Monday, November 30, 2009

The Dim Sum Experience

It's no secret that I love dumplings. I recently purchased a gorgeous cookbook (Dim Sum: The Art of Chinese Tea Lunch) focusing completely on dim sum, from dumplings to veggies, pancakes to sweets. It uses lovely illustrations by the author herself in place of photographs, and actually makes the book seem like more of a personal journal of family recipes as opposed to an overly processed cookbook that has obviously been handed down through many levels of publishing hierarchy before finally turning up in bookstores. I can't explain it, but it just seems almost like Ellen Leong Blonder speaks directly to me through her recipes, diagrams, and exquisitely painted renditions of tasty dim sum staples. It also gives a lovely glimpse into the world of Asian teas to pair perfectly in this traditional "tea lunch" experience. Anyone who knows me knows that I take cookbook selecting very seriously. I own over 100 but each and every one that I have purchased myself has been analyzed for hours (ie me reviewing it and many similar books in the comfort of my neighborhood bookstore) before I've selected the chosen few. I'm a perfectionist in every aspect of life, and picking cookbooks is definitely no exception :)

With that said, I made dim sum for the very first time yesterday! It was no easy feat. Partway through, I actually considered giving up and just ordering Chinese food, my mouth was drooling and the dumplings just wouldn't form themselves fast enough to satisfy me. Instead of choosing to simply "make dumplings" I decided to "make dim sum" which is entirely another thing. I selected three different dumpling recipes to make as well as another dim sum staple: scallion pancakes. Between making three different fillings, doughs for all four, and finally assembling each and every product by hand--rolling out the tiny blobs of dough, filling them, shaping them into ugly masses that I was somewhat ashamed to serve, being the perfectionist I am--I was grateful to have my sister manning the stove and cooking them off as I prepped them. Otherwise we would have never eaten! I think the dumplings seemed less ugly once they were cooked, although some of the steamed ones stuck to the steamer. I probably should have lightly oiled it since I wasn't using the oiled-cake-pan-method Blonder mentioned in the book.

As soon as dumplings were cooked off, we kept them warm in a 200 degree oven (even the steamed ones as there were so many and we needed to cook them in batches). As the cook, I ate last, frying up the last of the scallion pancakes in a now-abandoned kitchen while my sister and brother-in-law enjoyed hot dumplings in front of the tv. My plate of dim sum was more room temperature than anything. The few just-cooked dumplings I tried were amazing, but as the heat escaped, some of the flavor seemed to as well. My reheated dumplings today were reminiscent of the first ones I tried, but with yesterday's hunger came a desperation to eat regardless of the temperature of the food, and yet they managed to satisfy as only food that is the result of hours of slaving can manage to do.

I made pork potstickers first... I found that the cabbage in the filling didn't really wilt as it was supposed to and remained in pretty big pieces which made it hard to fill such tiny dumplings. Next time I might chop the cabbage more than shred/slice it, but otherwise, the flavors were good with notes of spicy ginger bursting in your mouth as you bite into it. I adapted the three-mushroom steamed dumplings and made it with two mushrooms instead, using fresh shiitakes and creminis. I also couldn't find wheat starch so I used flour dough instead. These dumplings were tasty, but a few stuck to the steamer, and they tasted MUCH better hot than room temperature. My pork and shrimp siu mai were perhaps the easiest and tastiest. Forming these dumplings were a lot easier than mastering the "potsticker pleat" if you will. Also the filling had great texture, with chunks of shrimp and diced water chestnuts giving it a surprising balance of crunch against the ground pork. The scallion pancakes were my finale, and I rushed through them and forgot to lightly salt them before closing them up, but they still tasted fine, especially with the dipping sauce. I also deliberately left out the shortening. I'm against using hydrogenated fats and this recipe will not change that fact.

