Delightful dumplings for the Chinese New Year

01/30/2014 12:00 AM

01/28/2014 1:32 PM

A neighbor invited me to prepare homemade Chinese dumplings one day. I was thrilled to learn how to make them, and they remain one of my favorite things to eat.

As a child, I frequented a restaurant with my family that specialized in dumplings. We always ordered several varieties of steamed dumplings. They came nestled on steamed greens such as cabbage.

The sauces were delicacies, too. I always enjoyed this weekly family adventure, but never realized the work that went into each tiny, hand-wrapped package of greatness.

My neighbor’s dumpling-making session was an all-day affair and that was the beauty of the process. While making dough together, we shared a wonderful conversation about our cultures. The long day of cooking fused our friendship, leading me to the belief that dumpling-making brings people closer together. And at the end, the enjoyment of the delicate, finger-fused dumplings is sort of like a victory party.

You can buy dumpling “skins” in small circles often labeled “wonton wrappers.” This is a good option if you want to speed things up. Later, you can try making the dough from scratch and go the whole nine yards.

The key is not to do this alone. It’s much more fun and productive with help, and you will yield a lot more dumplings if you have many fingers at work. Here’s an adaptation of my neighbor’s lesson with some changes and options.

Packaging up the parcels

If you are making dough from scratch, divide the soft dough into small, round pieces with your hand (these should be small round balls of dough that will roll out thinly to about 3 inches in diameter). Use a small, floured rolling pin and roll out the rounds on a floured surface or piece of parchment paper.

Spoon about a tablespoon of pork stuffing/filling into the middle of the dough or wrapper. Now comes the part that takes a little practice: You are going to fold the dough up like you are making a mini-taco, crimping it shut with your fingers.

Sometimes, especially when you are using pre-made circular wrappers, you need just a touch of moisture from a damp towel or small cup of water. Moisten your fingers to pinch the dough closed, pushing all of the air out of the dumpling.

There are dumpling presses if you want a gadget for the job, but after you get the hang of making these by hand, the process moves fast. Dough made from scratch will close very quickly and easily because there is so much moisture in fresh dough. Regardless if the dough is homemade or not, try to crimp the edges in a regular pattern so that the dumpling will be tight and not fall apart when you are cooking it.

If you use store-bought dough rounds, pat on a little cornstarch and press or roll them out just a little to thin them before stuffing them. This will help them hold a little more filling and will produce tender, thin-skinned dumplings.

My Chinese friends can almost close a dumpling in the palm of their hands, not even using their fingers. This is a real art. I’m slower with the process but am improving because the more you make, the better you get at making them. If you make a few dumplings that fall apart in the water, laugh it off and celebrate the ones you made perfectly. Trust me, you’ll get better.

Cooking the dumplings

You can steam dumplings or saute them in a pan to produce the common “pan fried” variety, which are crispier on the outside. My friends floated their dumplings in boiling water. It is a very easy and fast way to crank them out. They will taste steamed, and they are hot and ready to eat. Just boil water on medium heat, then use a very large spoon to place the dumplings into the hot water, stirring them lightly. When the dumplings float to the surface, boil them about two to four minutes longer. Add 1 cup of cold water and let the pot come to a gentle boil again to ensure they are cooked. Put them in a strainer to remove all excess water and serve immediately.

A few weeks after my day of dumpling-making, I attempted the dish on my own using the pre-made dumpling circles, which produced great results. I didn’t have the terrific company I’d had with my first batch, but the dumpling dough circles were convenient and made a meal worthy of sharing with friends.

I’ve included a recipe for pork dumplings, which can be steamed or pan-sauteed. We boiled ours, and they were fabulous.

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