dumplings

Best of Both Worlds

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Ah, if only all of life’s little decisions were so easily resolved. When it came down to a choice between coq au vin or chicken-and-dumplings for dinner, I opted not to choose.  

After all, the French classic comfort food, chicken stewed in wine, is served with a starch—potatoes or noodles or rice. So why not with fluffy, all-American dumplings? And, I figured, traditional chicken-and-dumplings (and my guests) would not suffer one little bit from a healthy shot of wine. My only cause for pause was aesthetics: Would a red wine broth produce unpleasantly red (read: bloody) dumplings? Not willing to chance it—and with apologies to Julia—I went with white wine.  

Other variables included abandoning the mushrooms usually found in coq au vin for a mother lode of carrots and celery. I did not, however, cut back on the bacon or pearl onion content so essential to the French stew.  Some things are too perfect to mess with.

The dish was a hit with the crew, though I have to admit the dumplings were subpar. (That’s what I get for experimenting rather than using the tried and true, found in the recipe included in this post.) However, the broth, and the vegetables cooked in it, was sublime—rich, savory, with less of the tannic punch characteristic of a red wine coq au vin. And definitely slurp-worthy.   

We served the coq au vin avec dumplings with Elizabeth’s delicious arugula salad—and its lick-the-bowl salad dressing, emboldened by garlic, mustard and balsamic… a great compliment to the tangy stew.

1. . . 2. . . 3. . . Strukli

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Sifting through the leftover magazines at my local coffee shop, I came across a copy of the esoteric food journal Gastronomica. When what to my wandering eyes did appear, but a story about the Croatian dish strukli, “The Best Dish in the World.” Really? I have a vague recollection of my mother making strukli when I was young, a bland sort of boiled dumpling filled with soft cheese. And others in the extended family have mentioned it in ensuing years, without ever really seeming to remember what it is or how it’s made. So, the best dish in the world? This I had to try.

Strukli, for the uninitiated, is a pillowy kind of dumpling, filled with soft cheese (farmer’s cheese is traditional) that’s served either baked with cream or boiled and served with sour cream. Sounds like any number of dumplings from other cultures (borek, pierogi, etc.—virtually every country has its favs).  But I did not realize that strukli occupied such an exalted place in Croatian culture. Strukli is the best-selling dish of all time at the Palace Hotel in Zagreb, apparent strukli capital of the world. The Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia has awarded traditional home-made strukli the status of protected asset of nonmaterial culture. As such, it will be entered in the Registry of Protected Cultural Assets of the Republic of Croatia.  Strukli is so popular that today’s harried housewives can pick up frozen versions at the supermarket to be able to put a quick meal on the table.

Wow. It was time to experiment.

Following the basic Gastronomica recipe, the strukli dough was made from scratch, kneading together flour, water and eggs, and then rolling it out until paper thin. The dough, now stretched across my 60-inch-round dining table, was spread with a mixture of ricotta and farmer’s cheese, rolled up jelly-roll style, and cut into pieces using, as tradition dictates, the rim of a porcelain plate.

The full recipe makes 20 pieces, enough to try the three different variations suggested.

No. 1. Basic, boiled strukli seemed the place to start. The dumplings are cooked in a thin broth made by sautéing onions in butter, adding a judicious amount of paprika, then water.  
Some sour cream is stirred into the broth after the strukli are tender (about 10 minutes). The strukli are served in a soup bowl with some broth. Results: Good, but rather basic, sort of like a ravioli without much seasoning or sauce.  The broth definitely needed work, even with a punch of brandy added during cooking. This was closest to what I remembered from my mother’s table, although in those pre-gourmet food days, she used cottage cheese. Definitely rib-sticking, though.

No. 2.  The Gastronomical article suggested steaming as a way to combat the loss of flavor in the boiling method.  Steaming did turn out fluffier dumplings that retained more of the cheese flavor. These were served, as suggested, with toasted bread crumbs and a dollop of sour cream. Better, but still kind of nondescript.

No. 3. The most intriguing recipe: baked strukli. The basic dumplings are baked in a casserole with copious amounts of butter and cream. Oh yeah, this was the winner. But what doesn’t taste good doused with heavy cream and butter?

