And you thought I was a vegetarian…

Ahhh, the meal I’m about to describe is so far away from vegetarian, it’s not even funny. I’m not saying meat is bad, by any means. A lot of people think I’m vegetarian though, but this is proof that alas, I am not. I’m an omnivore. This is a tribute to all the pigs in this world. You are delicious. Even funny, crazy parts from your body are somehow porky and delectable, and can be used to create some amazingly tasty creations. Especially, in dumpling form.

This post is a little different for a couple of reasons:

a.) This cooking adventure was not done solo, but done in the company of good friends. One of these friends was the designated photographer and was able to capture a ton of pictures in the process (thanks Kate!). Hence, the loads of pictures in this blog post…

b.) I’ve been inspired by another blog, Hyperbole and Half: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/
They have the most amazing illustrations that are sooooo funny and clever. Check it out! I attempted some of my own illustrations to include in this tale. DISCLAIMER: There’s a reason I chose not to become an artist in life. I must admit though, there’s something satisfying about picking up those Crayola crayons again, so illustrations might become a regular component in my future blog posts…

The inspiration to embark on a mission to make soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, came from a dinner conversation I had a few weeks ago while eating dinner with friends at the Rabbit Hole at the Midtown Global Market. This was just after my self-inflicted food challenges were completed. I was seeking some more kitchen fun, and so I added this to the bucket list hoping to do it someday… This “someday” happened to be in the not-so-distant future on my first vacation day of the year, which was well-spent. And I invited the same friends to help with the soup dumpling prep and consumption. And boy, am I glad that I ended up doing this with friends, since it was a very involved process! If I would have done it alone, I probably would have ended up on the kitchen floor in the fetal position covered in flour, pork juices and tears (from taking so long). This was very much a group meal, and best completed in assembly line fashion.

Prior to our dumpling night, I received some “research material” on some promising recipes. I took bits and pieces from each of the two to make my own recipe.

http://steamykitchen.com/88-xiao-long-bao-shanghai-steamed-soup-dumplings.html
http://thewanderingeater.com/2013/02/28/soup-dumplings-aka-xiao-long-bao-小笼包-the-recipe/

I decided to support the pig in this one, and do pork-based dumplings. My first mission was to hunt down some pork bones and pork skin for the broth. Ingredients that you certainly don’t use on a daily basis or see at your normal grocery store… I imagine a pig would be very delighted that we would choose to focus on pork as the main component and backbone of our dish.

A pig striking a pose laying on his Napa cabbage leaf bed. Happy about life, and pretty much everything.

I decided United Noodle would be the best store to track down some of these more interesting ingredients. Approaching the meat section, I found that the case was nicely labeled with chicken, beef and pork.

All options under the sun, practically. Chicken, beef and pork. And lamb.

Looking in the chicken section, I came across chicken feet!

So many chicken feet.

And beef tripe…

Mmmm mmmm mmmm.

And looking more closely in the pork section…

Pork!

Pork stomach, no thank you.

Pig tummy

Pork feet…

Pass. Imagine where these feet have been…

I ended up settling on pork femur bones and pigs ears. Pigs ears.

My purchases. These cuts are cheap!

Now remember that happy pig in my first illustration. I’m sure that pig likes the thought of having pork be the focal point of the dish, but I’m certain he doesn’t like the actual idea of being mutilated and eaten.

Highly dramatic illustration…

Now that I had procured my special porky ingredients, it was time to make the broth. I made this a night ahead of the soup dumpling party. First off, I want to point out that although my broth had great flavor and tasted very porky, it did not turn out according to plan. I’ll explain what I did first, and then what I would do to improve it next time.

In a pot, add 1 pig ear (0.25 lb), 1.25 lb pork femur bones, 1 quart of water, 2 scallions roughly sliced, 2 peeled garlic cloves, a 1 inch piece of ginger sliced into large coins, and a hearty shake of red pepper flakes.

Top: grasping the pig ear with tongs because there was no way that I would EVER grab them with my fingers. They just seem so recognizable… Bottom: Pot loaded with some tasty ingredients.

