BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Anything but Leftover

With about half the heaping mound still staring back at me, my enthusiasm began to flag. Fragrant, glistening vaguely in the afternoon light, it was some of the most genuinely meaty dumpling filling I had ever prepared, and yet I couldn’t muster the patience to keep stuffing it into those tiny little wrappers. The final total of “40 – 50″ is admittedly a wild estimate, a complete stab in the dark if we’re being honest, because I never made it to either of those numbers. An extra set of hands would do wonders on a recipe like this; simple but time consuming, demanding few skills but undivided attention. Giving up on the project never crossed my mind, but it became abundantly clear that there would be leftover filling.

This is not what I’d call leftovers, bearing the negative connotations of unwanted extras. Before neatly packing everything away for a later date, the next recipe was already jumping about through my synapses, the full procedure and list of ingredients unraveling itself in my brain. Perhaps we can call this concept an alternative preparation, since it’s worth making the original filling to enjoy, with or without any dumplings in mind.

Mapo tofu won’t win any beauty contests, but someone who turns down this dish based on looks is making a terrible mistake. Packing in umami flavor with ease, the soft cubes of tofu bear a spicy bite, swimming in a meaty stew of chili-spiked seitan. Naturally, my approach is far from authentic, spanning a number of Asian cultures just through the ingredients. Malaysian sambal oelek brings the heat while a spoonful of Chinese fermented black beans add their characteristic salty and savory twang. You could jump borders again and opt for a Japanese soy sauce, if you were after a genuine cultural melting pot… But it would taste just as delicious no matter what. Mapo tofu is the kind of dish that a cook would really have to try to mess up. Go ahead, experiment with sriracha instead of the sambal, dark miso paste instead of black beans; after it all simmers together and melds as one, it’s all good.

Mapo Tofu

1 1/2 Cups Seitan Dumpling Filling

1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Garlic
1 Tablespoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
3 Skinny Scallions, Thinly Sliced on the Diagonal, Divided
1 – 3 Tablespoons Sambal Oelek
1/2 Cup Low-Sodium Vegetable Broth or Water
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
3 Tablespoons Fermented Black Bean Paste
2 – 3 Tablespoons Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Brown Rice Syrup or Light Brown Sugar
1 Pound Soft (But not Silken) Tofu, Drained

Prepare the ground seitan according to the dumpling recipe and set aside.

Heat the sesame oil in a medium stock pot or large saucepan over medium heat. Toss in the garlic and ginger once the oil is shimmering and quickly saute, just until fragrant and lightly browned. Add the prepared seitan mixture into the pan and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Meanwhile, whisk together the black pepper, two of the sliced scallions, the first tablespoon of sambal oelek, broth, and cornstarch. Beat out any lumps of starch so that the liquid is perfectly smooth before using it to deglaze the hot pan. Scrape the bottom of the pan with your spatula to make sure nothing sticks or burns, and turn down the heat to medium-low.

Stir in the black bean past, first two tablespoons of soy sauce, and brown rice syrup. Let it cook and mingle for a minute or two before giving it a taste; add more sambal or soy sauce as desired, but as you adjust seasonings, don’t even think of reaching for the salt shaker. These are all very salty ingredients, and you’ll end up with something inedible if you don’t manage the sodium level very carefully.

Once you’re pleased with the flavors developing, cut your tofu into 1/2-inch cubes and gently lower them into the stew. Soft tofu is rather fragile, so don’t go haphazardly stirring the whole mixture and smashing them to bits. Rather, use your spatula to fold everything together.

Continue to cook until the liquid has thickened and reaches a rapid bubble. Let cool for a few minutes before topping with the remaining sliced scallions, and serve with white rice (or any other cooked grain) if desired.

Makes 3 – 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Wonton Extravagance

Soup has a big job to do. Not only has it been tasked with nourishing the soul, but restoring the body and feeding hungry minds on top of that. Soup fills the empty spaces in stomachs and hearts alike, soothing in ways that words fail to match. Thick, spoon-coating, veggie-heavy bowlfuls may be the more popular choice these days, but there’s some serious praise due to the more brothy variety. The clean, clear flavors that can shine in such a medium are unparalleled, and there’s nothing to say that it can’t also be loaded up with hearty additions. Substantial, hearty, and yes, meaty mix-ins are the key to elevating the average cup of vegetable stock to something worthy of a meal. Even for the picky eaters in my fold, spread halfway across the continent, there was a comforting sense of unity when we all sat down to enjoy the same sort of meal.

