Pork Soup Dumplings–Valentine’s Day 2016 (part 1)

Valentine’s Day is just another day for the Kims. We don’t buy each other gifts or go out to a nice restaurant, but it does provide a reason to get flowers for our table and make an elaborate meal at home, not that you ever need a reason to do either. This year’s V-day menu was pork soup dumplings (all from scratch), green beans, and homemade tangerine sorbet with candied tangerine peels, with French 75 cocktails to enjoy throughout.

I spotted this recipe for pork soup dumplings in an issue of Bon Appetit about a year ago and saved it as a “someday” cooking project. Then sometime in the new year it popped up again in BA’s daily email, and with my mild success at making pork buns, I thought I would try it for Valentine’s Day. It was also an excuse to buy Asian soup spoons, which I was thrilled about!

There are three components to soup dumplings: soup, filling, and dough. The soup is made with pork skin, pork bones, and a pig’s foot (as well as some ginger, scallions, and Shaoxing wine). The skin contains so much collagen that when you chill the finished stock, it turns into a Jell-o like consistency, or meat Jell-o, if you will. Then you cut the jelled soup into small cubes and add it to the pork filling. As you steam the filled dumplings, the jelled soup melts and that’s how you get the soup inside the dumpling. The soup itself is simple enough to make–it’s like any other stock, but it does require a trip to an Asian market as conventional butchers don’t necessarily have pig’s feet and straight up pork skin you can buy. It’ll also be the best place to get black vinegar and Shaoxing wine, which you’ll need for the filling and dipping sauce. I also recommend making the soup the day before.

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chilled and cubed jelled soup ready to go into the filling

The filling is really easy. You just mix ground pork with some scallions, garlic, ginger, and other Asian sauces like Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, and sesame seed oil. And if you already cook a lot of Asian food, you will have most of these ingredients in your pantry. If not, as I mentioned above, a trip to the Asian market will get you those ingredients very inexpensively. Once all those ingredients are mixed, you add the cubed jelled soup to it.

Now for the dough. Compared to pork bun dough, this was a breeze. It’s literally just flour and water. You let it rest for an hour (I prepared the filling while it was resting), and then divide it into pieces to be rolled into dumpling skins. I knew shaping the dumplings would be difficult (18 pleats!), but I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to roll out the skins themselves. The dough was very sticky, so even when I got the dough into a nice round shape, it would stick to my countertop when I pulled it up, stretching it out and ruining it. I then added more flour to the dough to prevent it from sticking, but then it would get tough.

On top of that, I could not get a handle on how to get the appropriate thickness. The middle of the skins should be thicker (so they don’t break when steamed), and the edges should be thinner so that when you make all those pleats, the top of the dumpling won’t be tough and chewy. My dumplings were the exact opposite. The middle was way too thin, the edges way too thick. In the photo below, you can see my scrapped skins in the top right corner. And those skins on the top left are not exactly circles.

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Luckily, I had a back-up plan. I told a colleague of mine (who happens to be Chinese) that I was making soup dumplings. She commended me for the attempt, but also advised me to buy pre-made skins just in case the dough failed. So while at the Asian market picking up pig’s feet and Shaoxing wine, I grabbed a package of dumpling skins as well. Or what I thought were dumpling skins (there were so many kinds!). I was glad I took my colleague’s advise because the dough failed me, or more accurately, I failed the dough. But when I tried to pleat the store-bought skins, they didn’t stick! I was surprised and frustrated by this, and ended up using my homemade dough anyway because at least I could get it to close. At that point I lost all patience with trying to roll and shape the dumplings correctly, so I just filled and sealed the dumplings anyway I could just to get them made. I figured however misshapen, they would still taste good. It wasn’t until after I made all the dumplings that Andrew stepped in and told me that you have to wet the edges of store-bought skins with water to get them to seal (an embarrassing display of my ignorance, and frankly, my whiteness).

