Year of the Pig Dumplings

This weekend, the dog steps aside and makes way for the pig in the Chinese lunar calendar. Beginning Sunday, Feb. 18, it's Year 4705, or Year of the Pig. Gung hay fat choy! (That's Cantonese for Happy New Year, or literally, "May you become prosperous.")

In celebration of Chinese New Year and continuation of the long weekend, extra-kitchen-time theme, I present Weekend Project Option Number Two -- jiao-zi.

Say GEE OW ZE and you're not doing half bad pronouncing the word for the boiled dumplings eaten in northern China.

In an online chat on a few years ago, Chinese cookbook author Grace Young mentioned that "jiao-zi are typically cooked between midnight and 2 am New Year's Eve, so it is believed that you bring your wealth from the previous year into the new year."

Shaped like a coin or a gold or silver ingot to represent prosperity (or like a crescent moon), jiao-zi (also spelled as "jiaozi," without the hyphen) are typically filled with a highly seasoned ground pork mixture, boiled and dipped in a pungent sauce made of soy sauce and dark vinegar. When panfried, those jiao-zi become potstickers.

For direction, I referred to Grace's "The Breath of a Wok" which includes a recipe that she learned from renowned author Amy Tan and Tan's sisters. I studied the recipe, and it seemed easy enough, but to make sure I e-mailed Grace for any last-minute tips.

In her e-mail response, Grace agreed that the dough is fairly easy but offered the following advice:

Let the dough rest so the gluten isn't fighting you when you're trying to roll the dough.

I like a slender rolling pin (French style as opposed to the fat American ones) so I can see the little rounds of dough I'm rolling. And make sure you cover the dough and dumplings as you work so nothing dries out.

But most importantly, she wrote, "Drink a beer as you're forming and cooking the dumplings. This makes you less critical of your dumplings. But perfection does come with practice and time. "

Huh. I'll drink my share of a six-pack if it means better dumplings, I rationalized.

Before tackling the dough, however, I made the filling -- which I tested for seasoning by quickly browning a teaspoon in a skillet -- and the sauce, which needed at least an hour for the ginger to steep and to do its magic.

A simple mixture of flour and water, the dough is fairly manageable, so long as you allow it rest and keep it covered under a damp towel. It was just two of us on dumpling duty, but I could easily envision this as a group activity, as Grace suggested. "The dumplings get made faster, so you can sample as you make them," she wrote. "When my stomach has a few dumplings in it I'm a better dumpling maker. And you can make fun of everyone else's dumpling forming skills."

Ah yes, the dreaded dumpling forming skills, which proved to be only slightly better than remedial in our team of two. Our dumplings looked more like empanadas. Yikes. Maybe we should have been drinking more beer...

We carried on with our misshapen dumplings and dropped them into a wokful of salted boiling water. In about 12 minutes, our first batch of dumplings were ready for sampling.

The filling was just right -- and I loved the combination of the cabbage, ginger and pork. A meatball of sublime proportions. The pungent dipping sauce was a lovely complement, with a rich vinegary tang and lots of ginger that danced on our tongues. So far, so good.

Alas, the final component, the dough, did not fare as well. It was too thick, and as a result, too doughy in many places. We agreed to try again later this weekend.

I reported our doughy experiences to Grace and asked her how thin should I go on the second round. She cautioned me to exercise moderation and not to let the dough get too thin, like a wonton, or "dough will break and the filling will spill out."

And once again, she recommended having a beer by my side, so I'd quit worrying and just have fun. Sounds like a plan made in dumpling heaven.

If you're a veteran dumpling maker, share your tried-and-true tips in the comments area. Other ways to eat your way into the new year are also most welcome. Have a great weekend!

This just in: Grace has informed me that she will be making dumplings and other New Year's treats tomorrow morning on "The Early Show" on CBS.

Amy Tan's Family's Jiao-zi

From "The Breath of a Wok" by Grace Young

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading
8-10 leaves Napa cabbage
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
8 ounces ground pork
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon oyster sauce (optional)
Jin Do's Tangy Ginger Sauce (recipe follows)

Put flour in a medium bowl and make a well. Pour 3/4 cup cold water into the well and stir until mixture begins to pull away from sides of the bowl. Turn onto a work surface lightly dusted with flour, and knead about 5 minutes, adding more flour as necessary, until smooth. Cover with a slightly damp cloth and allow to rest, 30 minutes.

Trim 1/4 inch from stem end of cabbage leaves. Stack a few leaves at a time and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch wide shreds, then finely chop. In a medium bowl, combine cabbage, 1 teaspoon of salt and the sugar. In another bowl, combine pork, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine and oyster sauce. Add cabbage to pork and stir until well combined. Cover and refrigerate.