All in all, I think my dim sum experience was a success! It took hours longer than I expected, but with careful planning next time, and prepping parts in advance, I think my next foray into the dum sum arts will be even better. I may even try and enjoy each dim sum dish as a separate course in order to enjoy them all hot as soon as they're cooked... prep them all and then cook off each one, and actually eat it while the next one cooks. Doesn't sound like a bad plan. I have loads of filling left over for the three dumplings I made (that's my one complaint about the recipes, they make a lot more filling than seems required for the amount of dough specified), so I froze the fillings and will use them next time I want to cook off some dim sum. It will certainly save a lot of work!

Mushroom Filling

Pork and Shrimp Siu Mai Filling

Pork and Cabbage Filling for Potstickers

Reject-Looking Potstickers :)

Pork Potstickers

Steamed Mushroom Dumplings

Pork and Shrimp Siu Mai (raw)

Scallion Pancakes (before frying)

An Array of Dim Sum a la Victoria :)

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review. I purchased the book myself. My opinions are always my own.


Lucine said...

They were mmmmm mmmmm good!!!

Jessie said...

great job on your first dim sum meal! everything looks yummy!

Ellen Blonder said...

Hi, Victoria,
I found your blog on Google Alerts. Kudos to you for such an ambitious first time out. You did great!
Thanks for your kind words about the cookbook, too. It was a labor of love, and it's nice to hear when it connects to someone.
Wheat starch is something you have to look for at an Asian market, I'm afraid. It will give you quite a different result from white flour, so I hope you'll get to try it some time.
Napa cabbage, finely shredded, liberally salted and left for 20 minutes, should give up an amazing amound of water. Don't worry about how much salt you use, because you'll rinse it out before you wring out all the water. I hope you'll try this again, because potstickers are one of my personal favorites in the book.
You can also make the dumplings at least seem like less work if you make a recipe or two ahead of time and freeze them. Potstickers can be shaped, then frozen raw, so that all you'll need to do is cook them. The mushroom dumplings, if using wheat starch dough, should be steamed, cooled, and frozen already cooked. You'll just need to re-steam them to heat them through.
All in all, I think your dim sum experience was a success, too! Congratulations.

Victoria K. said...

Thank you so much for your kind words!! I REALLY do love your book and I'm glad that you enjoyed my discussion of it :) I will continue my quest for wheat starch as it was my intention to really experiment with the various doughs and cooking techniques to try and make a more extensive variety of dumplings, but alas there is always time to try it again next time.

I also think I had sliced way too much cabbage with not nearly enough salt. After I use up the leftover potsticker filling in the freezer with the way-too-big chunks of cabbage, I will try making the filling again using more salt for the cabbage and see how that works.

If I use a bamboo steamer or a steamer insert instead of a cake pan, do you think it's sufficient to just lightly grease them with pan spray to prevent sticking?

Thank you so much for your encouragement! I'm really looking forward to trying more recipes, and also redoing the ones I tried before. My pleating technique was pretty horrible, and there were a few exploding dumplings, but with practice I'm sure I can accomplish anything :)

Ellen Blonder said...

No worries, Victoria. I've taught a few cooking classes, and many students are mortified by their first dumplings. Just try to keep the filling from touching the wrapper edges, then close the dumplings firmly. They'll get better with practice--and they'll still taste good along the way.

I haven't tried using Pam, but I don't see why it wouldn't work. There's also a trick I learned since I wrote the book. Some Asian kitchenware stores sell round pieces of parchment paper with holes punched into them to allow water to drip through. You can make your own, preferably with non-stick parchment. Cut it into a circle to fit the bottom of your steamer, then fold the circle in half, then into quarter-circles, then into 1/8 circles (like when we made snowflakes in grade school). Cut a few small holes along the straight edges. Unfold.

I am very glad you like the book so much. I wrote it because I love dim sum and have eaten it all my life, but only knew how to make a handful of them. Curiosity made me want to learn more--and, of course, I really wanted to paint them. Happy cooking!

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