I'll be straight with you: I'm not going to try to convince you to spend hours and hours to make these potstickers. After all, they are a food that, if you live in a city with a Chinatown of any size, you can probably get for 20 cents apiece. When it comes to making dumplings at home, it's a choice you have to come to on your own.
Because they are no joke when it comes to effort. You have to chop and squeeze and mix the filling, cooking off bits to taste for the correct seasoning until you get it right. You have to knead the dough and roll out dozens if not hundreds of skins. You have to stuff them, form them, pleat them and then, eventually, you get to cook and maybe even eat them. (This is why they are a distinguished weapon in the ever-full quivers of mothers who tend to smother with kindness.)
And I'm not even going to say that there is "nothing like eating a homemade dumpling," because eating one made by someone else can be a lot like eating a homemade one. (Granted, if you take your time and care, these are more delicate and tastier than most.)
But for those of you who like projects, or inviting a bunch of people over to chat, get tipsy, and make food, here are my friend Winnie's mom's famous dumplings (technically, they're potstickers if you pan-fry them). Made right, they're light, crisp, tender, meaty, crunchy with vegetables, sparky with ginger and aromatic with chives. That does sound like a pretty good evening, doesn't it?
Mama Yang's dumplings
Makes about 120 dumplings. A normal person can readily eat 12 as a main course. And feel free to mess with the quantity/combination of seasonings. All of them can be adjusted to taste. As for the wrappers, you can cheat and buy them pre-made -- try to get the kind made of just flour and water, no egg or yellow dye -- but if you're not making your own skins for her mom's dumplings, my friend Winnie will get all Tiger Mother on you.
- 1 big head of napa cabbage
- 2 pounds ground pork
- ¼ cup finely grated ginger (these are very gingery, so you can cut this down even by half, but don't cut it all the way -- it helps tenderize the meat and freshens the aroma)
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon white pepper
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon sugar (to "accelerate" the sweetness of the vegetables)
- 1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (Mama Yang says, "I use olive oil because I don't like that Chinese restaurant smell." I'm not entirely sure what that means, but sure!)
- 4 ounces shrimp, roughly chopped
- 2 bunches scallions, chopped
- 1 pound Chinese chives, chopped (available at Asian markets, or substitute regular chives, if you don't mind spending more on them than everything else combined)
- Vegetable oil for cooking, as needed
- 2 pounds all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
- 14 ounces plus 2 teaspoons water
- Soy sauce, to taste
- Vinegar, to taste (traditionally, this is Chinese black vinegar)
- Sesame or chili oil, to taste
Special equipment: 1 assistant, roughly 5'9", 200 pounds, and of athletic build
- First, you have to deal with the napa cabbage. Chop it up fine, salt it vigorously, and let it sit for a while, preferably a few hours, so that it gives up its water. (If chopping is not your favorite task, you can do what Winnie's dad does --throw big chunks of the cabbage in the blender with a little water to loosen it up. Afterwards drain off the water and then salt it.) After it's exuded its juices, call upon your muscular assistant: squeeze the cabbage in your hands (or wrapped in cheesecloth or a clean towel) until it doesn't want to give up any more water. I told you this was real work!
- Now put the meat in a massive bowl (sometimes a big pot is your best bet for size -- you'll need to fit all the filling ingredients and have room to stir). Add the ginger, garlic, peppers, sugar, salt, olive oil and shrimp. Hold your hand like a claw, as if you were holding a baseball, and stir the meat and seasonings together in one direction (clockwise or counterclockwise, whichever you prefer). As you're stirring, open and squeeze your hand into a fist, to help combine the ingredients. After a little while, you'll notice the meat coming together a bit, sticking together almost as a dough would. What's happening is actually quite similar to what happens with dough -- you're mashing together proteins and making them bond into a network that will toughen up the flabby filling. When it's there, add the scallions and chives, and mix them in the same way. Then mix in the squeezed-out cabbage. Once that's mixed in and the filling has come back together, fire up a little pan and cook a little bit of the filling. Taste it. Does it need more salt? Pepper? Sugar? Adjust the seasoning, cooking and tasting, until it's just right.
- Combine the flour and water and knead together until mostly smooth. It'll be a tough dough, kind of dry, so don't freak out and add more water right away. Just keep working it; usually all the flour incorporates with a little nudging. If you're all worked out and it's still chunky and dry and the flour isn't mixing in, wet your hands and give it some more muscle. (You can also do this in a standing mixer, of course. Wuss.) Once it's smooth, cover it with plastic wrap. Ideally, let it rest for 30 minutes to an hour.
- Pull off a wad of the dough and roll into a snake about ¾" thick. Rip off or, better, slice ¾" chunks from this dough snake to form dough nuggets. (That sounds like a euphemism for something, but I don't want to know what.) Sprinkle chunks lightly with flour, flatten, and roll them out with a rolling pin into circles (or as circle-like as you can get them) about 3" across. (They'll be quite thin. That's what you want.) Keep rolled skins loosely covered with plastic wrap while you work.
- This is where teamwork really helps: You can have someone stuffing the dumplings while others roll out skins. Lay the wrapper in your fingers (not the palm) of your hand and spoon in enough to fill the center, but still leaving you about a half-inch of room all around. Fold the bottom of the skin up and pinch one of the corners tightly together. Then pleat it in one direction, pulling the skin from one side and pinching it into the other ... you know what? Trying to describe this is dumb. Watch my homegirl Andrea Nguyen show you how instead:
- Note: If you're using store-bought skins, you may need to use a little touch of water as a glue to hold the edges together. And whether store-bought or homemade, you can cheat and not bother with the pleating. Just squeeze the edges together. But they won't sit up as nicely.
- Place the folded dumplings onto a lightly floured plate or tray, loosely covered in plastic wrap as you work. Don't cram them together, lest they start to stick. Dust them with a little more flour as they sit.
Cooking and serving
- When you're ready to cook them, heat a large -- preferably nonstick -- frying pan over medium heat, and lightly coat the bottom of the pan with oil. When the oil is hot enough to look as thin as water, add the dumplings flat-side down. Don't cram them all in there, but pack the dumplings so that they're fairly snug.
- After a few minutes, when the bottoms are nice and toasty brown, pour in a half-cup or so of water -- enough to come up a quarter to a third of the way up the dumplings. It should boil immediately. Turn down heat to medium low, cover and let them steam. When the water has all evaporated, the dumplings should be cooked through. Careful, they're hot, but poke at a few gently with your finger. If the insides feel flabby, they need more cooking -- pour in a little more water and cover again. If they feel solid, they should be done. (Cut into one if you're unsure.)
- Dumplings may also be boiled; once they float, let them cook for another minute or two and they'll be done. Uncooked dumplings may be frozen, covered in plastic wrap.
- Serve with a dip of soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame or chili oil, mixed to taste.