A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about reading Grace Young’s The Wisdom of The Chinese Kitchen and her ideas about being mindful in the kitchen, cooking as meditation. I was inspired. Her stories are really some of the best in food writing. I also bemoaned the fact that I had to buy a scale in that post and suffered a tragic beat down by scale-lovers on Twitter.
I get it. Scales rock. Please don’t write me anymore and tell me that.
Truth is, I rarely use my kitchen machinery. I don’t own a mixer anymore, since mine was maimed in a terrible house-moving accident, and oddly, was never replaced. I have a beautiful, fully tricked out food processor that only gets used when the woman next door borrows it. Still, it looks pretty and very technical sitting in my cupboard. I couldn’t even bring myself to buy a simple meat grinder for this Charcutepalooza challenge. I just wanted to drag out my big cheap cleaver that I bought at a knife store in Chinatown for $12 and have at it.
I like to make a mess. I like to eyeball it. I like porky hands. I realize this is weird, and not conducive to order, ease of preparation or even success in cooking. But it is, I think, good times in the kitchen. So, for the grinding challenge this month, I hand-chopped a boneless pork loin into a pulpy, fleshy pile of meat shards and made Kian Lam Kho’s Pork & Chinese Chives Pot Stickers.
No, pot stickers are not sausages, technically. But the challenge this month was grinding and seasoning. Grinding is a primer for all kinds of sausage-making. It’s about getting to know the meat, taking it apart, breaking it down into little fatty pieces, feeling it and watching it go from one form to another under your eye and tutelage. Then, it’s getting the seasoning right, playing with those spices, tasting, reflecting and tasting again. Kitchen mindfulness at it’s best. In Cathy’s words, the insides of a pot sticker are the same as the insides of a sausage. It’s ground meat and seasonings. Revelation.
The hand-chopping was so fun, I watched an evening of YouTube videos in French – didn’t understand a word – and decided I wanted to make steak tartare next, which is always hand-chopped to get that sinewy, corpulent texture that feels both buttery and slightly knotty in your mouth. And then, I watched Chef Hubert Keller hand-chopping his burgers on Chow and decided I wanted to make all our burgers this summer from hand-chopped meat. I wouldn’t have gotten that from a meat grinder. It’s all in the porky hands, I tell you.
This recipe for pot stickers comes from Kian’s blog, Red Cook, which is up for a James Beard Foundation Award this year. And deservedly so. Both the dough and the fillings for these pot stickers are deceptively simple to make, but give yourself time and kitchen volunteers – making dumplings is always heavy on the labor, and if everyone is sitting around the kitchen, drinking something shamelessly alcoholic, and wrapping pork filling into pot sticker dough, well, that will really set the tone for the meal.
In Kian’s post he talks about the imperfections and joys of communal dining in Chinese culture, and one of the things I love best about this dish is that it can be a family dinner in every sense of the word – a platter of dumplings surrounded by dipping sauces, arms reaching across the table, no one politely stuck to their seats, all the requisite stories, squabbles, and if you have kids, the inappropriate use of chopsticks. Up your nose anyone?
Also, forming the dumplings elegantly is a learning curve. Kian has a great photo primer to get you started if you’ve never done it. My children’s dumplings always end up looking like vaginas, but over the years mine have looked less and less like genitalia, which proves patience truly pays off.
Preparation time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Rapid cooking time: 15 minutes
Hot Water Dough
2 cups flour
3/4 cup boiling water
1/4 cup cold water
Pork and Chinese Chives Stuffing
8 oz. ground pork
8 oz. Chinese chives (韭菜)
1/2 cup finely chopped scallion
1 teaspoon finely minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Put the flour in a mixing bowl and gradually add the boiling water while mixing the dough with wooden chopsticks or a wooden spoon. The hot water will slightly cook the flour and it will form lumps. Continue to mix for about half a minute then add the cold water. At this point start using your hands to knead the dough. It will be sticky initially. Knead the dough until it is elastic and smooth. Let the dough rest for about half an hour before use. Cover the dough with a damp cloth or seal it with plastic wrap.
Chop the garlic chives into small pieces of about 1/8 inch. Mix all the stuffing ingredients together and set aside.
Divide the dough into three equal portions. Roll each portion into a cylinder about 1/2 inch in diameter. Cut the cylinder into pieces about 1/2 inch wide. Roll the pieces into balls. Flatten the balls into rounds and roll them into wrappers with a Chinese rolling pin. When rolling the wrapper use one hand to roll the pin back and forth, while using the other to push the round dough under the rolling pin. Turn the dough about one quarter turn just after the rolling pin presses down on the dough. Repeat until the dough becomes a thin round wrapper. Fill with about 1 tablespoon of stuffing. Pleat the edges into a crescent shape dumpling and press to seal.
You will need a thin Chinese rolling pin of about one inch in diameter to roll the wrappers. It is often available in Chinatown markets or from mail order outlets. You can use a regular baking rolling pin but manipulating the wrappers under this thicker bulky version can be tricky.
Pour about 1/8 inch layer of vegetable oil in a frying pan then arrange the dumplings in the cold oil. It is fine to arrange the dumplings touching each other. Fry the dumplings on medium heat for about one minute. Add 1/2 cup of warm water to the pan and cover. Let steam for about three minutes or until all the water has evaporated. Uncover the pan and let the bottom of the dumplings continue to brown. As they brown they will loosen from the pan and can be flipped onto a plate. Serve with thinly shredded ginger in Chinkiang black vinegar.