Of all the foods off the A1 through A24 section of your local Chinese takeout menu, fried dumplings (that's Peking ravioli to you Bostonians) are perhaps the ones that benefit most from some home treatment. Unless you're really lucky, takeout dumplings are thick-skinned and greasy, any crunch having left them in the long steamy bike ride from the kitchen to your door.
Made with fresh wrappers and eaten straight out of the wok (or frying pan, of you prefer), they rank up there with burgers and mapo tofu as World's Awesome Foodstuff. The perfect fried dumpling should have a golden brown, ultra-crisp fried bottom, with a skin that's springy and chewy, but never tough or doughy.
The fillings can vary by taste, but my favorite combination is pork and cabbage. Nice fatty pork keeps things moist, while cabbage acts much in the way that breadcrumbs work in meatloaf or meatballs: it physically impedes the pork muscly proteins from binding too tightly with each other, ensuring that the filling stays tender without shrinking. How many times have you bitten into a restaurant dumpling only to find a big empty sack of skin with a tiny meat nugget hiding out in the corner? That won't happen with these.
The hardest part of making dumplings at home is forming and rolling out the dough, and it's really not that hard. The dough is made by adding boiling water to flour, which means that the proteins in the flour that usually form a stretchy gluten matrix are already partially cooked before kneading beings. This severely limits gluten formation, which makes the dough a lot more like a paste than a stretchy bread dough. The malleable stuff is very easy to roll out (you have to let it cool first) into even, thin shapes. After steaming or boiling, it becomes slightly translucent, with a pleasant springiness that'll put store-bought wrappers to shame.
That said, there's really no shame in using the store-bought variety if you can't be bothered to make your own dough. I do it all the time when I want a lot of dumplings in a hurry.
When fancy dim sum cooks form the dumplings, they do it really fast, right in the palm of their hand. I find it much easier to do the crimping and sealing on a cutting board. I like making the traditional crescent-shaped pouch, but even simply folding the skins in half and sealing them will work. It all tastes the same in the end!
Just remember: use less filling than you think you should. An overstuffed dumplings is hard to seal, hard to cook, and hard to eat.
Boiling is the simplest method, and results in a relatively thick, soft-skinned specimen. Just toss them in a pot of boiling water (remember, this is a fresh pasta, so you have to use a fair amount of boiling water to prevent them from turning mushy), wait until they float, then let them cook for an extra minute or two to ensure the filling is cooked through.
Steaming is also quite simple, provided you have a bamboo steamer and a wok (if you don't, you should). This method produces 'plings with a slightly thinner, stretchier skin. Superior, if you ask me. Remember to line your steamer basket with cabbage leaves to prevent sticking.
The best method for preparing dumplings is pan-frying. The traditional procedure is to first fry them in oil, then add water to the pan and cover it so that the dumplings steam through. Eventually, the water all evaporates, and the dumplings fry once more, crisping up their bottoms. It's a great one-pan option, but it takes a little practice to get the timing right and to prevent the dumplings from sticking.
Much easier is the hybrid method: boil or steam the dumplings first, then fry them to crisp up their bottom. I like frying in a wok because the wide edges prevent oil from splattering onto my stovetop or floor. Just make sure to allow the dumplings a minute or two to drain and for excess moisture to evaporate before adding them to the wok or frying pan. Cast iron or non-stick are best, with a good amount of oil to create a substantial bottom crust.
Once you've got the basic method down, feel free to experiment with the filling, adding aromatics (like ginger, chilis, lemongrass, or cumin, for example), changing out the meat (shrimp, or a mixture of lamb and pork or beef and pork are nice), or adding other vegetables in addition to the cabbage (like shredded carrots, blanched and chopped spinach, or finely diced water chestnuts).