Herby dumplings and flatbread

Ultimately, garlic chives were created for dumplings.

A perfect cross between wild garlic and chives, it packs a  punch that rocks the humble dumpling out of this world. There are a couple of things that are non-negotiable about the garlic chive. It gets along very well with pork, prawns and so on but if you introduce it to anything with a delicate and let’s say, more whimsical character, the garlic chive will in most cases gun it down. Second, it’s not as juicy and if you’re buying garlic chives that have travelled air/sea miles, even less so. We used to grow and cut them fresh from the garden. Gluts of garlic chive led to dumplings with more chive than meat in them and we felt very luxurious in being able to indulge in such excess. Unlike other vegetables we grew, beans and marrow, it’s harder to get sick of herbs and I never tired of the boisterous garlic chive.

Herbs in general are a fantastic way of flavouring different types of mince. Coriander is my favourite. I have to keep my love for the garlic chive and coriander separate because they don’t really bring out the best in each other. When I think of coriander I think of a spectrum of partnerships that range from silken tofu, fish and shitake mushrooms to peanut and coconut curries. Coriander is a team-player. Although I know that garlic chive is a bulldozer, I have never actually tested my theory with coriander. I happened to have both in the fridge and in the absence of an authoritative opinion from my mother, I thought I’d give it a try.

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Compared to the basic recipe I didn’t have enough shrimp, so I also chopped up some king prawns. Celery wise, we chopped all but the inner core finely, sprinkled some salt over and squeezed out the excess water. I replaced leek with garlic chive and a few stems of chopped coriander.

The outcome? Well the garlic chive did dominate, but it wasn’t such a bad faux-pas as my mother made it out to be afterwards when I told her about it. Guess you don’t know till you try, but at the same time, this wasn’t a ground-breaking combination and the dumplings lacked juiciness. Small victory indeed.

After our dumpling making sessions we usually have some leftover dough. The dough on its own is pretty bland. After all, it’s just flour and water. What we like to do is to make a type of flatbread. In principle it’s probably closer to puff pastry and we call them pancakes, because it sounds more like a treat.

Roll the dough as thin as you can. Sprinkle a small pinch of table salt, some oil and some remaining herbs.

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Spread the oil and filling evenly across the surface.

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Fold inwards.

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Roll into any shape that will fit into the pan and fry in oil on both sides.

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The oil is meant to separate the layers whilst cooking. However I made the layers too thick and didn’t put in enough oil so the layers only rose in a couple of uneven bubbles. I tried adding a dash of water to see if the steam would help it rise, but this didn’t make a huge difference.

Notes: Garlic chive takes much longer to cook, so it’s less suitable for flatbread, and dumplings require longer steaming during cooking.

For flatbread, thinner layers and more oil will be needed to separate the layers. Try stretching the pastry with fingers, arms and elbows like making apfel strudel pastry first (until you can read a magazine through it) and add more oil.

Coriander is more beautiful without the help of garlic chives. Garlic chives are best in fried dumplings and coriander suits the boiled version even better.

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Chinese dumplings. The basic recipe.

So this isn’t the first time I’ve made dumplings. It just happens to be one of the first times I’ve done it away from home with a group of people I had never met before. The essence is simple. Get everyone involved and naturally people will find their niche. The aim. To produce a quality dumpling that will not leak, will stand up on its own, look beautiful while its doing it and taste fantastic.

Strong flour and enough water to combine into a ball only. Leave it (covered). 30 mins later knead it senseless.

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Celery. Cut into tiny tiny pieces. Discover the existence of a food processor. Blast in short bursts, along with some leek.

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Pork mince. Salt. Dash of each: oyster sauce, soy sauce, shaoshing wine, (generous dash) sesame oil.

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Shrimp. Whole pack. Mix together, plus celery and leek.

Take a handful of well-kneaded dough and roll into one long (roughly even) cylinder. Cut into even sized small pieces. Squash into small discs.

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Now pay attention closely. Take a rolling pin in one hand and roll firmly from the edge of a disc towards the middle. Once one edge is flattened, use your other hand turn the disc around 45-90 degrees (I go anti-clockwise because I’m right-handed) and repeat the action. The aim is to flatten the edges of the disc more than the middle, where the wet filling will sit. You’re also aiming for a circle. Loosely speaking.

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Why not shop-bought gyoza wrappers I hear you cry? Simple, I control the thickness, I control the bite, you want a perfect dumpling, you work for it.

