How’s your quarantine cooking going?
After 7 months, I’m doing a mix of boredom-busting projects — like homemade paella — and everyday dishes — tacos, pasta, pizzas, roasted veggies. We’ve been picking up Austin ISD’s school breakfasts and lunches, which have inspired their own culinary creations.
In Wednesday’s food section, I shared another cooking project I’ve been taking on lately: Dumplings. Potstickers and crab rangoon, specifically, but I reached out to a few dumpling-loving Austinites to find out why these little pockets of joy are the perfect food for this crazy year we’re having.
In the process of writing that story, I compiled 11 tips to help you get started on making your own Asian dumplings at home. Some of these tips apply to other kinds of dumplings, of which there are many.
Use store-bought dumpling skins when you’re starting out. Wu says that there’s a learned skill in making the dough and rolling it out into the right thickness. Start by making your own filling and then move onto the dough after you’ve worked with commercial skins for a while. Many American grocery stores carry wonton wrappers but not dumpling skins, so seek out the round gyoza or dumpling wrappers at Asian supermarkets and store them in your freezer. Thaw them when you’re ready to have a dumpling-making day.
Start with a simple filling. Mix together a few ingredients, such as ground pork, chives and ginger, and season the filling well with salt, pepper and maybe soy sauce and a little rice wine vinegar.
Think about how the filling will cook inside the dumpling. You can use some raw vegetables mixed with ground meat or tofu, but Gary Wu, an owner of Lotus Chinese in the Domain, recommends sauteing the water-heavy vegetables, like mushrooms or greens, before mixing with the meat and other ingredients. "The filling has to be spreadable, and it can’t be too firm," Wu says. "The dumpling skin will shrink and a veggie-heavy filling can expand, which is why you rarely see 100% vegetable dumplings."
Underfill rather than overfill. You don’t want them to explode when they cook, and you don’t want the filling to overpower the dough. Remember: It’s a noodle dish with filling, not a filling dish wrapped in a noodle.
Don’t worry about how they look. "Stop thinking that there’s a right and a wrong way about it," says C.K. Chin, the restaurateur behind Wu Chow and Swift’s Attic. "There’s no way to fail. Worst case, they might fall apart, but they’ll still be good."
Pay attention and be present so you can learn from each iteration. "If you’re present, then if something does go wrong, you’ll know what happened," Chin says. "If you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, there’s no way for you to isolate what’s wrong."
Don’t skimp on the fat. Pork is a common dumpling filling because it typically has a high fat content. Ground chicken thighs have enough fat to keep the filling moist, and it’s not uncommon to see dumplings made with multiple meats, such as chicken and shrimp or pork and chicken.
Cook from frozen. Make sure you freeze the dumplings on a sheet pan so they don’t stick together. There’s no need to thaw dumplings before cooking them.
Boil or fry, your choice. Every cook has their favorite way to cook dumplings. You can boil dumplings in water and then fry them, as Wu prefers, or simply boil them and serve. My favorite way to cook them is as pot stickers, where you fry them in a thin layer of oil and then steam with water.
Or make ’em crispy. I grew up eating lots of fried wontons and crab rangoon. Wu notes that wonton wrappers are a little thinner than other dumpling wrappers, but they are also more readily available at grocery stores. They tend to dry out a little faster, too, so work quickly if you’re using them. At Lotus Chinese, they make crab rangoon-inspired fried wontons filled with smoked salmon or jalapeño and cream cheese. My kids are in a major cream cheese phase, so we’ve been eating a lot of crab rangoon lately. Rather than pan-frying or boiling these dumplings, you’ll fry them in about 1/2 inch of oil.
It’s OK to wing it. I understand the desire to always cook from a recipe, but dumplings are an excellent place to start experimenting with cooking without one. I’ve included a recipe from Brendan Pang, who recently wrote an entire cookbook dedicated to dozens of different dumpling variations, but here’s an overview of how I've been winging it. To start, I make a flavor-packed vegetable saute. Heat a little oil and add garlic, ginger, onions or shallots. Add leafy greens (collards, bok choy, Chinese broccoli) and scallions. Sometimes, I’ll throw in minced carrots, mushrooms or cabbage. As the mixture cooks, I season it with a little bit of this and that from my pantry, including soy sauce, Shaoxing wine or rice wine vinegar and some kind of red chile paste or spice mix.
I let this mixture cool (usually between 1 and 2 1/2 cups of cooked veggies when it’s done) and then combine by hand with 1 pound of ground pork. At this point, I add an egg and between 1/2 and 1 teaspoon of salt, depending on how salty the veggie mixture is. I refrigerate the mixture and then make the dumplings in batches, keeping the rest of the filling cool as I work.
Pan-fried Pork and Kimchi Dumplings
In Korea, the standard dumplings filled with tangy spicy kimchi are known as mandu. I love Korean flavors, which is why I’ve tried to fuse some elements of both Chinese and Korean food in my recipes. These dumplings are similar in concept to my pan-fried chicken and cabbage dumplings that are infused with tart Chinese sauerkraut (suan cai), but have distinct flavor differences and are a twist on the conventional mandu. Kimchi has a more spicy, tangy and acidic flavor, whereas suan cai has no chile but an unmistakable sour bite.
— Brendan Pang
For the filling:
3 1/2 ounces firm tofu
5 ounces fatty ground pork
Scant 2/3 cup kimchi, finely chopped
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
30 dumpling wrappers, homemade or store-bought
Vegetable oil, for frying
Sichuan chile oil, for serving
Sliced cucumber, for garnish
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Make the filling: Drain the tofu and pat it dry with a paper towel. Stack three or four layers of paper towels on a plate and place the tofu on top. Stack another three or four layers of paper towels onto the tofu, followed by another plate and a few heavy cans of food to help press the tofu down. Refrigerate for 30 minutes to dry.
Remove the tofu from the refrigerator and transfer to a large bowl. Using your hands, break the tofu into crumbs. Add the remaining filling ingredients and stir until well combined.
Working with 1 dumpling wrapper at a time, place 1 level tablespoon of filling in the center of a wrapper and shape into a triangle or half-moon. Cover loosely with a clean, damp tea towel and repeat the process to form the remaining dumplings.
Cook the dumplings: In a large nonstick skillet with a lid, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the dumplings, flat side down. Press down firmly to flatten their base and cook, uncovered, until the base is golden brown, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan and cover with the lid. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook until the liquid has cooked off and the undersides of the dumplings are crisp again. If needed, add more oil to help crisp them up. Serve the dumplings immediately with Sichuan chile oil, cucumber and sesame seeds. Makes 30 dumplings.
— From "This Is a Book About Dumplings" by Brendan Pang (Page Street Publishing, $22.99)