Sunday, February 14, 2010

When plants and food are better store bought

While I do always appreciate the handmade and homegrown, I am a sucker for florists' plants in full bloom. I love coaxing plants into blooming, but there is such a thrill when someone else does all the work under professional plant-growing conditions, and I get to enjoy the fruit, or blossoms rather, of their labor. For me, this red florists' cyclamen is a far superior gift to a box of Valentine chocolates. I spent my morning sipping coffee and appreciating the gorgeous leaves and flowers. My house is cool, so it may do well, though humidity is an issue. I'll put it near my fern, to remind me to mist.

I have also learned the hard way about certain store bought products being superior for cooking. The lesson came last weekend, when I decided to cook ahead and freeze some dumplings to eat on Chinese New Year. Yesterday was our Valentine's party and it went off quite well, if I do say so myself. Here's a picture of the sweets I made:

Of course, I overcooked and spent most of last night packing away all of the cheeses, roasted vegetables, cookies and candies, desperately trying to shoehorn one last container into the fridge. After an epic day of cooking, hosting and cleaning, I knew I would be left with little desire to dive in to my usual Sunday cooking projects. If I hadn't thrown the party, I would have probably spent all day making the insanely delicious Shanghai soup dumplings that I wrote about a while ago. Yet I knew I would not have the energy for dicing aspic. So last weekend, when I came upon a Fine Cooking article on traditional foods to celebrate the Year of the Tiger, I decided to make these dumplings and freeze them for a quick heat-and-eat meal in my haze of post-party fatigue.

The article waxed poetic on the authentic way to make dumpling wrappers, complete with instructions for fashioning a small rolling pin from a wooden dowel. To me, instructions for projects like this are nearly irresistible. I am a moth to the flame. Make a recipe harder and more intricate, especially in the name of authenticity, and I must cook the dish, no matter what hurdles are set before me. Obscure ingredient? Who cares! I have a toddler who loves quests of all sorts and gladly hops into the car seat for "dinner adventures". He has ridden with me to the ends of Chicago in search of specialty products. This particular dumpling recipe involved no such quest, but rather a time-consuming and generally unnecessary process of rolling my own wrappers. I could understand this coming in handy, especially when one lives in a region that has few supermarket options. But I live within short driving distance of multiple Asian supermarkets. They all sell locally made dumpling wrappers in generous stacks for less than two dollars. And, to be honest, Chinese cooking is popular enough that even my Grandma who lives in a small town in Wyoming can pick up won-ton wrappers at the local Albertson's. This general accessibility was yet another enticement for me to kick it up a notch on the DIY difficulty level and roll my own wrappers. I had a spare dowel, and all it took was a saw and some mineral oil to fashion the proper tool.

It will come as no surprise that the wrappers took hours to produce. Even with careful rolling by an experienced cook, they were uneven, misshapen and prone to tearing. Additionally, the recipe yielded about twice the filling necessary for the amount of wrappers provided by the dough. A reasonable person would have called it a day and made meatballs with the rest of the filling mix, but of course, this was just a siren call to try the wrapper-production process all over again. Sadly, my rolling skills showed no measurable improvement during the second attempt.

Eaten on the day of, the dumplings tasted great and held up okay when boiled, but did better when pan-fried pot sticker style. Most of the dumplings, though, were carefully frozen for today. This morning, I inspected our planned lunch and found that the dough had done something odd: each dumpling was encased in a fragile mosaic of frozen dough shards. The shards seemed held together by a thin web of dough, with the surface of each dumpling sporting a museum-quality craquelure finish. I freeze dumplings all the time, and I have never seen this happen with store bought wrappers. Nor does it happen with my frozen homemade ravioli, although, with an egg base, that dough has more structure. I tested a few of these morphed dumplings on the stove top and the filling promptly oozed out and made the water a chunky, greasy mess. I would post a picture of the dumplings except that I quickly threw them out in a fit of disappointment. So much for planning ahead -- at least we have tons of party leftovers! From this day forward, dumpling wrappers are a thing better store bought. Complicated recipes be damned! The year of the tiger has started inauspiciously from a culinary standpoint.

1 comment:

  1. nice spread! bummer about those dumplings; I hate that...