Chinese Lunar New Year was yesterday – did you know it’s the Year of the Tiger? How about that?! Doesn’t it sound like we’re up for an awesomely fierce year? I wish I had some of that energy to celebrate. I adore Chinese food and most especially a good dim sum spread but unfortunately I worked instead and it sucked the life right out of me. Let me tell you, working in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day stinks. I think I can say with total confidence that most folks in the restaurant industry despise Valentine’s Day. Probably more than we dread New Year’s Eve. It’s amateur night for asinine special requests, bad tippers and clueless people who are outraged they can’t get a same day reservation. I have to say, I’m glad it’s over. Whew!
So anyway… Chinese New Year! When I was a kid, we went out for Chinese food more than anything else. It was easily my favorite – won ton soup, neon orange sweet & sour pork, sticky hoisin ribs, dumplings galore, noodle-y dishes of any kind, cup after cup of jasmine tea. Some of my fondest meal memories are from Chinese restaurants with my family. Oh China Doll and cheapo David Kwan’s buffet how I miss you! Sure this was American Chinese food of the ‘70’s/80’s in Arizona for chrissake. It had about as much in common with mainland China as crab rangoon and fortune cookies – which is to say, zilch. But you know what? It was tasty and I loved it. In fact, I still adore Chinese food.
These restaurants always had paper placemats with the Chinese Zodiac or Lunar New Year, usually printed with an elaborate dragon of some sort. I always excitedly scanned through the years to find out what my “animal” was, somehow thinking it would vary by restaurant (apparently, I didn’t really understand the concept.) I eagerly ran my finder down the column, looking for my birth year. There it was! I was a …. Sheep. Huh? A Sheep? Blech. What the hell did that mean? Why not something big and strong like an Ox? Or sleek and glamorous like a Tiger? Or fun and impish like a Monkey? But a Sheep? Well, at least I wasn’t a Rat. I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be a Rat, I was just glad I wasn’t one of ‘em. Have another egg roll.
So in honor of this auspicious occasion, I made a batch of one of my favorite comfort foods … Won Ton Soup. (I find it funny that I, a Chicago-born-Arizona-bred Polish girl, consider won ton soup one of my comfort foods. Whatever.) Because it is on every single Chinese restaurant menu, there are a lot of bad versions out there. Cheap fillings, overcooked noodles, and flavorless broth – it can be really bad in the wrong hands. Yet it’s pretty easy so sometimes it’s just better to make it yourself. Like most things, you just need some good ingredients and a little patience.
The good news is that won ton wrappers are pretty easy to find in regular old grocery stores these days. Sometimes they’re in the produce section, sometimes in the freezer section – just ask (if frozen, let defrost in the fridge overnight.) I sometimes make a shrimp/pork filling and sometimes an all shrimp filling, depending on my mood and what I have on hand. I add some finely diced water chestnuts and green onion for texture, a little sherry/sesame oil and pepper for flavor.
For the soup, chicken stock scented with fresh ginger and a handful of mushrooms and bok choy. I also prefer to poach the won tons in water separately – I find that cooking them in the chicken broth clouds it up and I just don’t like that.
So the most complicated thing here is forming the won tons. It’s best if you set up a little assembly line and do 5 or 6 at once, rather than one at a time. Terribly efficient. Also, get everything ready to go – your stack of wrappers, a bowl of filling with a teaspoon and a small bowl with a beaten egg and a pastry brush. Now you can crank these out like a production line in a Chinese toy factory. Boom, boom, boom!
Now keep this in mind – resist the urge to overfill. I’m serious. I know you want big fat won tons but if you overfill, you increase the chances of the damn things bursting while cooking. And there is nothing sadder than an empty won ton. So very sad.
The best part … I made the won tons ahead of time and had them ready to go in my freezer. When I came home from work yesterday, all cranky and tired, I was able to put together a lovely dinner quickly and painlessly. I watched the Olympics (moguls! moguls! moguls!) and my mood was greatly improved.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: HELLO! IT’S COMFORT FOOD! Of course it ranks high. Whip up a big bowl, hunker down in a blanket and watch the Olympics. There is nothing better, warming and smile inducing that a bowl of big fat tasty won tons. And you can easily share the love if you freeze a bunch. Everybody could use some dumplings in their life.
WON TON SOUP
Makes about 40 wontons
I make my filling in the food processor but you can easily do this by hand – finely chop the green onions and water chestnuts, roughly chop the shrimp and stir everything together.
For the filling:
½ pound shrimp, peeled & deveined
½ pound ground pork
3 ounces sliced water chestnuts (about 2/3 of can)
3 green onions, finely chopped
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons mirin, rice wine or sherry
¼ teaspoon sesame oil
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 package won ton skins
1 egg, lightly beaten
for the soup/per person:
2 cups chicken stock
1 stalk bok choy, sliced
small handful mushrooms, sliced if large
quarter size piece of ginger, cut into thin slivers
4-6 won tons per person
- For the filling: In the bowl of a food processor, add the ground pork, water chestnuts, chopped green onions, white pepper, mirin (or rice wine or sherry), sesame oil and salt.
- Pulse a few times until water chestnuts are roughly chopped.
- Add the shrimp and pulse a few times – say 5-6 – until shrimp is roughly chopped – you want some bigger chunks in there. If it needs a few more pulses, give it a stir to mix things up a bit and pulse a few more times.
- Taste – heat a small skillet over medium high heat. Make a small patty from your filling mixture and pan fry until just cooked through. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed – More salt? More sesame? More sweetness from the sherry? Fry up another test batch if you need to.
- Set up your assembly line: Put the filling in a bowl with a teaspoon; lightly beat an egg in a small bowl; line a sheet pan with parchment, plastic wrap or foil
- To assemble: line up 6-8 won ton skins, point side up.
- With a small pastry brush or your finger, brush the top two sides of each won ton skins with the beaten egg.
- In the center of each skin, place 1 Tablespoon of the filling.
- Bring the bottom corner of the won ton skin up to the top corner and pinch the tip to seal.
- With your fingers, seal each side of the won ton to make a triangle pushing out any air bubbles from around the filling.
- With your finger, dab a little egg onto the right hand corner of the won ton triangle.
- Now you’re going to bring one corner to the other by lightly bending the won ton to bring the right corner behind the left corner and pressing to seal.
- Place on the prepared sheet pan and continue until you run out of filling. It’s very likely that you’ll run out of filling before won ton wrappers.
- Now then, won tons will hold for a few hours uncooked but for longer storage, freeze right on the sheet pan for a few hours then transfer to a labeled Ziploc bag. Frozen won tons can be cooked right from the freezer.
- For the soup: at the same time, bring a pot of water and a pot of stock to a boil.
- Add the won tons to the boiling water and cook 4 minutes until cooked through. (add a minute or two if frozen.)
- Once the stock comes to a boil, add the slivered ginger, the bok choy and the mushrooms. Lower to a simmer and cook until tender – about 3-4 minutes. If you time this right, it will be done at the same time as the won tons.
- Drain the won tons with a slotted spoon and transfer to soup bowls – 4-6 per person.
- Top the won tons with the hot soup.
- Wrap yourself in a warm blanket and waddle out to the couch. Slurp and enjoy.