Note, it won’t seem like there’s a lot of water relative to the other solid ingredients. That’s okay. Bring the broth to a boil and then bring it down to simmer for 3 hours. It’s very important to not have it boiling, since the objective is to release the gelatin from the collagen and not break the released gelatin down into amino acids. Gelatin will form the structure via gelling, of the broth upon cooling. This will enable us to add the “soup” to the dumpling wrapper without having to handle a liquidy mess. Or that’s the objective anyways…

After 3 hours of cooking on the stovetop, I strained out the solids (and promptly threw them into the garbage can outside) and poured the strained broth into a shallow pan and covered overnight. I held my breath all night, hoping that it would set up.
The first thing I did the next morning was walk down to my fridge to take a peek at the broth and give the pan a little shake. Unfortunately, it did not gel completely and there were still some very soupy parts. Panic crept in. I decided to freeze the broth as a backup plan.
Next time, I will add more bones relative to water. Maybe try some chicken parts? Feet perhaps? I will also try simmering for a longer period of time. We talked about possibly pouring the broth into small cube trays for ease. And also experimenting with flavors. Maybe make a spicy broth? And a sweet broth? And a … broth? I’m sure there will be a next time because I still have two pigs ears in my freezer to use up…
Next up for dumpling preparations were the dumpling skins. Thankfully, I had assistance on this task because I hate, hate, hate flour messiness. Which is why I hate baking. Kym took one for the team.
Icky floury sticky hands.

We weighed out 1 lb all purpose flour and 1 lb cake flour, and poured onto a clean countertop. The flours were roughly mixed by hand and then a well was formed at the center. Into this well, we added 2 c water (at roughly body temperature), and the hand mixing continued.

Hard to tell, but the “dam” broke and the water broke free onto the floor. Oops.

More water was added so that a soft dough was formed that was stretchy when pulled. We ended up using about 2.5-3 c water in total. The dough was covered in plastic wrap and allowed to rest for 20 minutes.

This ball of dough is apparently supposed to make 48 dumplings… We crushed that number.

After the resting period, the dough was ready to be portioned out and rolled into cute little circles (sometimes, not so perfect circles and more like squares, or ghosts or butternut squash, or dough with a sad face).

Sad dough.

With a knife, the dough was portioned off into small pieces. The recipe said 1.25 oz, but we were winging it. See image below for rough size approximation…

Portioning off the dough.

Ensure that the dough waiting to be portioned off is covered with a wet cloth in order to prevent it from drying out and rendering it unusable. Take the portioned pieces and use both hands to roll into a ball. Then roll out using a rolling pin or whatever cylinder is available in your kitchen (we used water bottles) to roll the dough into a circle that is about the thickness of two sheets of paper, or so. About 2-3″ in diameter. The thinner the better, we learned.

Now for the filling. You would have this prepped in advance before rolling out the dough. To a large bowl, add 1 lb ground pork, a splash of xiao xing wine, salt, grated ginger (1″ish piece), 4 minced garlic cloves, a splash of soy sauce, some garlic chili sauce, and ~4 chopped green onions. Before mixing, add the broth. The broth that I made was still very liquidy (despite freezing for ~1 hour), so I basically just poured it in and then blended everything. Ideally, it would be set up nicely, so you would either run a fork through it in two directions to break it up into chunks or you could cube it. The idea is to make sure that there is always both broth and filling in each dumpling.

I would say that one thing we agreed on was that loads of garlic was necessary. Sadly, I revealed my lousy garlic prep skills, and I will forever be the laughing stock till the end of time. I like to carefully peel the outer skin off before mincing, which takes some time… After a minute or so, I declared that I had one finished. The 3 or 4 remaining cloves were promptly taken from me and prepped by a more skilled chef. If I had a tail, it would most certainly have been between my legs at that very moment. I’m expecting a new “workout” to be added to my upcoming training routine. Something along the lines of peeling 100 cloves of garlic, mincing it, and then recording my time…

Kym making the delicious filling
Filling before adding in the broth.

There was one last component to make prior to assembly. The sauce! In a bowl we added soy sauce (main component), some rice vinegar, 2 cloves of minced garlic and sliced ginger.

And then it was time for dumpling assembly! It eventually worked out the best to have two people rolling out the dough, one person assembling the dumplings, and one person to monitor the steam baskets on the stove top.

To assemble the dumplings, a scoop of filling was taken and placed at the center of the dumpling wrapper. It was generally about 2 t of filling per wrapper. As mentioned before, it was critical to have both pork and broth in each wrapper. Our quality standards were quite low in the first round of dumpling prep since our broth was more like soup, and the soup was very hard to contain at the center of the wrapper. Also, some dumplings were devoid of pork… Or pork pieces anyways. Not good.

Scooping soupy filling into the center of a dumpling wrapper.