Take the pastry in the palm of your hand (left hand this time if you’re right handed) and place one teaspoon of filling in the middle. Don’t let the filling touch the edges of your pastry otherwise it won’t stick.

Pay attention even more closely. Bring the pastry on opposite sides of the filling together on the top.

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Close down the sides in three folds. First and second fold, pinch the back of the pastry towards the front. Third fold. Flatten the remaining gap like origami to form pleats on the back of the dumpling. Funnily enough, the number of times I’ve demonstrated this step, there are always some backwards pleats that creep in.

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Make sure the dumpling is fully closed on all sides.

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Make some friends..

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Don’t let them get too friendly. Keep them apart on floured plates.

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Pick a very good non-stick pan with a lid that fits. Boil the kettle. Pour one tablespoon of oil in the pan. Arrange the dumplings in the pan, spreading the oil with the bottoms. Turn on a medium/high heat. Pour over boiling water until dumplings are half covered and place the lid on. Cook until the water has steamed itself away (about 10/12 mins) and you can hear the crackle of crisping jiaozi bottoms for a minute or two.

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Check the bottom is crispy golden before serving with chopped spring onion and sesame seed garnish.

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Eat it like a peach. With chopsticks. Knife and fork means loosing all the precious juices. I like mine with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

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You should eat them while they’re hot, so cook in batches and enjoy round after round of beautiful, authentic jiaozi.

The evening was a success. We were happy, we were full and I left with four new beautiful friends. The best thing about dumplings is making them together. There are days for Michelin treats perhaps, but this is the essence of cooking for me, a couple of mistakes here and there, sharing knowledge over a few swigs of beer and everyone throwing in a helping hand.

Notes for next time:

Pastry: As you can see from above, despite the brave attempt of the greenery to hide it, the dumpling deflated a little after cooking. The pastry was too thin.

Taste: I forgot to add a dash of sugar to the mix. Small oversight. Big difference.

Juiciness: Celery and leek are very watery vegetables. The mix before cooking needs to be drier, even though it should be juicy when eaten. Add salt to the chopped celery first and squeeze out the water before adding to the mix. Garlic chives have a more concentrated flavour and are less watery than leeks, next time make a trip to Chinatown.

I’m mainly kicking myself about the sugar. The same reason surf and turf works and in this case pork and shrimp: salt and sweet bring out the best in each other. And you don’t need a lot, just a hint.

The perfect dumpling

Dumplings. Not the suet-flour-balls business soaking up unctuous meaty stews. No I mean something completely different. In Nepal they are known as momos, in Japan they are gyoza and in China there are a hundred names for all its steamed, boiled and fried cousins. But for me, there is only one dumpling. I refer to the ultimate New Year celebratory dish of China, jiaozi.

Every Sunday, while most of my friends were enjoying, or thinking of enjoying a traditional Roast with all the trimmings, I would be making and eating round after round of delicious dumplings. In my lifetime, I must have helped my mother make an extortionate number of these lovable morsels, well into the tens of thousands. It’s very much a team task, there are several stages and it usually takes several hours.

So why do it? There are so many more hours left in the day from marinating a joint of meat and letting the oven do its thing. Surely, if you spend so much longer making food than eating it, life just seems a bit imbalanced. Well, not so. It started out as a great way of getting my baby brother to eat vegetables. To the point of which, such scheming has led to him to attain a more than satisfactory rugby-playing physique and the title “baby brother” now sounds ludicrous.

Secondly, compared to all of my friends, I’d say I have a more than commonly close relationship with my mother. I’m sure making dumplings together isn’t the only reason, but being the pros we are, we can chat as we go along and we have our own niches: I’ll do the kneading and rolling, she does the filling and folding. We work around each other so naturally, in contrast to the usual misunderstandings in daily life at work and school, dumpling-making sessions are sacred.

Surely this is mission accomplished. In a sense yes. The time I have spent with my mother is the reward in itself. It’s also very easy to make delicious dumplings. But it doesn’t stop us from wanting to make the epitome of all dumplings, to reach the inner sanctum of understated perfection, the ultimate combination of juicy tasty filling, pastry with a tantalising bite and a dumpling that sits proud and plump on its own without a sagging or squashed look about it… Yes ladies and gentlemen, that is worth fighting for.

Secret family recipes are a myth. Recipes change with the number of times you use it. In reality, we never follow recipes, we work with what’s in the fridge, we’ve picked up some tricks over the years, but we’re still picking them up as we go along. This is definitely a case of the journey mattering more than the end. Who would have thought: the humble dumpling could be a metaphor for life? So watch this space, more dumpling trials to follow.