After dough has rested, knead on a lightly floured surface until elastic and smooth, 2 minutes. Roll dough into an even rope about 15 inches long. Cut rope into 1/2-inch pieces to make 30 pieces. Roll each piece into a 1-inch-ball, then patting into discs. Cover all unused dough with a slightly damp cloth.

Using a floured rolling pin, roll out each disc, until 3 1/2 inches in diameter.

Put 1 level tablespoon filling in center of each round. Fold round in half to form a half moon. Pinch one end together. Starting at this end, use thumb and index finger to make a pleat in top piece of dough, and press it firmly into bottom piece, until dumpling is completely closed. Place dumplings on a tray dusted with flour.

In a flat-bottomed wok or 4 quart stew pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil, covered, over high heat. Once water comes to a boil, add remaining 2 teaspoons salt and half the jiao-zi, returning to a boil over high heat, stirring gently with a wooden spoon. Add 1 cup cold water and return to a boil.

Boil about 5 minutes or until pork is no longer pink and cooked through. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in a bowl. Serve with dipping sauce.

Tangy Ginger Sauce

In a bowl, add:
3 tablespoons finely minced or grated ginger
1/3 cup Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons sugar

Stir to combine and allow to sit for at least 1 hour before serving.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 16, 2007; 11:27 AM ET Chinese New Year , Wok Cookery
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Ah, the power of beer....

Posted by: OML | February 16, 2007 11:43 AM

Hey Kim, This sounds like fun! I always order and scarf down an order of dumplings every time we get Chinese take out. I'd love to make some at home. I don't quite understand the directions for sealing them up, though. What does it mean to "make a pleat" in the top piece of dough? Could you maybe post a picture of what they should look like? Thanks!

Posted by: Phoebe | February 16, 2007 12:45 PM

I don't know what Kim did, but I can tell you what I do -- you put the meat in the center of the dumpling, line one side with a little water with your finger, then seal it up so it looks like a semi circle. Then you fold the sealed edge of the dumpling back and forth like an accordian, crimping it together so that instead of a half circle, you have a little pleated coin purse.

If you pleat the top too tightly (think of a closed paper fan), then you have a hard little bit of noodle to eat after it's done. If you crimp the top too losely, then the dumpling falls apart. You want to do it kind of in between. Does this help some?

Posted by: Rita | February 16, 2007 12:53 PM

Buying frozen dumplings at the monster Asian grocery is a lot easier

Posted by: bigolpoofter | February 16, 2007 12:57 PM

we have always added a little chili oil to the sauce. must not be authentic, but sure is good!

Posted by: comstock load | February 16, 2007 2:38 PM

Kim, how about a vegetarian version of the filling - seitan, you think?

Posted by: Reine de Saba | February 16, 2007 3:23 PM

We've made vegetarian versions of dumplings by substituting scrambled eggs or egg whites for the ground pork. The key to the filling is to make it all stick together, so it's hard to do a vegan version, but I imagine a firm tofu and a little bit cornstarch might work.

Also, when making dumplings, be sure not to overstuff the wrappers! This is especially important for beginners. Put an amount that's about half the size of the wrapper (in diameter) in the center of the wrapper. As you get more experienced in folding them, you can add more filling.

At home, we also whisk an egg and use that to moisten the edges of the wrapper; it helps the wrapper stay together.

Happy New Year!

Posted by: Kate | February 16, 2007 4:02 PM

Oh, and if there are leftover jiao-zi, you can lightly fry them--do one side, then the other. Ta-da, potstickers! They're actually a pretty good brunch food!

Posted by: Kate | February 16, 2007 4:07 PM

I have a question somewhat related to this topic, if only because you cook these in a pot... I received a Hamilton Beach stockpot as a gift. It says do not use over high heat. So how do I bring things to a boil? Is it specially made to heat things that high at a lower stove temperature? Or should I return it/sell it on ebay and get a stock pot from somewhere else? Any recommendations?

Posted by: jp | February 17, 2007 8:18 AM

I've made pot stickers following Martin Yan's instructions: Heat a little oil in a heavy skillet, place the dumplings in it and fry till lightly brown. Then add some water and cover the skillet letting them steam until cooked and most of the water is gone. continue cooking till nicely brown on the bottom. One less pan to clean!

Posted by: Fran | February 17, 2007 10:56 AM

Kim - I have tried unsuccessfully to make dumplings before but decided to try again. I'm very pleased with the outcome so thank you for the explicit directions. They don't look perfect (I had my husband help fold) but they taste just fine. I'll definitely do them again. I enjoy your chats/blogs and frequently use your ideas and recipes. thanks so much.

Posted by: eidebc | February 18, 2007 4:45 PM

You don't have to return the stock pot. You can get water to boil at low to medium heat. It will just take longer.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | February 21, 2007 2:54 PM

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