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Last Sunday, I found myself in Robyn's house, boiling and frying dumplings, eating them piping-hot right as they came out of the pan, and feeling pretty darn satisfied with my lot in life. For dessert, there was mooncake, sweet and seedy with lotus paste. There might have been better dumplings out there, and better mooncakes, but surely not a better crowd of friends, all gathered in the living room eating plate after plate of fried dumplings.
Here's how you to throw a dumpling party:
Buy lots of fatty ground pork and chives. Buy a bag of flour (that is, if you're making your own wrappers.) Acquire friends who can roll dough and pleat dumplings. (Or, friends who can be taught such things.) Make dumplings. Fry dumplings. Provide libations, so that when you get backed up on the stove, people won't notice or won't mind.
I am not picky or particular about the vegetables that go into my dumplings. Napa cabbage, chives, shitakes, spinach, ramps—it's all good! What I really care about is that the pork is fatty and juicy, and that the bottom of the dumpling is golden brown and crispy.
For a juicy, flavorful dumpling, you want fatty pork. The fattier, the better. So buy the fatty grind from a Chinese butcher, or have your butcher grind some fat along with the meat. That's what I did to make these dumplings. I live in East Harlem and buy my meat from a Mexican butcher shop.
"Quiero mas..... fat," I said, feeling pretty lame that four years of high school Spanish had not enabled me to learn the word for fat. I can ask you for another pencil, or tell you I have a red backpack, but the word for pork fat? My mind drew a blank.
She shook her head, sadly.
"No? No more fat?" I said.
A look of recognition. "Mas?" she said, and held up a chunk of back fat with just a streak of flesh.
"Yes, mas, mas!" I said.
We both looked relieved. Then one of the English-speaking butchers came up, and cleared the confusion right away.
You see, the butcher had somehow interpreted my request as that for extra lean meat, not extra fat. I don't know how this happened since I was making escalating motions with my hands and grabbing parts of my fleshy upper arm as further indication. Anyway, they were happy to oblige, tossing backfat into the grinder along with the fresh pork.
You could cook the dumplings in the pan by putting them in a skillet with water and oil. The water steams the dumplings, then evaporates, leaving the oil to brown the dumpling undersides. This is my preferred method for pan-frying dumplings for small to medium-sized batches—it yields a chewy-tender skin and almost crunchy crust. It's not hard, but it does take a certain knack to get the bottom perfectly golden-brown while cooking the tops of the wrappers all the way through.
A far easier method of cooking dumplings: par-boil the dumplings; then brown them in the pan. Water is the great equalizer. It ensures that no matter who pleated the dumpling, the scrunched-up part of the skin will cook all the way through. The skins lose something of their translucent tenderness if you do this, but it's a trade-off to consider if you are frying your dumplings by the hundreds. (See cooking notes in Kenji's recipe, here.)
One of my favorite things about throwing dumpling parties is watching people pleat dumplings, or better yet, learn how to pleat them. I am fast pleat-er, but I have never had much patience for pleating. I would much rather be at the stove, schlepping steaming piles of dumplings from the boiling pot to the hot frying pan, frying batch after batch, letting the oil splatter onto my hands, my arms, my face, everywhere, than sit at a table all civil-like with friends pleating dumplings.
I'm not sure what that says about me and my affection for said-friends. Maybe it doesn't say much at all, only that I like being alone, and I like my environs hot and frantic (sometimes).
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