Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Andrea Nguyen: Asian Dumplings

The real magic occurs in cookbooks where the author has something to say, not just something to sell.

Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More offers an education about a continent's snacks and meals.  Avoid the celebrity cookbooks and learn instead to make everything from Indian samosas to Filipino desserts, from dumplings filled with soup to steamed buns stuffed with pork.  Nguyen teaches technique, and she opens a series of mouth-watering doors -- foods that I have never cooked and that really taste like the Asian restaurants that I love.

Asian Dumplings is a book of projects. This isn't Jack Bishop's ideas for weeknight vegetables. Nguyen has instructions for dough, diagrams for dumpling folding, and dozens of recipes that run for two pages of text. The steamed buns recipe is actually a reference to three other recipes -- a basic yeast dough, a barbecued pork, and a pork filling that you make from the barbeque.  In the wrong hands, this could have been a quaint book about Chinese grandmothers or a fussy volume clogged with detail.  But Nguyen applies a professional writer's eye to explain how to make dumplings and why you would want to try.  Perfect for any modern cook with a little time to prepare ahead. My first project was Shanghai soup dumplings, and they're worth every minute -- plus $20 for the book. I served swirled dumplings in ceramic Chinese spoons. They burst when you bite them, and soup pours into your spoon. It's just fun to spoon out Nguyen's little packets and watch people smile.
To get those smiles, you should plan on at least a long afternoon because almost every recipe has stages to "prepare" and then to "assemble and cook."  For the Shanghai dumplings, you make a small batch of chicken soup that you solidify with agar-agar. Then, you make a simple dough, roll out the dumpling wrappers, and create a filling with ground pork and your jellied soup. It's a lot of steps, but it works because Nguyen explains each one in clear, straightforward text. Read front to back, the book would be repetitive, but that is because Nguyen breaks everything into digestible steps.  Everything Nguyen predicts comes true -- like when the steamed bun dough would coalesce in the food processor.  All my missteps were actually subjects that Nguyen had highlighted, but I had overlooked -- like slicing the parchment paper so that steam flows to every level.

The beauty of Nguyen's book is that she teaches a few basic skills -- like how to rolling out dumplings and how to steam properly -- that you can apply to everything from appetizers to dessert.  Steamed, boiled, baked or fried.  Pork, shrimp or vegetarian.  There are headliner recipes like the Shanghai soup and some relatively simple ones that you could make and freeze.  By the third recipe, I had picked up the pointers, and everything went faster.  Nguyen emphasizes when you can make ahead, and she celebrates simple ways to incorporate dumplings -- served with a simple vegetables or dropped into soup.  She clearly spent months figuring out recipes and then thinking artfully about how people both would follow each step and would use these dumplings in a modern life.

You can also use shortcuts.  I bought a bottle of Lee Kum Kee char siu sauce when I despaired of buying entire bottles of hoisin and five spice powder for the char siu pork.  I bought Twin Marquis refrigerated wrappers for New Year's Eve pork and cabbage dumplings.  Neither sang like Nguyen's recipes, but they did cut down my work.  The water dumplings became an easy meal where I just assembled the filing, then folded dumplings while my pot of water boiled.

Asian Dumplings is a perfect book for people exploring the local Asian markets like the H Mart or Super Grand.   This is your chance to use agar agar in soup, napa cabbage in water dumplings, and rice flour in noodle sheets like you see at Shin Chon Garden.  Nguyen recommends specific brands, which I find very helpful.  So far, I have found all the food in H Mart or Lotte except for Shaoxing rice wine.  I shopped at the Hanoori Home Plaza next to the H Mart for a metal steamer, the Chinese soup spoons, and the thin rolling pin that Nguyen recommends for dumpling dough.  (If you're shopping for the cook in your life, the book and those items would make an excellent gift basket.)

In the end, I recommend Asian Dumplings because I want to cook something new every time that I flip through the book.  The steamed buns stuffed with pork could have come right from Asian Court's dim sum.  The steamed bun was soft, but dry in the perfectly authentic fashion.  My one complaint was that the sauce was a little drier than I have had before.  Next time, I will look for a slightly fattier cut of pork and dice it into smaller pieces.

Typing out one recipe here won't replicate Nguyen's book because she will actually teach you how to make the dough and roll out each wrapper.  Even the recipe below omits much of Nguyen's useful details -- which you can see in part with this PDF showing how to fold "closed satchel" dumplings.  But it should give you a flavor:
Pork and Napa Cabbage Water Dumplings

Note: I used Twin Marquis dumpling wrappers from the refrigerated section of the H Mart.  I found ground pork at Whole Foods in Silver Spring. Harris Teeter did not carry it, although I expect you could find it at the Asian grocery stores. I have not found Shaoxing rice wine, so I used sake.  Nguyen recommends dry sherry.

2 c. lightly-packed finely chopped napa cabbage
1/2 tsp plus scant 1/2 tsp salt
1 TBL minced ginger
1/4 c. chopping Chinese chives or scallions (white and green parts)
2/3 pound ground pork, fattier kind preferred, coarsely chopped
1/8 tsp ground white pepper
1/4 c. chicken stock or water
1 1/2 TBL light (regular) soy sauce
1 TBL Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 TBL canola oil
1 1/2 TBL sesame oil

One package dumpling wrappers (or homemade ones if you buy Nguyen's book)
Dipping sauce -- maybe a mix of soy sauce, rice vinegar and ginger.