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my ugly dumplings

With the dumplings finally made, I set about steaming them. That was when I truly discovered why you don’t want the bottom of your skins to be too thin, because all the dumplings broke and lost all their soup. So in the end I just made regular dumplings. They were pretty thick and chewy on top because of how I carelessly shaped them, but otherwise they were pretty good, especially with the dipping sauce made of black vinegar, soy sauce, scallions, and ginger. Served with Chinese style green beans and a strong French 75 cocktail, it turned into a rather nice meal.

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I would definitely make this recipe again, but using store-bought skins (making sure to wet the edges with water, of course). It’s just not worth the trouble making the skins by hand. And despite how much I love making meals entirely from scratch, I’m learning that a good home cook also knows when to cut corners and still keep the integrity of the home-cooked meal intact.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this post to get the inside scoop on the tangerine sorbet I made for dessert (pun most definitely intended).

Recipes

 

Momofuku Pork Buns (part 2)

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this post, Andrew and I hosted two dinner parties New Year’s weekend. The first dinner was with our siblings, and the second was with our good friends Katy and Josh. They shared valuable wedding tips with us when we first got engaged, and continue to be a support during our first year of marriage. It’s good to have friends who have forged ahead in the Game of Life to help guide those of us coming up the rear. This is their Christmas card. This is how stinking cute they are.

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Katy is a fellow food-lover and blogger and she and I have swapped many recipes and kitchen stories over the years. She’s also very encouraging of my kitchen adventures when I make things way beyond my skill level. So when deciding what to make for her and Josh, pork buns easily made it to the top of the list. It was adventurous, something she probably wouldn’t make herself, and she would be extremely gracious even if it turned out terribly. (Which, we already know it didn’t, thank goodness!)

Since the hard part of the meal (the pork buns) was made the day before, I had time to supplement the meal with additional dishes. To keep with the Asian theme, I served spicy pan-fried noodles, Thai salad (made by Andrew), and mango pudding.

Spicy pan-fried noodles is one of my go-to weeknight recipes. It’s really easy to throw together and the leftovers reheat well. I’ve made it with all kinds of Asian noodles, whatever I had on hand or could find in the store, and it turns out well every single time. The only mishap I had with it this last time was that I forgot we ran out of soy sauce and had to run down to the corner store to get some. It was an inconvenience but nothing earth shattering. But then, right when I drained the cooked noodles, I realized that I didn’t have enough—I meant to double the recipe and realized that I only bought one package of noodles. Noodles are the main ingredient, and I forgot to double it! What is wrong with me? How could I have missed that detail? I was pissed. Making that kind of amateur mistake is just not acceptable to me, especially when I’m hosting. So I was huffing and puffing during the rest of my preparations, disappointed in myself, and rushing because I was running behind (as usual). It was an embarrassing display of childish attitude, even if Andrew was the only one to witness it (God bless his patience), because in the end it was fine. There were plenty of noodles to go around without doubling the recipe.

The Thai salad is Andrew’s take on the Thai chicken salad at Park Chow, a lovely and homey SF restaurant. The key to this salad is the dressing. It’s citrusy and spicy and has a quintessential Asian flavor, which we learned can really only be re-created using two essential ingredients: fish sauce and ground dried shrimp. You can’t taste their individual flavor in the finished dressing, but you can tell when they’re missing. Other than the dressing, the salad is comprised of basic salad ingredients: romaine, red bell pepper, carrot, cucumber, red onion, and roasted peanuts. You can find the full recipe at the end of this post.

So, in addition to the pork buns (which Katy said tasted just like Momofuku’s!), we had a well-rounded menu.

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Noodles and salad

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Now, for the dessert. I am not all that familiar with Asian desserts. So, as one does, I Googled Chinese desserts and mango pudding was one of the first recipes that came up. It’s pretty straight forward to make, like a slightly more involved jell-o. You just have to make it a few hours ahead of when you want to serve so the gelatin can set. I used Chowhound’s recipe and made it for both dinner parties to keep planning simple. The first night I used fresh mangos that weren’t quite ripe enough, and the second time I used frozen mangos to see if there would be a difference in taste. There wasn’t really. Andrew and I noticed a slight difference in texture, but the taste was basically the same. If you make this recipe, use whatever kind of mangoes you prefer. Fresh or frozen, it doesn’t make that much of a difference except in the mess you make cutting the fresh mangoes. Also, no matter which kind of mango you use, you will have leftover mango puree, which I froze and intend to use for mango margaritas next time I host a Latin-themed dinner.

