- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

When I tell friends that the first dumplings I ever tasted were gnocchi coated in brownbutter, more than a few eyebrows raise. Accustomed to the whole apple-baked-in-a-pastry-type dumpling, they think I am confused. How could I mistake a savory Italian entree for this luscious treat?

Sweet or savory, pea-sized or the expanse of a fist, dumplings vary from cuisine to cuisine. Some, like gnocchi, remain unfilled. Others, such as pirogis and wontons, are packed with fruits, meats, cheeses or vegetables. Served as a main dish, a side dish or added to a stew, dumplings depend largely upon their homelands for their roles and flavors.

Eastern European Jews cook matzo balls from a mixture of matzo meal, eggs and chicken fat and feature them in soups. Ukrainians dine on onion-topped halushki, while Poles favor onion- and potato-stuffed pirogis. Meanwhile, Asia offers such pork- and shrimp-laden delicacies as the wavy-edged wonton and semicircular jiaozi. Great Britain serves a plethora of dessert and dinner dumplings, including the bread-dough-based Norfolk and the beef-dripping-infused Derbyshire.

The exact origins of dumplings remain a mystery. Some historians, such as the late Alan Davidson, point to Europe in the early 17th century, when the word “dumpling” supposedly first appeared in print. Others suggest that they arose in 10th-century China and were introduced later to Russia and Continental Europe by nomads.

All agree, however, that these globes of cooked dough arose from peasant cuisines. Dumplings were a way to stretch meals and satisfy hunger at a time when appetite-sating meat was a rare luxury. Added to a soup or stew, dumplings were an inexpensive way to expand those dishes. Topped with a sauce, gravy, butter or meat drippings, they became economical and hearty entrees in their own right.

Scholars also concur on what makes a dumpling a dumpling. It boils down to three things — method of cooking, basic ingredients and general shape. Boiling is one preparation technique. Steaming is the other.

Dumpling dough remains fairly simple, based on grains, legumes or vegetables such as potatoes. Many early recipes call only for flour, salt and water. A few insist upon a leavening agent, while others add eggs, butter and milk to the mix.

Dough from Germany, Austria, and Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, consisted of bits of stale bread soaked in milk or water and then combined with egg, cheese, bacon, minced liver or herbs. In Scotland, it was flavored and colored by herbs, nettle leaves and dandelion greens.

Given such a wide variation of ingredients and cooking styles, there is a dumpling to suit every mood and taste.

When making plain dumplings, I decide on a recipe based on the ingredients I want to incorporate, and then I have two paths I can take. I can pull off bits of dough and roll them into balls or push the dough through a sieve to make tiny dumplings.

For gnocchi, I take an additional step and run a fork over the balls to make small ridges. These channels help retain the sauce. Grooved, wooden gnocchi boards are available at most cookware stores, but I find a fork works just as well.

Having formed the orbs, I drop them into lightly salted boiling water or broth.

In three to five minutes, they rise to the surface, a sure sign they have finished cooking. I wait another 30 seconds — the time it takes to find a skimmer or slotted spoon — and skim the bobbing dumplings from the liquid. I then arrange them on plates, drizzle over a sauce and serve.

If plain dumplings sound a bit dull, I can always opt for filled ones. Once the dough is made, instead of making those little balls, I knead and roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8 inch thick. Using a plain 2- or 3-inch cutter, I make a series of circles large enough to hold about a tablespoon of fruit, vegetable, cheese or meat stuffing.

After spooning the filling into the center of a dough round, I either fold the circle in half or place another round of dough on top. Then I moisten and seal the edges.

As with the plain dumplings, these are plopped into boiling liquid and cooked for about 5 minutes. Depending upon the contents, I finish these off with a dollop of sour cream, a pat of butter, a spoonful of sauteed onions or, in the case of dessert dumplings, whipped cream or a light fruit sauce.

On frenetically paced days when the thought of mixing, kneading and cutting dough seems far too labor-intensive, I pull out a wonton recipe that I adapted from my husband’s stepfather. A native of Vietnam and a periodic Asian-food caterer, Luong Vo spent a sultry summer afternoon coaching me on how to make the perfect time-saving wonton.

His trick? Store-bought wheat-flour dumpling wrappers. These can be found in specialty grocery stores and the Asian section of some supermarkets and also online.

Unlike homemade dough, the wrappers must be moistened and softened before using. To achieve the right consistency, we draped a damp dish towel over the sheets and let them sit for a few minutes.

Once the wrappers were limber, we stuffed and sealed our dumplings. Ground pork is classic filler for wontons, but the recipe below calls for chicken for the benefit of Asian-food fans who abstain from pork.

We set aside half the dumplings for wonton soup. The others we boiled and paired with a dipping sauce of two parts soy sauce to one part honey and rice vinegar.

