Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Around the World in Dumplings

I have long contended that human beings are more alike than they are different. And food is a perfect way to examine our connections. Since starting this blog, I have been trying to decide what I could do each month that would be fun and interesting. And since I teach, maybe a little educational.

I like the idea of exploring the culture of others. Culture should not only be preserved, but shared. We can all grow and learn from each other. The world is becoming more interconnected and all of us need to become global citizens and gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for how the rest of the world lives. Food is one way to explore culture.

I am going to begin this journey with dumplings. Why? Because I like dumplings; they’re cute, homey and comfortable. There are many kinds of dumplings. There are Asian dumplings. The Italians have gnocchi, a potato or ricotta cheese dumpling. The Germans have spaetzle. And finally don’t forget good ole fashioned chicken and dumplings. I will be using this blog to talk about dumplings. On the third Monday of each month, I will present a new dumpling.

All dumplings are some variation of cooked dough. They can be made from flour, potato, or matzoh meal. They can be dropped or rolled (gnocchi) or filled (Asian dumplings). They can be sweet (apple) or savory (chicken and dumplings). They can be a part of a stew or soup, a side dish. They can even be served for dessert.

I am going to start with Chinese dumplings. I have long wanted to learn to make Chinese dumplings. My graduate student, Liz, taught me to make them. Thanks Liz for sharing your culture.

Chinese Dumplings

1 pound lean ground meat (pork, beef, turkey or chicken)
¼ cup finely chopped green onions, with tops
¼ cup shiitake mushrooms
1 teaspoon minced ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
1Tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon cornstarch
4 Tablespoons sesame oil
Dash white pepper
Skin: 40 won ton wrappers

1. Soak shiitake mushrooms in very hot water for 5 minutes. Then squeeze out the excess moisture and minced mushrooms.
2. In a large bowl, mix mushrooms, meat, green onions, ginger, garlic, wine, cornstarch, pepper, sugar, salt, sesame oil, and the white pepper.

Folding the dumplings:
1. With your finger spread water to wash around the edge of the wrapper. Place a small spoonful of filling in the middle. (Be careful not to put too much; it'll leek out during the folding process.)
2. Pinch the edge of the wrapper and make a fold like you see in Step 2. (If you're a beginner at folding, place the wrapper on a flat surface while you work. Otherwise, keep it in your hand.)
3. Make 2 more identical folds in the same direction, until you end up with 3 folds, as shown in Step 3. 4. Bring the folded side together with the no-folds side, and press to seal. Repeat the process with the remaining won ton wrappers.

Note: Either won ton wrappers or gyoza wrappers can be used to make dumplings.  

Cooking procedures:
1. Heat a wok or nonstick skillet until very hot.
2. Add 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, tilting the wok to coat the sides.
3. Place 12 dumplings in a single layer in the wok and fry 2 minutes, or until the bottoms are golden brown. 4. Add ½ cup water. Cover and cook 6 to 7 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. 5. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.

Chinese Dipping Sauce
1/3 cup reduced sodium soy sauce
3 Tablespoons red wine or rice vinegar
1 teaspoon hot chili oil
2 teaspoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon sugar or brown sugar, or to taste
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon minced ginger

Combine all ingredients. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for 1 hour to give flavors a chance to blend.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Improvisational Cooking

I have been hearing several new terms lately, no-recipe recipe, cooking without a book and lastly, improvisational cooking. The January issue of Southern Living magazine even has recipes that everyone should know ‘by heart’. There is a cookbook titled, The Improvisational Cook and one titled How to Cook without a Book. If it helps any, I purchased How to Cook Without a Book and I actually like it.

I got to thinking about what these terms really mean. All these terms are really nothing new. Our grandmothers did it all the time. As a matter of fact, most of them did not own a cookbook. All they knew was to cook ‘by heart’. It now seems that some people believe that if there is no recipe, they can’t cook. Why not, your grandmother did it and she had less sophisticated ingredients and equipment than you have. Here is my rule of thumb. You only need a recipe if you are making pastries or cakes or baked products. These are formulations and the ingredients are there for a reason. That is, they have a function that affects the overall quality of the final product. For dishes like soups, pot roasts, mashed potatoes, you don't need a recipe. A recipe is really someone’s idea of what a dish should taste like. What you want to put in your dish is entirely up to you.

I am really into this improvisational cooking. Preparing dinner at 6:00pm when I am tired and hungry is no time to hunt for a recipe. So, here is how I do it.

1. Stock the pantry for cooking, not for a recipe. When you run out of an ingredient, purchase it soon. A well stocked pantry allows you to cook a meal without last minute trips to the grocery store.
2. Stop measuring ingredients. Learn to cook by taste and feel of the dish. You are not trying to make the most superb dish; you are trying to get dinner on the table quickly.
3. Trust your instincts.
4. Practice. We get better at things that we practice. Cooking is no different.
5. Read recipes. That may sound dumb. I read a lot of recipes. However, I mostly read for ideas, not for exact recipes. Reading recipes helps you to understand what ingredients go together and in what proportions.

I am taking the liberty of including one of my favorite no recipe dishes. Please feel free to make changes.

No Recipe Sweet Potatoes

1. Bake enough sweet potatoes to make about 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes. If you like, bake extra, they freeze extremely well. I like to bake my sweet potatoes because I think they taste better.

2. Take about 2 cups of mashed potatoes and add the following ingredients, about 2 tablespoons butter, 1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger or ¼ teaspoon ground ginger, 2 tablespoons brown sugar and ¼ cup light coconut milk. Mix ingredients and serve. Sweet potatoes can also be made ahead and refrigerated. Reheat when ready to serve.

 3. This recipe makes about 4 – ½ cup servings.

As you can tell, this is not an exact recipe. If you don’t have an ingredient or you don’t like an ingredient, leave it out and keep on cooking. Other options for sweet potatoes are canned crushed pineapple, chopped pecans, cinnamon, and maple syrup in place of the brown sugar. I even have a friend who will sometimes use an overripe banana.