Sunday, October 4, 2015

Xiao Long Bao take too long.

Shanghai-style Xiaolongbao (小籠包), also known as soup dumplings, are a delicacy I can't get enough of.  When they're well made, they're a juicy pork and shrimp morsel, swimming in soup, inside a thin wrapper that bursts the moment you bite in.  I've made them in the past, and it had been a while, so I set forth to make them again.  However, every time I make them, I always forget why it is I never make them.  It's because they're a colossal pain in the neck, and very labor intensive.

Firstly, to make soup dumplings, you need to make aspic, otherwise known as "MEAT JELLO!?!".  This forms the basis of the "soup" in the soup dumplings.  It's a solid at room temperature, so you can mix it with the filling, and then when it's steamed, it melts into soupy delicious broth.  You just combine some smoked ham, chicken wings and backs, and some sauces and seasonings, then cook it for 3 hours.  No big, right?  If you're like me, you have uninterrupted 3 hour blocks of time just lying around all over the place.  *cough*.  The good news is, it's almost all hands off time, so you can go do other things while your aspic is rendering.  Once it's done, you pour it into a large pan and refrigerate it, and then chop it into tiny cubes the next morning, which I did, and then promptly threw them into the freezer and forgot about them.  For 8 months.  And a house move.

Whilst rooting around in my freezer looking for dinner 8 months later, I stumbled across a small package of aspic, and slapped my forehead.  I had been going to make soup dumplings!  Fortunately it's starting to cool off again, and it's good weather for soup, so I decided to make them on a Sunday for lunch.  I bought all my ingredients, half-froze the pork, half-thawed the shrimp, chopped everything, mixed everything, lined my steamer with cabbage leaves...  Ready to roll!

Now comes the bad part.  The recipe makes approximately 4 cups of filling.  The filling must be parceled, tablespoon by tablespoon, onto wonton wrappers, each of which must be lovingly sealed completely, otherwise all the soup leaks out.  I wetted.  I pinched, I pleated.  I steamed, and steamed, and steamed.  It took me two hours to make lunch, and I still had a small mountain of un-steamed soup dumplings left, because the recipe makes about 48.

So the good news is, I have leftover soup dumplings in the freezer for a rainy day.  Which is good, because I swear that I am never making the blasted things again, at least until the next time I forget how long they take to make.

Recipe from Bon Appetit, with significant modifications.

Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Soup Dumplings)
For the aspic:
10 cups water
3 pounds chicken wings (or other cartilaginous parts.  Back, neck, leg joints...)
2 1/2 ounces unsweetened smoked ham, or 1 oz prosciutto
3/4 cup coarsely chopped green onions (white parts only)
2 (1-inch-diameter 1/2-inch-thick) slices peeled fresh ginger
2 whole dried shiitake mushrooms
1 large garlic clove, flattened
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons sake
1 Tbsp gelatin

Take everything except the gelatin, put it in a pot over low heat, and walk away for about 2-2.5 hours.  Check it every so often, but you shouldn't run out of water.

At 2.5 hours, strain it, and return the liquid to the pot (save the meat, you can turn it into another round of dumpling filling, or throw it in chicken broth and have a passable soup.)

Boil the liquid until you've reduced it to about two cups, about 20-30 minutes, and then remove from heat.

Mix the gelatin with a bit of cold water in a bowl, and then mix it thoroughly into the hot liquid.

Pour the liquid into a large pan (ideally metal), and let it cool in the fridge until it's solid (a few hours.)

Remove from pan and chop into cubes.  Refrigerate or freeze until you're ready for the next step.

For the dumplings:
Aspic from previous step
1 pound pork, ground or hand minced
1/4 pound raw shrimp, finely chopped (easier if they're half frozen)
1/3 cup finely chopped green onions
3 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or use a mix of soy sauce and fish sauce)
1 large garlic clove, minced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1/2 teaspoon mirin
1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
1 package of wonton wrappers (about 48)
1 head of cabbage OR one package parchment paper

Mix all of the ingredients in a large bowl except for the wrappers and cabbage.

Set cabbage leaves or parchment paper in a steamer (bamboo steamers are cool-looking, but even a vegetable steamer will work, as long as you line it.)

Fill a small bowl with water, and set it next to your prep space.  Dip your fingers in it, and run them around the perimeter of a wonton wrapper.

Place about a tablespoon of filling in the center of the wrapper.

Bring the opposite two corners of the wrapper together, to form a triangle, and press them together gently.  Repeat with the other two corners.  Now very delicately line up each pair of edges, and press them together until they seal, making sure there are no holes where your precious soup can leak out.

Place the soup dumpling in the steamer, and repeat the sealing process with the next dumpling.  Make sure that none of the dumplings touch, they're very sticky, and will tear when you try to remove them.

Once you're out of room in the steamer basket, place the dumplings over high heat, and steam them for about 5 minutes (note that cooking time begins when the column of steam comes out of the pot, not when you put them on the burner.)

Remove the steamer from the heat, and very, very carefully, lift each dumpling out so as not to tear them.  If you're using parchment paper, you can cheat, and lift out the whole paper, otherwise you have to carefully remove the dumplings one by one.  I find that it's actually easiest to lift them by the top with my fingers, but you may find other techniques that work better.

Repeat the steaming process with another round of dumplings, until a: you run out of dumpling ingredients, or b: you're really sick of making dumplings, or c: you're completely full of soup dumplings and about to burst.

If you have any remaining dumpling ingredients and are not totally sick of folding them, assemble them and freeze them on parchment paper.