(jump to recipe)
In an effort to formally learn some kitchen skills (and if we are being very honest, in an effort to feed myself delicious wontons any time I want), I recently took the amazing “Wonders of Wonton” class with Chef Lorraine Witte at San Francisco’s newly minted pop-up cooking school: “The Civic Kitchen“. It was my first time in a cooking school and boy was I in wonderland – state of the art equipment, cleavers so sharp you could cut yourself just looking at them, wonderful atmosphere and very helpful instructors!
I’ve been known to hightail to San Francisco’s many amazing dumpling places, and also down to Din Tai Fung in San Jose (whenever they’ll let us in, that is – typically that happens once a year) to get my Xiao Long Bao/Scallion Pancake/General Dumpling fix from time to time. Life has its way of getting in the way of my love for dumplings. Also, traffic on highway 101. So I figured a lesson on wontons would help bring them closer, and also give me an opportunity to fill them with the things I want to eat (less pork, more shrimp, some chicken), alongside other things I want to eat with them (1/4 cup chili oil, anyone?).
I was ecstatic to learn how easy it is to make wontons (or dumplings, or potstickers, it just depends) once you understand the basics – the filling should not be too wet or sticky or watery, the wontons should be sealed shut and not be overfilled, and…that’s pretty much it. Sure, there’s the details, such as which thickness wrapper to use for which wontons (thin for boiled or steamed, medium for pan-fried, slightly thick for deep-fried), which method of cooking to use for which wonton, and so on, but the rules are logical. The wontons themselves are not that difficult to make – even the simplest folds taste divine, so you can stay right in that zone. They make for wholesome, complete and comforting meals when served in a broth or a light soup, and fun appetizers with cocktails. Not to mention customizable to your liking and schedule! As long as you follow the basic rules, you can make any kind of dumpling you want and have it within 30 minutes of procuring the ingredients (no special equipment necessary)!
The class also gave us valuable tips on what/how to shop for Chinese ingredients, something I had never ventured into before. And now that I had acquired said ingredients (mainly soy sauce, sesame oil, chili oil, black bean sauce), I wanted to try out a few different things, and not just limit myself to what I had learnt in class.
I decided to prepare a complete meal to use all my new grocery, to see which recipes could be tweaked and incorporated into the weekly rotation with minimum fuss. Also, over the years I have realized that Asian cooking (Indian cooking not so much) tends to be dairy-free by design, so I have decided to befriend it on behalf of my dairy-hating guts!
I decided to make:
Shrimp and chicken wontons 2 ways: in a ginger, scallion and shiitake mushroom broth (similar to what I made in class), and, in chili oil (with sesame seeds, soy sauce and sesame oil)
Spring vegetable and Tofu potstickers with gyoza sauce (store bought)
Noodles in black bean sauce with carrots, snow peas, mushrooms and water chestnuts
A lot of the prep for this meal can (and should) be done ahead of time – for instance, the prep work for the filling can be refrigerated, the filling itself refrigerates and freezes well, and the fully assembled wontons freeze well and can be cooked directly from the freezer too – so this plan is very much doable!
With a vote of confidence from the husband (and by that I mean him taking over all cooking responsibilities for the week), I began. Before starting on the wontons, I kicked off the broth so it could get done on the side with minimal fuss. I also set a large pot of fresh tap water to boil, to blanch the baby bok choy for serving with the broth, the carrots and snow peas (and any other greens you may want to add to the noodles without turning them to a brown mush), to cook the noodles, and eventually cook the dumplings!
I wanted a simple, light, vegetarian broth so I skipped the chicken (whole or parts) but it can be used to bulk up the broth. It’s also perfect if you want to make extra broth to store for other soups and stews. Normally I would have just dumped the aromatics in a pot of water but in the class we learnt that if you whack them a little, it helps release their juices and fragrance. Seems like a no-brainer now that I know.
Instead of rehydrating the dried shiitake mushrooms separately as suggested in class, I threw them in the broth to cook. After about an hour, I pulled them out, squeezed out the water, chopped off the hard stems, sliced the mushrooms and set them aside to add along with the dumplings later. Alternatively you can also add them back into the broth – just depends on how much of the mushroom taste you want in your broth. Also, if they’ve been in the broth for 2+ hours, I would discard them when straining the stock.
While the broth was perfuming the kitchen, I started the prep for the wonton filling – I chopped up some reconstituted mushrooms (different set of mushrooms, not from the broth); cleaned, peeled, deveined and butterflied the shrimp, and diced it up so the pieces were still recognizable; drained, cleaned and patted dry the water chestnuts, and gave them a fine chop (its important to dice these well because one stray large piece can pierce the thin wonton skin!), and chopped some cilantro and scallions.
Threw everything into a bowl with an egg, salt, pepper, soy sauce and sesame oil, and after a good stir, we are all set with the filling!
The broth was about done as well, so I strained it and put it back in the pot to keep it warm on low heat. I added some rice vinegar since I didn’t have rice wine or sake as originally suggested, and it did the trick. I didn’t add any salt to the broth since I wanted to add soy sauce, sesame oil and chili oil later, but you could add it depending on how you are planning to serve it. Ginger heaven!
