Eastern Lights, a venerable Chinese and Korean restaurant in Durham (4215 University Drive, 403-3650, www.easternlightsrestaurant.com), serves a 10-course New Year’s banquet featuring particularly juicy and tender dumplings.
The recipe descends from Chef Frank Chao’s father, who fled from China to Korea to escape conscription during the 1940s.
Makes about 25 dumplings
For the filling
1/2 cup water or chicken stock, at room temperature
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon Totole-brand Granulated Chicken-Flavor Soup Base Mix (optional)
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon ginger root, finely minced
Scant 1/2 pound of ground or finely minced pork belly, texture should resemble raw hamburger (see cook’s notes)
2 stalks spring onion, roughly chopped (see cook’s notes)
1 cup of white onion, minced
2/3 cup Napa cabbage, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Mix the water or chicken stock with the soy sauce, salt, soup base mix, white pepper, ginger and spring onion. Gradually add the liquid mixture to the meat, stirring in vigorous circles in one direction only. Once the first batch of liquid is absorbed, add more.
When all the liquid has been incorporated, add the white onion and the cabbage and stir in a single direction.
Add the vegetable oil and continue to stir in a single direction for three minutes. Add the sesame oil and stir in a single direction for two minutes, or until the meat looks dry and has lost its pinkish hue. Cover and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
For the dough
About 2 cups loosely packed bleached all-purpose flour (see cook’s notes)
2/3 cup boiling water
Using a fork, mix the boiling water into the flour to form a shaggy mass. Knead by hand for 15 minutes or until the dough has the silky texture of a “baby’s cheek.” Cover and rest for 20 minutes. Knead for another 5 minutes.
Divide the dough into two pieces and roll each piece into a rope about 1 inch in diameter. Cut the rope into half-inch segments.
Lightly sprinkle a cutting board or counter with cornstarch. Using a small rolling pin, flatten each piece of dough and roll into a round, roughly four inches in diameter. Roll the dough as thinly as possible for a maximally delicate dumpling skin.
Hold the dough in your left hand. Smear 1 1/2 teaspoons of filling the length of the round. Pinch the round at the right corner, forming two half-moon-shaped flaps at a slightly splayed angle. The goal is to pleat the inner flap and press each pleat into the outer flap. With the left thumb, roll a bit of the inner flap over the right thumb; withdraw the right thumb and press the formed pleat into the outer flap. Repeat until the entire dumpling has been pleated and closed. (YouTube abounds in demonstrations of wrapping technique; enter keyword “potstickers”).
Cooking the Dumplings
Spread a light sheen of vegetable or canola oil in a non-stick frying pan. Add the dumplings to the pan without crowding them. Fry for 1 minute and then add enough room temperature water to cover the dumplings to the level of their pleat. Cover and cook for 7 minutes (if you have a particularly well-engineered frying pan and lid, you may have to leave a slight crack so the water can slowly evaporate).
Once the water evaporates, the dumplings will begin to fry in the residual oil. Cook the dumplings until the bottoms are browned and crisped. Pay close attention, as the dumplings will quickly burn. For steamed dumplings, line a steaming tray with cotton cloth or tightly-woven cheesecloth and place over a pot of boiling water. Arrange the dumplings on the cotton. Cover and steam for 10-12 minutes.
* Flour is a crucial variable. A low-gluten, bleached all-purpose flour (Gold Medal for example) will produce ideal results, while a higher-gluten, unbleached flour (say King Arthur) will yield a tougher, chewier skin. My experiments with White Lily brand flour, a low-gluten flour famous for producing light and tender Southern biscuits, came up a cropper. White Lily does not have enough gluten to produce the necessary elasticity.
* Don’t be tempted to substitute supermarket-prepared ground pork for ground or hand-minced pork belly. Pork belly’s high fat content is integral to the consistency of the filling.
* If the dough is incorrigibly crumbly, add water by the drop. Don’t be tempted to add more than strictly necessary to form an elastic dough. Excess water will make the dough heavy and chewy.
* Don’t be seduced by the food processor. In a split second, it will reduce the cabbage and onion to watery pulp.
Uncooked dumplings can be frozen. Space the dumplings on a cookie tray and place in the freezer. Pry loose the frozen dumplings and place in a freezer bag for long-term storage. To cook, place the frozen dumplings directly in the frying pan or steamerdo not thaw beforehand. Frozen dumplings require a bit more cooking time: about 10 minutes in the frying pan, 15 minutes in the steamer.