When you’re flipping through old cookbooks, you see descriptions of foods that are so off-putting, you start to salivate–not the oh-that-looks-delcious salivation but the oh-dear-I’m-going-to-gag salivation. Such food and flavor combos include (just to name a few):
- Lime jello, canned tuna, mayonnaise, and olives
- Raisins, breakfast sausage, obscene amounts of sugar, and dates
- Chipped beef and lemon jello
- Spam and ….
- Tuna pudding
- See for yourself
When I started this food blogging journey, I knew little about the culinary world, but I had a pretty good idea of what tasted disgusting and what tasted pretty good. I’m certainly no expert now, but some of the terms that tradtional chefs use on a regular basis were brand new to my cooking vocabulary. Words like aspic.
On the surface, recipes for aspic look slightly appalling. Many include animal parts Americans just don’t find in the Kroger “meat market”. Aspics include heads, hooves, feet, jowls, skin, bones, wings, and the occasional eyeball. Essentially, you boil these things down until all the collagen is rendered, you reduce it, and then you cool it until it forms into a semi-solid gelatinous mass. Think meat flavored jello but without the powdered gelatin. Doesn’t sound good to you? I promise: if you like delicious, rich stock, you will love the flavor, not as jello, but as a flavor booster.
I was particularly drawn to aspic because it includes using the parts of animals that would ordinarily go to waste–which is why it was born in the first place way back when. Nothing was thrown out because every waking moment of a farmer’s life was wrapped in concern of their livestock. Animals were respected for their unmatched ability to allow food to be set on the farm table, whether it was they who ended up there or the beans or bread for which their sacrifice paid.
How this ties in to this week’s recipe is important. Aspic is the most important component of my favorite food of all time: Shanghai Soup Dumplings, or traditionally called Xiaolongbao, or foodie abbreviated as XLBs. When I first visited my brother and his girlfriend in Delaware, we hopped over to Philadelphia’s Chinatown and ducked into a dim sum restaurant. That was the day I met and married the soup dumpling. I’m fully committed to this favorite food.
These dumplings are stuffed with pork, ginger, garlic, and green onion, but what sets them apart is when you bite into them, a pocket of hot, savory soup explodes on your palate, allowing for the most delightful bite of food you will ever have. They are the perfect blend of texture and flavor, to be sure.
Now, it’s visiting tradition. When we go to Philly, we say “screw the cheesesteak” and we eat dumplings. The last time I was there, I vowed I would learn how to make them and learned I did. They. are. labor. intensive. Before making these, I would recommend watching both parts of this not-so-well-done and ridiculously long tutorial on youTube to see what you’re getting into, or at least read this blog post. In the very least, you’ll pick up some pointers. However, there are definitely some short cuts I learned from making them myself, though they may not be the traditional method, cutting a few corners doesn’t sacrifice much of the flavor. Shortcuts include:
-Don’t bother grinding pork chops, as the dude suggests in the video. I ground my own pork chops for the filling and found the meat to be too lean. I’m a fat fan, so I recommend 70/30 ground pork, the kind you find in your neighborhood grocery store.
-Don’t bother skimming fat until aspic has been refrigerated because once it’s cold, it’s visible and you can just scrape it right off the top.
-Freeze the aspic before assembling the dumplings. I tried this 3 ways to Sunday, including the “incorporate into the meat mixture with a fork” suggestion, and that did not work. There was not enough soup in each bite.
-Use your Kitchenaid to mix the dough for the first 10 minutes of kneading and then knead by hand the last 5 minutes.
The Recipe starts here and is a little different in format this week because it’s so extensive.
For the aspic, I used an 10 oz. package of salt pork, 1.5 pounds of chicken wings, and 4 oz. of bacon pieces (from Trader Joes).
I boiled that with about 5 cups of water, 2 green onion (roots trimmed), 3 pieces of crushed garlic, 1 inch piece of peeled ginger, crushed, and 2 Tbsp. of soy sauce. Bring everything to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to an active simmer, and let it go, uncovered for at least two hours. Remove solids and put back on the stove, crank heat to medium-high, and boil vigorously until the liquid has reduced to about 2 cups, about 30 minutes. Pour the reduced liquid into a 9X13 pan and cool at room temperature. You can skim the fat at this point, or you can wait until it has cooled in the fridge. I waited because the fat rose to the top when cooled and it literally came off in one layer. You better believe I saved every bit of the fat for future recipes. Once the aspic is at room temperature, cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, take the aspic out of the fridge and cut into 24 1 in. by 1 in. cubes. Place on a parchment lined pan and stick the cubes in the freezer. As for the remainder of the aspic, you can freeze that for future dumplings or to drop in soup or chili for added all-natural flavor.
For the filling, take 1 pound of ground pork and place in a food processor fitted with an all purpose blade, along with 2 more cloves of minced garlic, 1 finely chopped green onion, 3 Tbsp. soy sauce, and 1 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar. Pulse about 10 times until all ingredients are well incorporated.
For the wrappers, measure 1 cup of flour and add 6 Tbsp. warm water, 1 Tbsp at a time, and mix with your fingertips. Once a ball of dough forms, begin kneading and continue working the dough for about 10-15 minutes. I’m pretty sure you could use a Kitchenaid mixer with the dough hook attachment here up to a certain point, but after 8-10 minutes in, I would take the dough out and knead it by hand. You want a super-smooth (think play-dough) ball of dough by the end. Set aside, cover with a damp cloth, and let rest for about 20 minutes. Once dough has rested, roll out into a log that is about 1 inch in diameter, and cut into gnocchi-sized pieces, about 1 inch. Roll each into a little ball, and working one-by-one, roll each out into a flat, round wrapper, making sure there are no tears or holes in the wrapper. You don’t want all the soup to spill out. It is helpful if you have a noodle roller here because you can make the edge thinner than the middle of the wrapper. This is helpful after you assemble them because you won’t have a doughy mass at the top of your dumpling because when assembled, all the pleats will come together at the top and if all of them are thick, the dumpling will be dough-overload.Place on a plate and cover with a damp cloth while you’re rolling the others.
Remove aspic from freezer. taking about 1 heaping Tbsp. of pork filling, mold around a frozen aspic cube and place in the middle of a wrapper. To pleat, using your thumb and pointer finger, pinch the edge and bring a small section up and around the pork filling. Do this 16-20 times per dumpling. For all you visual learners, here is a video tutorial. (Scroll to bottom and don’t drool too much!)
Once pleated, place in a bamboo steamer lined with napa cabbage (I used romaine because they didn’t have napa cabbage at Trader Joe’s), about 2 inches apart, and steam for 8 minutes. Serve immediately with black vinegar and minced ginger, soy sauce, and/or chili sauce. Flavor combinations are endless. Also, serve with a spoon because the soup with spill out of the dumpling, into the spoon with the vinegar and chili, and that’s a perfect encore to the perfect bite.