Sunday, February 21, 2010

Week Four: Potstickers

Pork and cabbage, friends forever.

There is nothing quite like a half a day of manual kitchen labor to chill you out. Or chill me out, I should say; I can’t presume to speak for the entire cooking population. But for me, getting my hands busy with chopping, kneading, and frying is one of the best things I can do for my head.

This weekend, I got to do just that, with good friend and fellow blogger Brandi as my copilot. A few weeks ago, she’d said she wanted to cook with me as part of her quest to become a better cook, and when I pondered what to make with her, I immediately thought, “meat.” We are both meat-eaters who live with non-meat eaters, more or less, and the chance to cook a meat-based meal that isn’t mostly destined for the freezer is rare.

From meat, we made the leap to potstickers, gyoza, jiao xi – whatever you call them, they are a treasured staple of both Chinese and Japanese cuisine, simple dumplings of pork-and-ginger goodness that are both pretty to behold (when made by a pro) and lovely to eat.

Having decided we would do this “the right way,” the first step was making the dough. 4 cups of sifted flour, 2 cups of water, then, “slowly pour in the water and mix to a firm dough.” I gamely poured the water with one hand and shifted the flour and water around the bowl with the other until my dough-stirring hand became subsumed by a sticky mass of wallpaper paste.

This dough would make excellent handcuffs.

The authors probably meant that you should only use as much of the water as you need to form a firm dough, but with that option gone, I added more flour until it became a workable mass. From there, I kneaded it, had Brandi (who makes her own bread every week) check to see if she thought it was “smooth and soft” as the recipe said it should be, and put it back in the freshly de-pastified bowl to rest.

We then turned our attention to the Napa cabbage, which needed to be blanched, drained and chopped finely. I knew what blanching meant – precooking for a short time in boiling water – but had never done it, and the combination of thick stems and leafy tops made for a daunting first foray into the technique. In the end, we watched until the stems looked soft, took them out and, at Brandi’s prompting, rinsed them with cold water to stop the cooking process.

The filling itself is simple to assemble once you get the cabbage handled: ground pork, soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, fresh ginger, scallions, rice wine or sherry if you have it. I had expressed my distaste for handling raw meat, so Brandi dealt with mixing the filling.

Next up: Wake the resting dough, roll it into a long snake, cut it into 80-90 bits, roll those bits into perfect 2 ½” circles, then fill each circle with 1 ½ Tablespoons of filling and close it with gorgeous little pleats.

The dough, much improved by its rest.

In the interest of brevity, I will only say that we did get the dough rolled and the dumplings filled, and that in cooking, as in life, looks do not always matter. Also, it is extremely important to use enough flour that the uncooked dumplings don’t stick to the plate and stretch like so much melted mozzarella when you try to lift them, causing you to moan and alarm your helpmate.

According to the cookbook, we had several cooking options: Shallow-frying, steaming, or poaching. Steaming was ruled out, as I do not own a bamboo steamer and didn’t think very long about how to rig a reasonable facsimile. Shallow-frying seemed the best bet, so we did that for the majority of the batch and then tried poaching, which gave the skins a texture not unlike rubbery chicken skin.

Brandi handled the dipping sauce: 1 T. each soy sauce and chopped scallions, 1 t. minced garlic, 2 T. hot chili oil, which sadly I did not have. She subbed red pepper flakes, though, which worked to add bite.

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for I’m sure, the four Ds:

Deliciousness: Holy mother, these things are nothing but succulent goodness. We were both expecting more delicate skins, though I’m sure that has to do with our inexperience.

Difficulty: If you don’t make your own dough, quite easy; but either way, quite time-consuming.

Do-over: Most definitely, though I will try pre-made skins next time, and put more ginger and maybe some garlic in the filling. Also, we discussed adding water chestnuts and some uncooked cabbage to liven up the texture. Finally, I will make sure I have hot chili oil on hand for the dipping sauce.

Details: The filling is equal parts ground pork and cabbage, 1 T. finely chopped scallions, 2 t. salt, 1 t. finely minced ginger root, 2 T. light soy sauce, 1 t. light brown sugar, 2 t. sesame oil, 1 T. Chinese rice wine or dry sherry. We left out the sherry, forgot to add the salt, doubled the ginger and used dark brown sugar.

I can't speak for B, but I ate so many I wasn't hungry for the rest of the day.


Anonymous said...

Ah! It appears that making your own dough may be the secret to your success! I love the last photo...did the plate ever make it to the table or did all of the potstickers get consumed standing at the kitchen counter? Also, I bet making your own created a better texture for the potstickers than the pre-made wrappers would have offered.

HMDean said...

I'm not so sure about the dough -- it was chewier than we would have liked.

Oh, no, there was no sitting down; we ate them hot off the plate. There were leftovers -- though not many.

Brandi Wills said...


Love the new format. I had a blast. And I did not eat until that night, when we went out to dinner with friends, and I could only squeeze in a salad.

I heated up some of the leftover poached "chicken-skin" potstickers by frying them. Very good, however they stuck like crazy to the pan (these things are aptly named) so again, flour is a good idea.

HMDean said...

Thanks for the format review and the tip about reheating the poached ones by frying.

Mayhap I will just eat the meaty part instead, or cut off the big globs of poached dough.