Holding the dumpling skin with filling in one hand, start pleating with the other hand. According to Chinese tradition, if you get 18 pleats, it signifies good luck. My goal, of course, was to get 18 pleats. I maybe got 18 2% of the time… It was particularly hard to be consistent with pleat # when the skins ranged in size. They were anywhere between 2-5″ in our first round of dumpling prep. Some individuals in the group chose to be overachievers and create a dumpling with 26 pleats. This was one of the monster dumplings.

Line steam basket bottoms with a layer of Napa cabbage. Spray the cabbage lightly with cooking spray prior to filling the baskets with dumplings. It’s best to make sure that the dumplings are spaced out adequately, so they don’t stick together after cooking.
Note: This is an example of what not to do. Some of the dumplings are too close together.

Add a small amount of water to a wok (or some sort of pan if you’re wokless), and bring to a boil. Insert the steam basket into the pan when the water comes to a boil, and steam for 9-10 minutes. It is very important to have a pitcher full of water near the stovetop, and to constantly make sure that the water is replenished and that the pan doesn’t go dry. When you smell something burning, you know you’re in trouble… It’s best to have someone manning the cook process, and at full attention to prevent this from happening.

Preparing the steam baskets.

When removing the dumplings from the basket, do not stack the dumplings. They WILL stick together, otherwise. It’s best to use the steamed Napa cabbage to separate the layers of dumplings. Vegetables are useful for something in this recipe!

This picture makes me happy. First dumplings out of the steam baskets!  And the pork isn’t raw!

We decided partway through when there was still lots of dough left, but lots of dumplings ready to be eaten, that it was time to eat!

Round 1 setup. Includes Glen’s delicious soba noodle salad.

Now for eating the dumplings… There is a process that one must stick to in order to have the most perfect dumpling experience. It is ideal to have what we called a “man bun” or “beak” on the top of the dumpling, so it’s easy to grab with chopsticks.

Supposed to read “man bun.” My generation isn’t good at handwritten tasks anymore, hence the illegible writing.

We’ll go with “beak” instead because I find it less disturbing. Anyways… you grab the beak with your chopsticks, set it on a spoon and then bite the beak off to expose a hole or cavity that the sauce can enter through. Then you eat it. Ideally, in one or two bites. To demonstrate the process in beak fashion:

Maybe another disturbing depiction of how one eats a dumpling.

I will say that eating the dumplings was quite the delicious and fun experience. Even after we finished eating all the dumplings, we managed to keep ourselves entertained for quite some time. For example:

The helpful chopstick bear ended up in the wine bottle somehow.

We even tried braiding our soba noodles using only our chopsticks. And then tying a knot for the ultimate challenge. It is definitely harder than it looks!

Soba noodles lined up for braiding preparations.
Glen’s braid! Impressive!
Never been so proud. Kym’s soba noodle knot.
If round one wasn’t enough, there was still another round of dumplings to be made and eaten…
The second round was more successful because we actually knew what we were doing this time around, but we were also more consistent. What else helped was the fact that we set the bowl of filling in the freezer while eating, so the broth was allowed to solidify so it wasn’t soupy like the first round. Some of it froze a little too well, so a broth chisel was needed. The broth to filling ratio was perfect in this round!
Beautiful broth spilling out of the dumpling into the spoon.
The second time around we also made sure that the dumpling skins were rolled out as thinly as possible, so they were less dense than the first round. Rolling them out thinner also meant that we made a lot more in the second round. The skin formers were also more consistent, which enabled me to be a better dumpling pleater.
Some people were happy when we were rolling out the last circle. Not me… I could pleat all day.
Glen’s holding the last ball of dough. Kym and Glen look tired. I’m just sad.

I imagine if the pigs in this world knew how tasty these dumplings were, and how much satisfaction we got from eating them, they would be okay with the whole butchering process. Right?? At least this is what I like to keep telling myself.

Pigs with missing appendages totally okay with humans eating them. The humans are so happy!

After my guests left, I decided to watch the season 3 finale of Downton Abbey and I was NOT okay with the ending. I don’t care if British actors and actresses have 3 year contracts, it’s not okay. I was instructed to “just remember the dumplings. Float to sleep on a cloud of dumplings.” And not just any dumplings, no. “Clouds of feathery, light dumplings with eighteen perfect pleats.” And let’s just say I did… P.S.: The illustration below shows a segmented me, sort of like an ant, on a cloud of dumplings. I’m not happy with this image of myself, so it’s likely to change. Most likely in animal form, since I can’t draw humans. Obviously.

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