Toss the cabbage in a bowl with 1/2 tsp salt. Set aside for 15 minutes to draw out moisture and drain over a strainer. Flush with water and drain again. Squeeze the cabbage to wring out moisture.

Make the filling by mixing the cabbage, ginger, chives/scallions and pork. Use a fork to stir and lightly mash the ingredients so that they come together.

In a small bowl, mix the remaining ingredients, then pour them over the pork and cabbage mixture. Stir to blend the ingredients into a cohesive, thick mixture. There should not be any visible large chunks of pork. Let flavors develop for 30 minutes. You should have about two cups, and you can refrigerate a day ahead if you bring it to room temperature before assembling dumplings.

Line a baking pan with parchment paper. Take a wrapper in your palm, add filing and leave a half-inch around the edges. (If you're using the Twin Marquis wrappers, use a wet finger to dampen the wrapper edges.)  Fold the wrapper so that the edges meet. Press the edges to seal. Gently push the dumpling down on the work surface to steady and flatten. These can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for a few hours or even frozen, then stored in a zip-top bag.

Bring a half-filled pot of water to boil. Add half the dumplings and nudge them with a wooden spoon to keep them from sticking. Return the water to a simmer and gently cook. Don't use a hard boil. Cook the dumplings for about 8 minutes or until they float to the surface, look glossy, and are puffed up and a tad translucent. Use a skimmer to scoop dumplings from the pot. Cover dumplings. Cook the second half, then return the first batch to the hot water to reheat for a minute or two.

Serve hot dumplings immediately with a dipping sauce.
(Update: For another Nguyen recipe, check out the Korean American Mommy blog and its beautiful photos of a panfried pork and scallion bun.)

For more about Asian foods, check out my post about Asian grocery stores. Or check out all my posts about cookbooks.  If you know where to find Shaoxing rice wine, please post a comment below.  Nguyen mentions it in dozens of recipes.  She was actually nice enough to email me that dry sherry is a fine substitute.  But I'm infatuated with Shaoxing now, and I came up empty at the H Mart, Lotte and a Korean-owned liquor store.

You can borrow Asian Dumplings from the Howard County library, where I first found the book after Lisa recommended it.  Afterwards, the publisher sent me a review copy.  Or you can buy either book on Amazon through this link (which means Amazon would pay me a referral fee):


kat said...

I've loved soup dumplings since I was a kid. I'll definitely check out the book -- thanks for this!

Tip: Some restaurants use one or two leaves of lettuce (I've seen romaine and Napa cabbage in restaurants) to line the steamers instead of parchment paper. You can leave enough gaps to let the steam through, and the dumplings won't stick to them. It's less wasteful, especially if you know someone who likes eating steamed leafy greens after the dumplings are gone.

Lisa said...

Your Shanghai soup dumplings look great! How were you able to wrap them so nicely? My skins were very, very thin and I had problems (a) wrapping the fillings tightly and (b) keeping the broth/gelatin stuff solid while wrapping. As a result, the yummy broth ended up coming out all over the place during steaming. :)

You'll probably have better luck finding shaoxing at the Chinese grocery stores in Rockville (Maxim or Kam Sam). An alternate spelling is "shao hsing".

One other tip: this stuff is awesome in dumpling sauce. Should be able to find it at Chinese groceries stores, if not also at the Korean ones.

HowChow said...

@ Lisa -- Thanks again for recommending the book. Those dumplings were beginners luck -- and closely following the book's directions. The first few wrappers were actually too thick. I also made the broth a day ahead, so it was nicely refrigerated and firm when I went to make the dumplings. I'm going to try those Chinese stores next time that I'm in Rockville.

Lisa said...

@HowChow: You're welcome! It appears you're a natural Chinese cook -- those soup dumplings are supposed to be really hard to make!

My husband and I also seem to remember getting ShaoXing at HMart (Catonsville) -- I'll check again next time we're there (they might have stopped carrying it). I think it was in the soy sauce/sesame oil aisle.

Anonymous said...

The Asia Supermarket in Catonsville on Route 40, across St. Agnes Church, sells ShaoXing. The place, from an outfit out of NYC I was told, was hopping over the holiday as Chinese families lined up for whole roast duck at the prepared foods counter.

Lisa said...

Was just at Lotte (at Rte 40) tonight. We found some Shao Xing in Aisle 3, where they have the soy sauces and Chinese cooking wines (at the end of the aisle closest to the cash registers).

HowChow said...

@Lisa -- That is great. I swear that I looked and asked people there. Could you send me a cell phone photo of the bottle/label?

Rachel said...

Our local Safeway (Northern Baltimore City) always has ground pork and shaoxing (in the "ethnic" isle) so you might want to check a Safeway. Also most grocery stores will grind pork for you if you ask.

I am not sure which H Mart you went to but the one on Rt. 40 generally has at least 5 different brands of shaoxing.

Billz said...

Great call on the wonders of dumplings, in all their varieties. But I'm lazy and want some of the interesting ones at restaurants. Does anyone offer soup dumplings? In this age of tapas and small plates, why not a restaurant that features dumplings from around the world?

Anonymous said...

hunan express on marshalee drive in elkridge has THE BEST steamed dumplings. i go for the veggie ones. doughy, thick dumplings filled with steamed cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, etc. and a tasty, sweet and thin plum sauce. they come six to an order for $3.95. i grew up nearby, and my two sisters and i now live further away but all of us will drive up to 30 mins just to get take out there. i also recommend the morengo delight -- sweet plum sauce with peanuts, shrimp and chicken. spicy and very good.