Chopped up some baby bok choy and gave it a quick blanch in the boiling hot water (see note above). I also stopped to admire this baby bok choy rose:
On to the dumplings: I used super thin wonton skins that I got at the Asian supermarket. The skins available at the regular grocery stores (Safeway, Lucky, etcetera) typically contain just one kind of wonton wrappers, and they are usually of medium thickness (which are better suited for potstickers or deep-fried wontons). Those would work here too, but would likely overpower the filling and result in a much higher skin:filling ratio which may or may not be what you desire. Make the call based on what is accessible to you and the taste you prefer. The thin skins are ever so slightly trickier to handle but they just about hold the filling together and when cooked, become almost translucent. I used the dabs of water as sealant and made a few different shapes.
This one was a square wonton skin filled and folded on the diagonal into a triangle, and then extreme ends pulled inwards to the center to form a small hat:
I made some “nurse’s hats” which involve a square wonton skin, filled and folded in half to form a rectangle, and then pull back the corners into the center and seal. I kept some as just basic rectangles for simplicity (also I had already folded over 50 dumplings!). I kid of course. Once you get going, it goes pretty fast. The best part is you can freeze them and cook them fresh whenever you want! I’ve provided detailed instructions on that below.
After the wontons were ready and cooked the wontons 4-5 at a time by gently dropping them in boiling hot water and giving them a light stir. Once they rise to the top, they are done! I poured the broth into shallow bowls and then it was time to dress up the bowl!
We topped it up to our heart’s content with sliced shiitake mushrooms (cooked in the broth earlier), blanched baby bok choy, chopped cilantro, soy sauce, more rice vinegar, sesame oil, and my favorite: chili oil! I must add that the wontons tasted just divine without any of the clutter!
I made another batch to serve with chili oil because that is my absolute favorite, and it tasted way better than anything I’d had in any restaurant (well not really because I simply couldn’t smother my wontons in oil)! To make the chili oil “sauce”, I added soy sauce and sesame oil to store bought chili oil, and gently rolled the wontons around in the sauce. The soft, slippery wontons with bits of crunch from the the dried chilies and freshness of scallions felt magical and completely attainable going forward!
I made a batch of these fabulous potstickers (courtesy of Smitten Kitchen, as always) with a mixture of snow peas, sugar snap peas, fresh green peas and tofu to try my hand at potstickers:
Cook the spring vegetables in a bit of sesame oil (adding tofu last) and freshly chopped ginger and garlic; Once mixture is cooked, give it a rough chop in the food processor to keep small recognizable pieces of vegetables. You don’t want the mixture to be purèed but you don’t want it too chunky either!
After that, I was on another wonton making rampage – this time potstickers!
I made these with the slightly thicker potsticker wraps and they were quite easy to put together (although mine don’t look nice and dainty). I pan fried these and served them garnished with chopped scallions, with some store bought gyoza dipping sauce, but I’m determined to make the sauce myself next time with soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil, since it sounds too easy to not make at home. Also, I’ll probably make these with medium-thickness wrappers next time.
Next up: Noodles! About that sauce: the “bean” here is actually a fermented soy bean, not the black bean of “black beans and rice” fame. I didn’t know this (dumb) and was delighted to find this out about one of my favorite sauces. The sauce is delicious with just about anything – cubes of tofu, shrimp, chopped up vegetables, you name it! Just be careful and balance the salt levels in all the condiments you end up using. I blanched and shocked (dunked in an ice bath) carrot matchsticks and slivered snow peas for 5 and 2 minutes respectively, sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms and diced drained/dried water chestnuts. Each of these ingredients was roughly 3/4 cup each, but feel free to switch the proportions (and also the ingredients around to your liking):
For the sauce, I combined the black bean paste with soy sauce, mirin, and cornstarch, along with some salt, sugar and white chili powder, and a cup of water.
I cooked the semi-cooked, medium thickness “chinese style” noodles in boiling hot water for about 4-5 minutes, then drained and rinsed them and set aside. Then, in a large pot heated some vegetable oil, and sautèed some minced garlic, mushrooms and chestnuts in it for 4-5 minutes, and set them aside in a bowl. After that, it was time to cook the sauce and assemble: I cooked the black bean sauce made earlier for 4-5 minutes in the same (still hot) pot, then tossed in all the cooked fillings (carrots, snow peas, mushrooms, chestnuts) and noodles in the cooked sauce, and warmed everything through. Served it with finely chopped scallions. The spice level was fine for us but a few dots of Sriracha would absolutely rock here.
And, like all good meals, we finished ours with some tea from China. And also auditioned the new tea set!
And now for the big ta da – you may notice that several potstickers are missing (it is unfair to expect someone to wait for a meal like this for a silly photo!):
We thoroughly enjoyed this meal with plenty of leftovers for the next few days!
Now, it is time for a nap.
