Potstickers

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The Chinese-speaking are, verbally, a very literal folk. Consider the “potsticker.”

Silly name aside, this particular recipe for pork, chive and cabbage dumplings is one I take great pride in since it is a family recipe. There are, of course, as many pork dumpling recipes as there are families in China, but I have never, ever come across another dumpling that tastes quite like my family’s. In my mind’s eye, I can picture the four of us–my parents, my sister and myself–diligently stuffing and folding a ridiculous mountain of dumplings which are then frozen in batches and thawed out throughout the year whenever a quick meal is needed. When my sister and I were younger, we’d often just goof around and make silly shapes like stars, flat empanada-looking things, or experiment with putting way too many folds in one dumpling.

It wasn’t until my last year of college that I was struck with an urge to make dumplings myself. Despite all my early memories about dumplings, I really didn’t know specifically what went into them.  All I knew was that they involved wrappers, pork, cabbage…and what else? Since my parents had moved back to Asia by this point, I turned to my sister who was still living in the same time zone for advice. But it turns out that the ingredients list was pretty hazy in her mind as well. Additionally, it was during this conversation that I was introduced to my family’s favorite culinary unit of measurement: “some.” I had called her wanting to know: how much soy sauce? “Some.” Black pepper? “A bit.” White pepper? “A pinch.” Which seasonings to use?  “Whatever flavor you feel like!”

Frustrated, I threw a bunch of ingredients in a bowl and mixed. And added stuff. And mixed some more. I kept iterating until–all of a sudden–it was right! But how did I know? I certainly didn’t find out by taste, since the filling is raw meat, and I and the FDA really don’t advise that you test the filling by sampling it uncooked. It turns out, though, that the key was in the smell. At some point during mixing, I took a deep whiff and all of a sudden I was transported back through my memory to the house I grew up in, practicing the piano and smelling the scent of potsticker filling wafting over from my mom’s mixing bowl as she puttered around the house. It was pretty magical. Having discovered this, I called my sister with my olfactory revelation, and she admitted with a laugh that she learned the recipe from my grandmother whose only advice was that the filling was ready “when it smelled right.”

Since computers aren’t yet built with mini spray bottles to send out a waft of “correct potsticker filling” scent, the recipe in this post is my best attempt at quantifying my family’s recipe. If anything, it’s just a starting point for you to start tweaking and playing with so that you can create your own favorite potsticker recipe. Now, there are a few technical details involved with potsticker cooking. As I mentioned before, it is important to carefully fold the potstickers so that they are pleasant looking, but also so that they won’t just fall apart and can support their own weight in the pan during steaming or frying. Finally, there are also some tricks involved with pan-frying specific to stainless steel pans, which happened to be my family’s favorite cooking tool. If you have a nonstick pan, then pan-frying should be very easy in comparison.

Chinese dumpling filling
Makes about 100 dumplings

2 pounds ground pork
7 large napa cabbage leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
1 bunch Chinese (garlic) chives about an inch in diameter, minced
1 stalk green onion, minced
1 large knob ginger about 2 cubic inches, minced
1/8 c salt
1/8 c soy sauce
1/8 c cooking rice wine
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp sesame oil

Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl, and mix.  You should end up with a homogeneous mixture that looks something like this:

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Folding dumplings
2 pkgs. dumpling wrappers
1 cup water

  1. Lay a wrapper on the palm of your hand. Dip a couple fingers of the other hand into the water, and wet the edge of the wrapper.
  2. Place about 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of the wrapper.
  3. Bring opposite edges of the wrappers together, so you have sort of a taco.
  4. Pick up the edge of one of the sides, pinch it a bit, and fold down. That is one fold.
  5. Repeat step 4 a few more times in the same direction. Now that half of this side is crimped, crimp the other half of the side in the opposite direction. Do not crimp the other side of the potsticker.
  6. Place potstickers in rows on wax paper-lined trays for freezing. After the potstickers are frozen, they can be placed in bags and kept in the freezer for up to 1 year.

Here is a visual guide:

A brief note on folding potstickers. Crimping one side, but not the other, should result in a shape that has a broad “belly” that the potsticker can sit on. This is important for pan-frying, since self-supporting potstickers can be more efficiently packed into a pan.

Pan-frying potstickers
1 skillet, about 10 inches in diameter and a tight-fitting lid
Vegetable oil
Potstickers, freshly made or frozen (thawing is not necessary)
1/2 c water
2 tbsp flour (optional for those using nonstick, recommended for those using stainless steel)

  1. Mix flour with water, set aside.
  2. Coat skillet surface with oil, heat on high heat until oil starts to shimmer (right before smoking). Immediately turn off the heat allow the pan to cool enough so that when moved around, the oil coats the pan’s surface evenly with no ripples.
  3. Quickly place the potstickers in the pan.
  4. Turn on the stove to medium heat, and cook potstickers, uncovered, until bottoms are browned.
  5. In the meantime, stir the flour and water slurry in case the mixture has settled. Once the potsticker bottoms have lightly browned, quickly pour the flour and water slurry into the pan, rotating the pan as necessary so that the slurry is evenly distributed. Immediately place the lid on the pan.
  6. Adjust the stove to medium-low, and cook for 10 minutes.
  7. Remove the lid, and continue cooking uncovered in order to allow excess liquid to boil off. The flour and water slurry should be turning into a sort of crusty, crunchy coating on the bottom of the pan, which is desirable.
  8. When the coating starts to peel away from the edges of the pan on all sides, the potstickers can be easily removed from the pan. For a fancy presentation, invert the pan’s contents onto a plate.

A few notes on the pan-frying process. In the first step, make sure not to use too much oil–the real key to this method is less oil. We’ve found that using too much oil actually results in the potstickers sticking firmly to the pan. Also make sure that the oil has cooled sufficiently after step 2, but do not let it become cold. Additionally, it takes some practice to figure out the exact amount of water and flour slurry to use. If you use too much, you will end up with little pockets of raw slurry between the potstickers. It’s perfectly edible, but takes away from the nice presentation. The slurry’s consistency also matters: too thick and the bottom of the crust and potstickers will all burn, while the top of the slurry will never set. Too thin, and the slurry will not develop a nice crust that peels away from the pan, and this is typically a good indicator that the potstickers will not come off nicely from the pan. I definitely recommend using a nonstick pan and only water for beginners.

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