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It was a busy weekend in the kitchen for sure, but a successful one, even with all of my ups and downs. I came out of the weekend with a number of takeaways, including my 2016 New Year Cooking Resolutions:

  1. Improve my planning skills, really reading and understanding recipes before setting out to make them.
  2. Give myself grace when I make mistakes, which I inevitably will.

So cheers to 2016, when I will forgive my flaws, learn from my mistakes, and laugh when all else fails. Happy New Year!

Recipe Links

Thai Salad Dressing

Adapted from Bruce Cost’s “Thai Cucumber Salad” recipe published in The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook Volume 1.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 ½ tbsp fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp red chili pepper (Serrano or jalapeno works too), sliced into thin rounds
  • 2 tbsp dried baby shrimp (ground)
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp peanut oil
  • 2-3 tbsp chopped red onion and/or cucumber (optional)

METHOD

Mix all the ingredients together. Adjust the fish sauce and/or lime juice to taste. Then, dress your salad with however much dressing you like. For the actual salad, we typically chop romaine lettuce, add red bell pepper and carrot (preferably julienned), red onion, cucumbers, scallions, and top with roasted peanuts. If we want to make it a main meal we’ll add chicken. You can also keep it meatless by adding edamame or tofu as the protein.

 

Momofuku Pork Buns (part 1)

Momofuku is one of my favorite restaurants in New York City. Every time I visit I drag my friends to the noodle bar  so I can have their ginger scallion noodles and pork buns. A few years ago Food 52 posted the recipe for Momofuku’s Pork Buns and I’ve been wanting to make them ever since. The main reason I waited so long to try them was because I didn’t have the necessary cooking tools, specifically a roasting pan, standing mixer, and a steamer. The wedding registry took care of the roasting pan, I was able to borrow a standing mixer from a friend, and the steamer was cheaply procured from a local Asian restaurant supply store. I finally had the necessary tools, a long New Year’s weekend to spend time in my kitchen, and a group of family and friends willing to eat this experiment of mine, because it certainly was an experiment. There was a high likelihood this recipe was going to end in a complete disaster.

Originally, Andrew and I were just going to host our friends Katy and Josh for dinner the day after New Year’s Day. We wanted to make them something they wouldn’t necessarily make themselves, and I took it as a great opportunity to try pork buns. But as I looked at the recipe I realized it made 25 pork buns. Pork buns are delicious, but 25 pork buns for four people is a bit excessive. So when I realized Andrew’s brother, Fred, was still going to be in town over New Years, I invited our siblings over for a New Year’s Day dinner to spend more time with family, but really to have them help eat the leftovers. Well, technically Katy and Josh ate the leftovers as they came over January 2, but they are gracious friends and didn’t take offense that I served them leftovers. Emily Post would not approve, I’m sure. Katy and Josh’s dinner will be recounted in Part 2 of this post, coming soon.

Because I was hosting two dinner parties back-to-back, I had to plan well. I have a bad habit of not reading a recipe in its entirety before cooking. I’ll skim it and say, “I got this,” only to get to mid-way through and realize I missed something critical in the prepping phase and the whole recipe gets thrown off. Then I’m left frantically scrambling to recover and get the recipe back on track without doing too much damage. Pork buns are not something you can just throw together and I made sure I took the time to read through the recipe and plan my day so everything would come together.

