Saturday, December 31, 2005

Chinese (and Japanese) New Year

For Margy and me, New Year's Eve has historically been a night for cooking projects. Obviously we never really mind spending time in the kitchen, but our stamina only seems to increase on December 31. This probably has something to do with cold weather and plenty of days off.

This year I thought it would be fun to make dumplings, which we'd never tried. Looking back, I bet it would have been easy to roll out homemade dough for the wrappers, but we'll have to save that for the next time, since I bought packaged wonton skins.

My mom gave me a great new Japanese cookbook, Washoku, for Christmas, so I picked the pork and wakame (seaweed) potstickers from there. I also wanted to try steamed dumplings, because we like them, and because we never use our steamer. I poked around and found a recipe for Chinese shrimp and pork wontons, and it seemed they might go well with the potstickers.

And then, and this is where I get a little kooky, I added some side dishes. (But again, the whole point was to spend hours in the kitchen.) Margy loves cucumber salad, so that was an easy pick. I marinate sliced, seeded cukes in salt, sugar, and rice wine vinegar and sprinkle some sesame seeds on top for serving (lower right corner of photo). Washoku's hijiki seaweed recipe (far right, cut off) called for dashi, the sea-essence stock made from kombu seaweed and bonito flakes, so I knew I'd have some dashi left over for a miso soup appetizer. Rice and various dipping sauces -- most of them invented -- rounded out the menu. Margy and I put on good tunes (by the second song she told me to ditch Keith Richards's first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, with an unmistakable "You like this?") and set to chopping and mixing.

As often happens when I follow recipes for exotic things I've never made, there was no shortage of eureka moments. After stirring a heap of scallions into a mixture of ground pork and chopped shrimp, I was suddenly seized with a familiar aroma: wontons! Even though the ones in wonton soup don't usually contain shrimp, my wontons were telling me I was on the right track.

Along those lines, I grew to better understand Japanese gyoza as I cooked the potstickers. The recipe told me to pan-fry them, then add water to help them steam, then let the water evaporate as the dumplings brown and stick to the pan (hence the name). All of this was thrilling, and reminded me of watching the gyoza man at my regular Japanese haunt in Paris (regular for a week, at least) do something similar.

We were struck by the similarities in the dumplings we chose, despite their coming from different cultures and employing different cooking techniques. Of course, both had the same wrappers, but both also featured ground pork mixed with a member of the onion family -- leeks (Japanese) or scallions (Chinese).

And there was enough room for improvement to make us excited to try dumplings again. Practice will help us get more dexterous with the shaping part, though Margy's steamers came out a bit more elegant than my potstickers.

Happy new year!

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