Cooking with my dad over Skype has been challenging, but never due to his culinary skills. Simply crafting a recipe with ingredients that he could find, create a healthy meal with, and manage within his busy schedule has always been a stumbling block. Now that my sister has joined him in his tiny German abode, it’s increasingly difficult to come up with things that everyone will like. Dumplings are a hit across all branches of this family tree, so no matter the filling, it was a clear winner from the start. Their creative interpretation of my instructions has proven instrumental in understanding how most people craft their meals as well, reinforcing the importance of a flexible, resilient recipe. That also means that I can confidently state that these easy wontons can happily accommodate a swap of seitan to tofu, any sort of mushroom (fresh or frozen), and amounts are largely to be considered guidelines, not rules. Additionally, the finished dumplings stand up beautifully to freezing for extended periods, pan-frying or steaming just as well as they might float in soup.

The soup itself lived up to the high expectations placed upon the humble bowlful. Maybe the company (in person and on the screen) makes a difference, but it was one of the most comforting recent meals I can recall.

Seitan Dumplings

1 Pound Prepared Seitan, Drained if Water-Packed
10 Ounces Frozen Mixed Mushrooms, Thawed and Drained
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
3 – 4 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
2 Teaspoons Fresh Ginger, Finely Minced
2 Cloves Garlic, Finely Minced
3 Tablespoons Tamari or Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
1 Package 3 1/2 – 4 Inch Round Vegan Wonton Wrappers

For Wonton Soup (Optional):

Vegetable Broth
Thinly Sliced Scallions
Thinly Sliced Chili Peppers, Crushed Red Pepper Flakes, or Sriracha
Greens, Such as Kale, Spinach, or Arugula

Begin by placing the seitan, mushrooms, and scallions your food processor, and pulse until the mixture is coarsely ground, roughly approximating the texture of ground meat. Set aside for the time being.

Heat both oils in a medium saute pan over moderate heat. Once shimmering, toss in the ginger and garlic. Cook for about two minutes or until aromatic and toss in the ground seitan. Stir continuously to prevent it from sticking or burning for 4 – 5 minutes. Any liquid should have evaporated at this stage, so drizzle in the soy sauce and vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan to dislodge anything that may have adhered. Continue to cook for an additional 4 minutes or so, until that liquid has also been absorbed into the filling. Let cool for at least 15 minutes, or until it reaches a manageable temperature.

Set out a plate to place your finished dumplings and cover the stack of unfilled wonton wrappers with a lightly moistened paper towel. They can dry out very quickly which will make clean folds impossible, so keep a close eye on them throughout the process. If they aren’t all used when the filling is finished, they can be sealed in a plastic baggie and frozen for 3 – 4 months. Place only about 1 – 2 teaspoons of filling in the center of each wrapper, and lightly dampen the edges with water to seal. There are many ways to shape your dumplings, depending on your tastes or how you’d like to use them, so I must defer to the experts here for instruction.

After shaping your dumplings as desired, you can either freeze themĀ in an air-tight container for later use or move on to cook them right away. For the soup, simply heat up as much broth as you’d like and toss in scallions, spicy additions, and greenery to your taste. There’s no one right way to assemble such a soup, so just trust your instincts. Once gently simmering, carefully lower the wontons in and cook for just 2 minutes, until the wrappers look a bit more translucent. Serve immediately- Wonton soup does not keep or reheat well.

If pan-frying, heat up about 1/4 – 1/2 inch layer of neutral-flavored oil on the bottom of your saute pan over medium heat. Once hot, add the dumplings in one even layer and let sizzle until brown and crispy; just 2 – 3 minutes. Flip and brown the opposite side if desired. Serve immediately with additional soy sauce for dipping.

Makes 40 – 50 Seitan Dumplings

Printable Recipe

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