Monday, November 23, 2009

Shanghai Soup Dumplings

This year my family and I joined a meat CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). City-dwellers who don't have gardens of their own usually subscribe to CSA's for a weekly delivery of local seasonal vegetables -- for ones in your area see Aside from scoring mad locavore street-cred, a subscription to a CSA tests your inner Iron Chef (Battle Kohlrabi anyone?). I had never heard of a meat CSA, but I found a list of them in a Reader article last winter and thought I'd give it a whirl. For twenty bucks a week, I got to pick up a monthly delivery of meat from a local farm. The most thrilling part was the shiny silver thermal bags the CSA gave out to tote your protein home.

I've been vegetarian, and vegan one summer, but after meeting my husband, I went back to omnivorous ways. This isn't to say we eat a lot of meat -- in general we eat low on the food chain. Meat is usually a condiment or a small part of a dish, if at all. And that was the problem with the CSA -- we couldn't keep up. Steaks, sausages and ethically-raised chicken piled up in my freezer. We only received a dozen eggs a month. I would have gladly taken a few dozen more in exchange for those much-coveted grass-fed rib-eyes. I ended up letting my subscription lapse, reasoning that I could spend a little more less often and buy locally-raised meat on an as-needed basis. At some point in our lives, I suspect we will turn vegetarian. I edge a little closer with every reading of Michael Pollan or viewing of Food, Inc. But for now, I am omnivorous - and this left me with a freezer of chicken.

I must be honest here. I know I should say this chicken tasted better. I should weep over its authentic flavor. But these chickens were stringy. These chickens were dry. I suspect some of this may have had to do with the freezing process, and some of it because these were hard-scrabble free-range birds who actually used their muscles. Either way, they did not make for good eating. I braised and coddled these birds and they were near inedible. While excavating my freezer this past weekend, I found 3 pounds of this chicken lurking in the back, taunting me.

I had been eyeing this recipe for Shanghai Soup Dumplings for a while The chicken was perfect for the broth/aspic component. If you aren't familiar with soup dumplings, they are similar to other steamed Chinese dumplings, except they are stuffed with a gelled aspic of highly flavored broth. When the dumplings steam, the aspic melts and forms a hot pocket of soup inside the wrapper. This pocket of liquid goodness explodes in your mouth when you bite in. Actually, I must be honest here, too: "explodes in your mouth" is what the food blogs and restaurant critics say. "Dribbles down your chin unattractively" or "squirts all over the crotch of your pants" is probably a more apt description. Any way you have it, it tastes great.

Be warned! This is a serious weekend cooking project. And, it makes a lot. Have several friends on call to come over and share in the riches. It will be a bittersweet moment for you, the cook. It is thrilling to watch people slurping down your homemade concoction, but it can take minutes for a few people to demolish what took you hours upon hours to prepare. But this is slow food at its best -- hard-won flavor and classic technique. There can be something very relaxing about forming 100 dumplings while listening to a book-on-tape in your kitchen. When you finally taste it, you will be glad of the time spent reducing broth and cutting the aspic into 1/8 inch dice. Chowhound message boards abound with debate over the proper way to eat these. All I can say is dig in, but do it over a bowl. That way you can slurp up any drippings that missed your mouth on the first go.

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