'Tis the season of gift-giving, and for a few days last week my huge dining table vanished under sheets of tissue and ribbons and rolls of wrapping paper, waiting to turn books and toys into adventures and surprises.
In the kitchen, too, even the humblest ingredients take on elegance and mystery when they're wrapped.
Store-bought fresh dumpling wrappers, a staple in my pantry, make it easy to add drama to everyday cooking.
Made primarily of wheat flour and water, round dumpling wrappers (also called siu mai skins or gyoza skins) are thinner than wonton skins (small squares) or eggroll wrappers (large squares or rectangles); they're meant to be stuffed and steamed, pan-fried as potstickers, or cooked in soup, but not deep-fried.
Dumpling wrappers are easy to make, but I buy them fresh at my local Asian market. You can find them at any supermarket, too, in the produce aisle. If you're shopping in the Boston area, you might see something called "Peking ravioli wrappers" in the market. Joyce Chen, a famous chef and restaurant owner who brought authentic Chinese cooking to Boston in the 1960s, coined the term "Peking ravioli" to help explain potstickers to the restaurant's Italian neighborhood, and the name stuck.
Keep dumpling wrappers in the freezer, and bring them to room temperature before using. Fill your dumplings with anything you like; try pre-packaged cole slaw vegetables (carrots and celery), mixed with shredded cooked chicken and some bottled peanut sauce. Or stuff the dumplings Indian-style, with curried tofu, peas and carrots. Make a few at a time, or make a lot and freeze them.
For a super-quick weeknight dinner (ready in just 10 minutes), add frozen homemade dumplings directly to boiling soup stock, with some chopped vegetables or greens. I did that last week, and created a new family favorite; frozen chicken-cabbage dumplings, leftover baby spinach, and homemade chicken stock seasoned with low-sodium soy sauce and black pepper made a wonderful dinner for Ted and me.
Vegetable dumplings (for potstickers or soup)
Vary this filling to include leftover shredded cooked chicken, chopped shrimp (cooked or uncooked), or veggies of your choice. Makes 16; can be doubled and cooked in batches.
10 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 bunch cilantro, leaves chopped (optional)
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2-inch piece of fresh ginger root, peeled, finely chopped
2 scallions, chopped
1 green chile (jalapeño, serrano, Thai — depends on how hot you like it), seeded and chopped
1/4 cup peeled and grated daikon radish
1 medium carrot, peeled and grated
1/2 red bell pepper, seeded, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup firm or extra-firm tofu, patted dry, chopped into 1/8-inch squares
1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
16 round fresh dumpling wrappers
1 Tbsp peanut oil
1 cup vegetable or low-sodium or homemade chicken stock
Put the dried mushrooms in a bowl, cover with warm water, and let soak for 30 minutes until softened. Drain, reserving the soaking liquid, and chop mushrooms finely.
Put the mushrooms in a large bowl and add cilantro, garlic, ginger, scallions, chiles, daikon, carrots, bell pepper, and tofu. Stir to combine.
Mix peanut butter and soy sauce in a small bowl, and stir into the vegetable mixture.
Put 1 dumpling wrapper on a dry work surface and put 1 level Tbsp of filling in the center. With your finger or a pastry brush, paint the edge with water and fold into a half-moon shape, pleating one side 3-5 times as you go (or use a dumpling press). Place on a tray lined with wax paper, flattening the bottom of the dumpling as you do.
While assembling the dumplings, keep the stack of wrappers moist by covering them with a damp towel. Repeat with remaining wrappers and filling, covering the also tray with a damp towel as each dumpling is completed.
TO MAKE AS POTSTICKERS: Heat a large nonstick skillet, and brush with 1 tsp of oil. Add as many dumplings as you can (hopefully all of them!) without overcrowding. Saute for 2-3 minutes until browned on the bottom (do not flip them).
Mix the reserved mushroom liquid with the stock and pour half of it over the dumplings until partly covered (use more if needed). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover the pan, and cook 8-10 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the dumplings are slightly translucent.
TO MAKE IN SOUP: Bring desired amount of stock (vegetable or chicken stock) to a boil. Reduce to low heat, and carefully add desired number of dumplings to the pot. Cook 3-4 minutes, and serve hot.
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