In case I haven’t broadcasted this loudly enough in the 114 entries prior to today, I tend to get a little obsessive in the kitchen when trying to find “perfect” recipes. “Perfect” is always some approximation of an ideal that got etched in my tastebuds in some other time and place — there’s salted butter caramel (Paris), bretzel rolls (a Fresh Direct discovery), frisee with poached eggs (Balthazar, 2003) and one day soon, those truffles from La Maison du Chocolat, as my wee Valentine’s Day supply has rapidly diminished. I know better than to try to go back to such a place and expect the same experiences time after time, but it doesn’t mean I can’t have warming fits of nostalgia when I find a lost flavor on my dinner plate.
Case in point today is the steamed vegetable dumplings from Ollie’s, a small chain of large Chinese restaurants up the west side of Manhattan. Growing up, I was absorbed with them and it’s (of course) my mother’s fault, as she would bring an order of them home for us after spending a day in the city, and I’d have them cold directly from the refrigerator as soon as I woke up the next day. They were perfect: dense but not too heavy, brightly flavored and full of tiny but easily-recognized ingredients — no mystery blend here!
Once I moved to New York, a friend and I made the stunning discovery that an order of dumplings and a beer was pretty much the best weekday night dinner there could ever be, and made a weekly ritual of it, until one day, horror of horrors, they changed the recipe, and my glorious order of steamed vegetable goodness was replaced with a filling of foul vegetable mush. They didn’t consult me! I was their self-appointed dumpling evangelist and they just up and changed recipes and now… now I had no place to get my fix.
In the four years since, I’ve tried endless combinations of vegetables, tofu and seasonings and I just can’t get it right. Alex, always the cheerleader, loves them all but I only frustrate because they’re not those dumplings. I know I should move past this and just enjoy a good dumpling for what it is, but I’m just not wired like that. Last night I tried Alton Brown’s recipe, and the experience was no different. They were delicious, and yes, I have already enjoyed them today cold from the fridge, but all I know is that they weren’t them.
There were also a few problems with the buggers. First, there was too much liquid, and despite draining probably the best flavor out of each spoonful before stuffing the wonton wrappers, I was leaking juices with each crimp. In addition, he suggests you steam them but I learned the hard way that wonton-wrapped dumpling do not hold up in the steamer. Their skins are too thin and fall to mush when you try to lift them out. I was able to save them by plopping them in a hot, oiled pan and making much more structurally-sound potstickers of them, and I’d suggest if you make these that you do the same. Finally, they had great flavor, but they were pretty tofu-heavy. While this isn’t a bad thing per se, I didn’t want any one ingredient to dominate. It just didn’t match my obsessive dumpling ideal.
None of this stops them from being crazy delicious, and if you aren’t as irritatingly fixated on your vegetable dumplings tasting like one thing and one thing only, I highly recommend them. Trying to keep with our Chinese-American theme, we served them with a salad tossed with my favorite spicy sesame dressing, hoisin pork riblets (because we really can’t get enough of them) and, though unrelated, an unbelievably satisfying rice pudding Luisa wrote about weeks ago. Dave, Dups and Conroy came over to help me oggle the gorgeous men on Rome, and we ate in the New York Sunday night tradition, minus the white take-out boxes.
Speaking of the Roman-ogling and the three boys, I can’t resist sharing this: Yesterday morning, as I was picking recipes and making a shopping list for the evening, I watched (as usual) the Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network, who was (as usual) cooking a meal for one of her gay, JCrew-clad friends and I was completely charmed, actually saying to Alex, with total obliviousness, “Do you think in 20 years I can have fabulous dinners for my gay friends like she does?” “Um, honey?”
Adapted from Alton Brown
1/2 pound firm tofu
1/2 cup coarsely grated carrots
1/2 cup shredded Napa cabbage
2 tablespoons finely chopped red pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon chopped cilantro leaves
2 minced cloves garlic (Deb addition)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil (I replace 1 teaspoon with hot sesame oil — delicious)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
35 to 40 small wonton wrappers
1/3 cup chicken stock or water
Preheat the oven to 200°F.
Cut the tofu in half horizontally and lay between layers of paper towels. Place on a plate, top with another plate, and place a weight on top (a 14-ounce can of vegetables works well). Let stand 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, cut the tofu into 1/4-inch cubes and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the carrots, cabbage, red pepper, scallions, ginger, cilantro, soy sauce, hoisin, sesame oil, egg, salt, and pepper. Lightly stir to combine.
To form the dumplings, remove 1 wonton wrapper from the package, covering the others with a damp cloth. Brush the edges of the wrapper lightly with water. Place 1/2 rounded teaspoon of the tofu mixture in the center of the wrapper. Shape as desired*. Set on a sheet pan and cover with a damp cloth. Repeat procedure until all of the filling is gone.
Heat a 12-inch saute pan over medium heat. Brush with vegetable oil once hot. Add 8 to 10 potstickers at a time to the pan and cook for 2 minutes, without touching. Once the 2 minutes are up, gently add 1/3 cup chicken stock to the pan, turn the heat down to low, cover, and cook for another 2 minutes.
Remove wontons to a heatproof platter and place in the warm oven. Repeat until all the wontons are cooked.
* Shaping and storing dumplings dumplings: Epicurious has some great demos if you’re looking to get the type of crimp you see above. (Though I am far less careful, of course.) A few other things I suggest: parchment paper, not foil. Keep them good and separate — these thin-skinned wonton wrappers will stick to each other and never come apart. Finally, even if I am using the dumplings within a day, I always freeze them. Do so right on the parchment-lined tray, making sure none are touching. Once they are frozen solid, you can pop them in a freezer bag and keep them for a long while in the freezer. Even if you’re using them soon, they’re much easier to handle frozen. Believe me, I have learned the hard, sobbing way more than once.
Simplest Dumpling Dipping Sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil or 1/2 tablespoon dark, 1/2 tablespoon hot sesame oil
1 small clove garlic, minced (optional)
Adapted from Gourmet, July 2001
1 (1/2-inch-thick) slice peeled fresh ginger
1/4 cup Asian sesame paste or smooth peanut butter
3 tablespoons Asian sesame oil
1/4 cup rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon Asian chile paste with garlic*
1/2 teaspoon salt
Blend all dressing ingredients in a blender until smooth. Dressing keeps, covered tightly and chilled, 1 week.