Monday, February 14, 2011

Sweet day

If it were up to me, the only gift acceptable or traditional on Valentine's Day would be chocolate. Just try eating roses, diamonds or lingerie. Well, maybe I should leave the latter off the list. There are purportedly edible versions, BUT ...lingerie isn't really a gift for the recipient anyway.

Here's to chocolate.

My husband bought me the chocolate pictured. He knows me. Sweet.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Wrapping up another year (dumpling recipe)

These dumplings tasted delicious in spite of improper folding.

Gong xi fa cai, xin nian kuai le, or happy new year, everyone!
The eve of the Chinese New Year found the family and me snowbound. The only thing I forgot to pick up before the storm was a package of dumplings, or jiao zi, for our dinner to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Rabbit.

That's almost like forgetting the stuffing or dressing to go with the Thanksgiving turkey. Heck, it may even be like forgetting the turkey in my home.

The only thing to do was make them from scratch, including the wrappers, or skins, for each dumpling. I've seen dumplings made, but when I was growing up my only contribution was eating the finished result. More recently, when I did make them occasionally, I usually bought a package of already-made wrappers. Oh, well. There's a first time for everything. I wasn't about to give up on my favorite traditional food for such an important holiday.

The filling was easy. In the refrigerator I had half a pound of ground pork that I originally planned to use in chili or empanadas. Pork was just what I needed for the dumplings, which I planned to pan fry until the bottoms were golden and crisp. When prepared that way, they are guo tie, or pot stickers. You can also steam them on a cabbage leaf or boil them. I like the crunchy bottom, so I fry them.

To go with the pork, I had some leeks (use garlic chives if you find them), napa cabbage and ginger. In the pantry were about 10 pounds of all-purpose flour, way more than enough to make the dough. The Year of the Tiger may have lashed us with a blizzard on its way out, but even if the weather outside was frightful, the food was so delightful.

Pork Dumpling Recipe (Guo Tie)
Makes 20 to 24

1 cup chopped napa cabbage
1/2 pound ground pork
1 cup chopped leek
2 Tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger root
2 Tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
1 Tablespoon rice wine
1 Tablespoon corn starch

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 to 3/4 cup warm water


1. For filling, sprinkle a little salt over the chopped cabbage and let sit about 15 minutes. Squeeze cabbage in your fist over a cup or bowl to extract excess liquid. Discard the liquid. Mix all filling ingredients in a large bowl, cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator until ready to use.

2. For wrappers, put flour in a large mixing bowl, mix water in and knead to get a moist but not sticky dough. I had to use 1/2 cup plus 2 1/2 Tablespoons water. The amount you need to get a dough that will hold together may vary, depending on the type of flour you use. King Arthur all-purpose, flour, for example, has a higher protein content than something like White Lily brand. Lower protein flours may not soak up as much water.

3. Cut the dough in 2 or 3 strips, roll into logs, about an inch and a half thick, and slice into 1/2-inch thick "coins." On a floured surface, roll out the pieces into circles about 3 inches in diameter. Lightly dust with flour. (My first several circles stuck together because I just piled them on a plate. I was able to separate the ones I later floured.) Place wrappers on a plate and cover with a damp (not wet) kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out.

4. To fill the dumplings, put about 1 Tablespoon of filling in center of wrapper, fold wrapper into half circle, pressing center of outer edges together. Pleat one side, pressing the pleated edge to the unpleated edge as you go. (The pleated edge should be on the outside curve of the dumpling. You might want to look at someone else's until I can make another batch and take more pictures. I pleated this batch backward. Hey, cut me some slack. I shoveled snow for two hours.) Lightly flour bottom of dumpling and place on plate. Cover with damp towel to prevent drying. Repeat with rest of wrappers. This recipe should make roughly 20 dumplings. Dumplings can be frozen at this point, and cooked later.

5. To pan fry dumplings, heat 2 Tablespoons peanut oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Arrange dumplings bottom down, pleats up, in pan. Allow to sizzle half a minute to a minute, then add 1/2 cup water to the pan and cover immediately. When water has evaporated, add another 1/2 cup water. When water has evaporated a second time, continue cooking dumplings until the bottoms are golden (their shape is supposed to suggest that of gold ingots as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year). Place a large plate upside down over dumplings, and holding plate in place, invert the pan so that the dumplings are bottoms up on the plate. (Please do this with care to avoid unfortunate incidents such as burning yourself or dropping a heavy skillet on your foot. Oh, and try not to drop dumplings on the floor.)

Serve with dipping sauce of your choice.