I had my schedule of when I was going to start each phase and was ready to roll. Everything was going well. I made the rub of sugar and salt and marinated the pork belly over night. Then I put it in the oven the next morning. While that was cooking I prepped the mango pudding for dessert (more on that in Part 2). That put me right on schedule to start the dough for the buns. Success! I planned well! And then… I missed something critical, in pure Without a Cellar fashion. You need 1/3 of a cup of the rendered fat from the pork for the dough, so you have to make sure the pork is done before you start the buns. I didn’t plan for that. My pork wasn’t going to be done for another hour! In a second I went from being right on time to running behind schedule an hour. UGH. So while I waited, I prepped what I could and cleaned the apartment.

In hindsight, I could have taken the fat I needed before the pork was done cooking, but at the time I thought that would hurt the final outcome of the pork so I just waited. Lesson learned. But finally the pork was done, looking absolutely beautiful, and I had my fat.

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That’s a beautiful lookin’ belly!

I proceeded to mix the dough in the standing mixer and set it in a bowl to rise for an hour. After an hour, I went to punch it down and start on the next step. Only the dough didn’t rise. UGH. Again. I suspect a few things could have gone wrong with the dough:

  1. The yeast was bad, which I doubt.
  2. The room temperature water the recipe instructed to use to dissolve the yeast was actually too cold and I should have used lukewarm water instead.
  3. I should have let the yeast sit and activate for at least a few minutes before adding the other ingredients, an instruction the recipe didn’t say I needed to do.

I suspect bullet #2 was the culprit, so the next time I make pork buns (and I definitely will) I’ll use warmer water. But with siblings coming over in a few hours, it was way too late to try another batch of dough. I just had to move forward with what I had and hope for the best.

The next step was diving the dough and rolling it into balls. The balls were supposed to be about the size of ping pong balls and weigh around 25 grams. After making a few mistakes already with the buns, I didn’t want to take any more unnecessary chances so I literally weighed each ball on my scale.

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Then I let them sit for another 30 minutes so they rise some more. They didn’t. Not that I was surprised since the dough never really rose to begin with. The next step was to roll out the dough in 4-inch ovals, fold them into buns using a chopstick, and place them on individual squares of parchment (cut out while I was waiting for the pork to finish).

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Because the dough didn’t rise, my buns were a bit on the small and thin side, but I did my best. This was fairly time consuming because even though the recipe says it makes 25 servings, you end up making 50 buns, probably because if you are going to go through all of this trouble to make them, you might as well make enough to freeze for later.

After the buns are folded, you let them sit for another 30 – 45 minutes. Then you steam them in batches (on the parchment so they don’t stick) for 10 minutes.

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This is another instance where I miscalculated. With one steamer that only fits 5-6 buns at a time, it didn’t fully register in my brain that it would take about an hour to steam all 50 buns. My plan was to have at least most of the buns steamed by the time everyone arrived. But with my hour delay, I didn’t start cooking until everyone had arrived. Fortunately, I had a few things going for me so that this circumstance didn’t ruin the dinner:

  1. People had food to eat while I finished the buns. I knew making the pork buns would take up all of my time, so I assigned side dishes and appetizers to my sister and sister-in-law.
  2. The pork buns can easily be assembled in batches. As soon as I had enough buns steamed for everyone, I filled the buns with hoisin sauce, pork belly slices, quick-pickled cucumbers, and scallions. And then kept on steaming.
  3. Because I live in a studio, being confined to my kitchen doesn’t mean I have to be away from my guests. They are literally sitting right next to me while I cook. So while it’s not ideal to still be stuck at the stove, at least I can still interact easily with everyone.
  4. I warned everyone this may not turn out well, so I didn’t feel as much pressure to have everything be perfect.

Considering all the mishaps with the dough, the pork buns overall turned out pretty well. The pork belly itself was excellent. Crispy, salty, with excellent texture for being such a fatty cut of meat. The buns were decent. They were a bit dense and dry, and some broke apart at the seams when you opened them. If the dough had risen properly I imagine they would have been softer and more pliable. But they weren’t rock hard and still soft to bite into, and they tasted really good. Not bad at all for a first attempt!

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Sibling and Co. party! From the left: Audrey, Sam, Kristin, Andrew, Fred, and Daniel.

Stay tuned for Momofuku Pork Buns (part 2)…