In the end, we had two fabulous meals made in half the time as with other stuffed dumplings.

Gnocchi

1½ pounds baking potatoes, peeled, cut, cooked and drained

1 large egg, beaten

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground white pepper, to taste

Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

1 cup all-purpose flour, more or less as needed

6 to 8 quarts salted water, for cooking

Using either a potato ricer or a food mill and a large bowl, puree the potatoes. Add the egg, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and enough flour to make a soft, satiny dough.

Depending on how moist the potatoes are, you may need to add more or less flour. Keep in mind that the more flour added, the heavier the dough (and gnocchi) will be.

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and divide it into four equal portions. Roll the dough between your hands and work surface until a ½-inch thick strand has formed. Using a knife, cut off 3/4-inch pieces and press one side of each piece into the tines of a fork. Place on a floured baking sheet and repeat the same process with the other portions.

Bring the salted water in a stockpot to a boil and cook the gnocchi in batches, about 5 to 8 minutes. They will float to the surface of the water when ready.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the dumplings and place in bowls or on plates. Top with butter and grated Romano cheese, pesto or a marinara sauce and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Cheese and potato pirogis

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

1 large egg

3/4 cup water

1½ pounds baking potatoes, peeled, cut, cooked and drained

13/4 cups white cheddar cheese, grated

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

6 to 8 quarts salted water, for boiling the pirogis

Water, for sealing the pirogis

Sour cream, for garnish

Sift together the flour and salt. Add the egg and water and stir together until a soft dough forms. Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until soft, smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball, cover with a cloth and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

While the dough is resting, make the filling by placing the hot potatoes, cheese, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Using either a potato masher or an electric mixer, mix on low speed until creamy. Allow to cool slightly.

Bring the salted water to a boil.

On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 2- or 3-inch cutter, cut out circles until all the dough has been used.

Using a spoon or small scoop, place roughly a tablespoon of potato filling in the center of each of the circles. Fold the dough over, moisten the edges and press together to seal.

Place the pirogis in the boiling water. When they float to the surface, remove and place on plates. Top with sour cream and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Chicken wontons

60 Shanghai-style wonton or dumpling wrappers

1 pound lean ground chicken

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 scallions, finely chopped

4 shiitake mushrooms, roughly chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

12 water chestnuts, chopped

8 to 10 shrimp, cut into pieces

Small piece of ginger, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

6 tablespoons soy sauce, plus more for garnish

6 to 8 quarts salted water, for cooking

Wet a paper towel and place it over the dumpling/wonton wrappers to moisten them.

Place the ground chicken, shallots, scallions, mushrooms, garlic, water chestnuts, shrimp, ginger, salt and pepper in a large bowl and stir to combine. Add the soy sauce and stir again.

Bring the salted water to a boil.

Peel off a dumpling wrapper and place 1 tablespoon of filling in the middle of the wrapper. Moisten the edges of the wrapper and fold into a crescent. Press down on the edges with the tines of a fork. Place on plate.

Repeat this process with all the wrappers, making sure not to overlap the dumplings on the plate or they will stick together.

In batches, place the dumplings in the boiling water and cook. When they float to the surface, they are finished.

Remove wontons with wire skimmer or slotted spoon. Serve on plates with soy sauce or place in a broth and serve as a soup. Makes about 60 wontons.

Note: The same ingredients can be used for wonton soup. After filling the wonton wrappers, twist the edges up into a teepee. Place in wonton soup broth (1 chunk of whole ginger, to be removed once soup is finished, 1 sliced shallot, 1 can of chicken broth) and cook.

Cherry dumplings

Based upon Ukrainian and Czech fruit dumplings, these can be eaten at breakfast or for dessert.

2½ cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg, beaten

3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon milk

1 quart cherries, washed and with stems and pits removed

½ cup sugar

1/4 cup water

8 quarts salted water, for cooking

In a large bowl, sift together the flour and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg and milk. Slowly add the mixture to the flour and, using a wooden spoon, stir together until well combined. A soft, elastic dough should form.

Place the dough on a lightly floured surface and knead until soft, smooth and elastic. Shape into a ball, cover with a cloth and allow to rest for 15 minutes.

While the dough rests, place the cherries, sugar and 1/4 cup water in a saucepan. Bring the contents to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Stir the cherries, cover the pan and simmer for 5 minutes.

Leaving the juice behind, remove the cherries from the pan and place them in a bowl. Bring the remaining juice to a boil and cook, uncovered, until reduced, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface until it is about 1/4 inch thick. Using a 2- or 3-inch cutter, cut out circles until all the dough has been used.

Place a teaspoon of cherries on each round. Fold the sides together to make a crescent, then pinch the edges closed.

In several batches, cook the dumplings in the boiling water until they float to the top, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and place in bowls. Drizzle the reduced cherry juice over the dumplings and serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 8 servings.

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