• Recipes •
Ginger Scallion Broth
Makes 2 scant cups
6 cups water
3 pieces fresh ginger the size of a quarter, smashed lightly with the flat side of knife
3-4 whole scallions, lightly smashed, ends cleaned trimmed
4-5 dried Chinese (shiitake) mushrooms
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
Salt to taste
Place the water, ginger and scallions in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for a total of 1 1/2 hours.
While the broth is boiling, add the mushrooms to the broth. Cook for 15-20 minutes, until soft. Remove from the broth using a slotted spoon, and when cool enough to handle, squeeze lightly over the sink and then rinse in cold water. Remove stems from the mushrooms and then slice thinly. Set aside to be served later with wontons.
At the end of 1 1/2 hours, add rice vinegar and season with salt to taste. Take care not to over salt. If the broth has over-reduced, add a cup or so of hot water and bring it back to a boil.
Strain the broth through a fine mesh strainer and set aside until ready to use. Broth may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days, but note that the ginger and mild-onion-y flavor will continue to bloom.
Shrimp and Chicken Wontons
Makes about 6 cups of filling and about 70 wontons (with 1 teaspoon of filling in each)
For the filling
1/2 pound (8 oz) medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup canned or fresh water chestnuts, drained well
1/2 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
1/2 pound (8 oz) ground chicken, at room temperature
1 large egg
1/4 cup scallions, finely chopped
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons soy sauce (I used low sodium)
2 teaspoons table salt
1 1/2 teaspoon crushed black pepper
2 teaspoons sesame oil (regular or toasted)
For the wontons
1 package square wonton wrappers, thin thickness
To serve with broth
1/2 cup of blanched, chopped (if desired) baby bok choy
1-2 teaspoons of sesame oil (regular or toasted)
1-2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro
To serve with chilli oil
2-3 tablespoons of chilli oil mixed with a teaspoon each of soy sauce and sesame oil (scale this up depending on how many wontons you are serving with the chili oil; the suggested quantity will work for 8-10 wontons, lightly dressed)
1-2 tablespoons of chopped scallions
1-2 teaspoons of white sesame seeds
To make filling
Butterflied the shrimp and then finely chopped into 1/2 inch pieces. Rinse water chestnuts until soft, pat dry, and chop into 1/4 inch pieces (this is important as their sharp edges can tear into the wonton skin). Place the dried mushrooms in a shallow bowl, and cover with hot water for 30 minutes, until soft. Squeeze out the excess water, and remove the stems (which will still be hard). Chop the mushrooms into 1/4 inch pieces.
In a large bowl, combine shrimp, water chestnuts, mushrooms with the ground chicken, egg, scallions, cilantro, soy sauce, salt, pepper and sesame oil, and mix well with a wooden spoon to combine. Refrigerate until ready to use.
If not using in a day or two, the filling can be frozen for 3-4 months and defrosted when ready to use. It can also be refrigerated for 1-2 days. Do not leave at room temperature for too long especially on a warm day.
To make wontons
Prepare a large baking sheet by lightly oiling it or covering in parchment or wax paper.
Place a teaspoon of the filling in the middle of a wonton wrapper and fold into desired shape:
If its a square wrapper, folded over itself along the diagonal to make a triangle. Or fold it in half to make a rectangle.
You can stop at this, or, use the far ends of the triangle/rectangle and pull them to the center and seal them together to make a nurse’s hat.
If it’s a round wrapper, fold it in half to make a semi-circle.
You can stop at this, or, pleat the center of the circular part right-to-left, front-to-back, to make a potsticker.
You can get creative as long as you make sure:
– you don’t overfill the wonton
– you push excess air out of the wonton before sealing
– keep the filling restricted to the center of the wonton
– seal the wonton well
While working with wonton skins, make sure you keep the remaining skins covered and moist to make sure they do not dry.
Seal edges with a few dabs of water (this worked just fine for me, but if you want extra assurance, please add some cornstarch to the water to make a “glue” and use that instead).
Place on the prepared baking sheet.
To store for later
You can freeze the wontons on the baking sheet itself by placing it in the freezer for 1-2 hours. Once (and only after) the wontons are hard, place them gently and carefully in a freezer-safe box (not in a ziploc bag, especially for the thin-skinned wontons), label, and freeze for 3-4 months. They can be cooked directly from the freezer by just adding a minute or 2 to the cooking time.
To cook and serve right away
In a medium or large saucepan, bring 4-6 quarts of water to a boil. Add 4-5 wontons at a time and give them a gentle stir once or twice so they don’t stick to the bottom.
With the thin wrappers and 1 teaspoon filling, it took an average of 2 minutes for each batch of wontons to cook (the shrimp was nice and pink too). For thicker wonton wrappers or more heavily filled wontons, it may take a minute longer. In any case, when the wontons float to the top, they’re ready to eat.
Use a strainer or spider to transfer them to warmed bowls with a slick of hot water or broth. Don’t hold these for too long or they start sticking together and congeal because of all that starch. Since they take only a few minutes to cook, its better to cook them when you need them.
Serve with the Ginger and Scallion Broth and fixings of your choice (balance the salt). Alternatively, you can also serve it with chilli oil, as suggested above. Enjoy hot!