Strukli: The best dish in the world? Of this I am still not convinced. Like most other comfort foods involving some variant of dumpling, butter and cheese, they seem to fall into the category of More Delicious in Memory than Actuality.  One man’s strukli is another man’s madeleine.

Enter the Dragon

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Funny how certain holiday traditions and foods crop up in different cultures, no matter how diverse. Witness the bowl of tangerines, symbolizing health and long life (especially with the leaves intact), that’s ubiquitous for the Chinese New Year, which starts today. My Eastern European family always kept the same bowl of tangerines on the table throughout the Christmas holiday, accompanied by a bowl of walnuts to crack, or maybe some sweets. And then’s there’s dumplings. Boiled or pan-fried as potstickers, they’re a mainstay of Chinese New Year menus, eaten for good luck. They’re not so far away from the pierogi of my Polish heritage, boiled or pan sautéed, as you prefer.

Preparation of a New Year’s Eve menu to welcome the Year of the Dragon got us to talking about how much today’s cooks are coming to rely on the Internet and food blogs like this one to research traditions and recipes that have begun to fade from memory; younger generations don’t have the time or skills to prepare traditional meals, like the many, many courses good friend Amy remembers from her early childhood in Taiwan. Wanting to learn how to prepare those recipes and hand them down to her daughter, she’s tracked down a few authentic Chinese-language blogs with step-by-step advice that have made  her realize some dishes she’s long put off trying, like Soy Sauce Chicken, aren’t necessarily as complicated as imagined.

She shared a few of her finds as we filled fresh dumpling wrappers with a mixture of ground pork, shredded cabbage, scallions, minced ginger and shallots, with a few splashes of sesame oil and soy sauce.  The first of mine were deemed “too Polish looking,”  by which Amy meant they didn’t have quite the right folded top and slightly rounded shape that makes these dumplings reminiscent of traditional ancient Chinese coins (hence eating them for good fortune); they  looked more like pierogi. And with a husband of Polish-Czech background, Amy knows from pierogi. Eventually I got the hang of it, and half the batch were pan-fried and served with a streamlined Chinese New Year dinner, while the other half were popped in the freezer for later.

On the table:

  • Potstickers, served with soy sauce-sesame oil dipping sauce. (See slideshow below for tips.)
  • Baked whole branzini. A whole fish is traditionally brought to the table to signify prosperity in the new year. The branzini was simply stuffed with slices of fresh ginger and scallions, then sprinkled with salt and a  touch of rice wine before going into the oven.
  • Soy Sauce Chicken, skillet braised in a sauce of soy, rock sugar and water that reduces down to a sweet-salty glaze.
  • “Oily” greens, steamed and tossed with oyster sauce.  This unfamiliar Asian green, which looks a bit like a cross between Swiss chard and bok choy,  takes its colloquial name from the natural sheen of its stalk.
  • Steamed rice
  • Tangerines

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Hello Homemade Pierogi (Goodbye, Mrs. T’s)

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I’ve been eating pierogi (pierogies?) since I was a little kid, but this project takes us a far cry from the freezer-burned grocery store packages of days gone by. And though you would need to be a speedier chef than I proved to be to crack out these tasty dumplings in the 60 minutes the recipe suggests, none of the steps are actually all that challenging. The dough is silky and cooperative and everything works just like you’d expect, so while it’s a time commitment, it can be a relaxing afternoon in the kitchen as well. So turn on NPR, make some tea, and have a feast for dinner (just add sauerkraut and sour cream).

I doubled the batch, figuring that if I was going to invest myself in such a production line, I wanted leftovers. Otherwise I followed the instructions just as I found them at King Arthur, boiled and fried them up in some butter and onions, and deemed them delicious.

Note from Rebecca:

Molly beats me to the punch on this topic. Here I was readying my own pierogi missive, passing on a recipe that my cousins obtained from a cooking class at the Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center  in Kansas City, ground zero for my hometown’s Eastern European communities. It’s very similar to the King Arthur version cited, breaking away to tuck the sour cream into the potato filling instead of the dough. Instead, I’ll offer an alternative filling.

SAUERKRAUT FILLING

3 cups sauerkraut, drained

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons butter

Melt butter in pan and sauté onions. Add sauerkraut, salt and pepper. Turn off heat and stir until combined. Cool approximately 30 minutes before filling pierogi.

Note: Crumbled bacon can be added to filling, or sprinkled over cooked pierogi