asian, you make enough to feed your family-- blood and extended-- even if they're thousands of miles away. If they are far away, you freeze.
This year I attempted chicken breast dumplings. A friend had left me a Kitchen Aid sausage attachment, and I was eager to grind my own meat. Chicken breast extruded right into a big stainless bowl with the rest of my dumpling filling mix of green onions, garlic, S&P and drizzles of toasted sesame oil. (A bit healthier than the traditional pork; much more substantial than veggie versions.)

Once again, armed with teaspoons and little bowls of egg white, we filled and crimped, filled and crimped... The silky wonton skins stuffed with slippery raw meat, the skins-edge dotted with egg white and sealed, with a simple pattern, from the tines of a dessert fork.

When the last dumpling was filled, it was nearly midnight. Exhausted, I tossed the dumplings in freezer bags lined with parchment paper. Ready when we are... for soup, pan fry, ravioli or a gently steamed snack.
*Make and freeze your dumplings in November, December and January, then have them available through the rains and just in time for Chinese New Year!
While delicious and simple on their own, chicken breast dumplings don't have as much natural salt as pork or the subtle brine of shrimp, so be sure to put out every Asian condiment on hand: Spicy sriracha sauce, hot chili oil, ponzu, toasted sesame/shoyu/lime/sesame seeds and more!

The Mother of California Chinese Cuisine Cecilia Chiang schools us in Wrapping Wonton's on a Winter's Day... topped with a Sichuan sauce.