Sauce that I use:

Dipping Sauce Recipe

1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons black vinegar
2 Tablespoons water
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
green portion of one scallion, chopped (or some chopped fresh cilantro)
1/2 teaspoon sriracha (pepper sauce) or chili flakes, optional

Place all ingredients in a small bowl and mix.

You may also like: Mom, Mooncakes and the Mid-Autumn Festival

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Soup dreams

A blizzard is whipping the house, it's effectively 4 degrees below zero outside with the wind chill, and the family and I are relaxing. We don't have to be on the roads, and there's plenty of food to keep us fed for a couple weeks.

Not so long ago I was one of those people who rushed to the supermarket the day before a major storm (or even after the deluge of flakes started) to grab what I could for the next couple of days.

Since then, I've learned to keep some staples in the kitchen, not because Mother Nature might trap me at home but because having a full pantry makes life easier. (And, yes, when a storm blasts in, I don't have to rush to the supermarket to scavenge supplies.)

When I'm not inspired to make anything particular or I haven't had time to do my regular shopping I can still have a good meal. Sometimes it's a burrito stuffed with beans, rice and leftover meat or vegetables; sometimes it's a pasta salad bright with lemon vinaigrette and roasted red peppers; sometimes it's soup. Homemade soup tastes better than the stuff sold in cans, and even a non-cook can make it pretty easily. A bonus is it's more healthful.

Just yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services announced the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, saying that we as a nation need to eat fewer calories, less salt, less added sugars, and more vegetables, fruits and whole grains. When it comes to salt, processed foods, especially most ready-to-eat soups, are big offenders.

Not only do most canned soups contain a lot of sodium per serving, the serving size printed in small type on the back of the can doesn't reflect what people normally consume. For instance, those microwavable bowl-like containers of soup that people take to work look like a single serving. One "bowl," one serving, right? Nope. But who eats just half or shares the bowl with a co-worker? So when figuring the amount of sodium you get from one of those, you may as well double the number on the label, which means you've consumed more than 800 milligrams in a low-sodium soup, or more than 1500 milligrams in a bowl of regular soup, exceeding some people's recommended maximum for an entire day under the USDA guidelines.

You can control the salt.
Make your own soup instead.

Last night, we had lentil soup (very similar to my lentil stew) with braised lamb shanks, which give a wonderful flavor to the soup. If I weren't using the lamb shanks, I'd probably brown some sausage (merguez or chorizo would work), good bacon or pancetta and use that as the meat component. Or you could skip the meat and use vegetable stock in place of water. Except for the lamb, all the ingredients are things I keep on hand.

Among the things I nearly always have: dried split peas and lentils (green and red), canned and dried beans, noodles, rice, all-purpose flour, canned fish (sardines, tuna and wild red salmon), canned tomatoes, canned coconut milk, peanut butter, chicken or vegetable stock, frozen vegetables, fresh carrots, potatoes, onions, shallots, scallions, ginger root, lemon or lime, and, of course, soy sauce, olive oil, butter and some vinegar. What kinds of pantry staples do you keep around? Or what do you like to make when the weather outside is frightful?

Lentil Soup With Braised Lamb Shanks Recipe
Serves 4

2 Tablespoons butter
2 lamb shanks

one medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 cup good red wine
4 cups water
1/2 cup to 1 cup tomato sauce (I use leftover sauce, but you can use canned chopped tomatoes or tomato puree and add some of your own oregano or basil, etc. if you want)

1 cup French green lentils* (about 8 ounces, or half a pound), picked through and rinsed

4 lemon wedges, to squeeze over each bowl, optional


1. Melt butter over medium-high heat in a heavy 4 quart pot or high-sided 12-inch pan (whichever is large enough to hold the shanks). If butter starts to burn, lower heat. Season shanks with salt** and pepper and place in pan, browning on all sides. Don't worry about browning the entire surface perfectly. You just want some browning for flavor. Remove shanks to a plate.

2. With heat on medium to medium low, saute onion, celery and carrot until onion pieces turn translucent. It's okay if edges start to turn golden, but you don't want to burn the vegetables. Stir in garlic and thyme, letting them cook about a minute.

3. Add wine, water and tomato sauce to pan, scraping any brown bits from bottom. Stir in lentils, then return shanks to pan along with any meat juices. Bring soup to boil, then reduce heat to lowest setting, cover and let simmer until lamb is cooked, about an hour and a half.

4. Remove meat from shanks, pull apart or cut into pieces and return to soup. Discard bones. 

*French green lentils tolerate the long cooking time without turning to mush.
**When you salt food, be aware that one half teaspoon contains about 1200 milligrams of sodium. Also keep in mind that some ingredients, such as canned tomatoes or tomato sauce, usually contain added salt.
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