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One of my very first good friends in college was a Japanese guy, an exchange student who met with me for conversation practice.  I was seventeen, fresh from the suburbs, in a new town, and experiencing life on my own for the first time.  He was a bit older than me, but in certain ways in the same situation as I was.  He treated me at first strangely, based on Japanese custom for dealing with someone who is at once a beloved little sister and an esteemed teacher (so yes, it didn’t really work).  But over the months, as he became more and more Americanized and we got to know each other better, our relationship evolved into something really special.  He had a similar sense of humor as me (poor guy), and also a streak of melancholy and sensitivity that all truly funny people share. We kept in touch for many years, helping each other out in our native lands and through several moves and new careers, until one day he finally he vanished into the ether of Japanese corporate society.

But I still think of him every time I make potstickers.  I learned many of my homestyle Japanese dishes from him.  In fact, for a long time, I knew how to make more Japanese dishes than anything else.  I was a vegetarian for several years in college, and he gladly showed me how to cook Japanese vegetables and modified recipes, like the one for the very popular pork dumplings that we call potstickers and the Japanese call gyoza.

I’ve never measured this recipe, and I would never serve it to guests.  This is messy, slightly greasy, casual family eating with humble ingredients.  It also has a distinct disadvantage of being a pain to make.  But potstickers are delicious, and worth the trouble.

If you’ve had potstickers at Chinese restaurants, understand that these are significantly smaller, with a very light “skin,” not the heavy, doughy wrapping you’ll find there.  This is because you will be cheating and buying store-made skins, not making your own.  This does save a bit of time, especially since the skins can be kept in the freezer.

The other day, faced with (1) some thawing skins I was going to use for cheater pirogies with my homemade sauerkraut, and (2) an ever-growing vegetable bin full of local chard and kale, I was inspired to dude up my potsticker recipe.  My potstickers are usually filled with a cabbage, tofu, green onion, garlic and ginger mixture.  I thought it might be nice (and even remotely healthy) to swap out the cabbage for better greens.  And sure enough, it worked!

This filling is vegan.  You can include an egg, if you want, to help bind the filling, but I’ve never had any real problems with unbound filling, so I don’t bother.

As a warning, you’re going to need a largish non-stick skillet with a lid that fits over it tightly.  If you’re doubling the recipe, you should keep in mind you’ll need to cook the potstickers in two batches.

Little Green Potstickers

For the Filling:

1/2 cake regular (firm) tofu, drained well of water
3-4 green onions, chopped
2-inch long piece ginger, grated finely
2 cloves garlic, chopped finely
2 big handfuls of mixed greens (or a quarter of a small cabbage)
1 t. sesame oil
1 t. sesame seeds
1/2 t. salt
1 T. corn starch

For the Dipping Sauce:

1 part Japanese soy sauce: 2-3 parts rice vinegar
a float of chili oil (la-yu) is optional

For Cooking:

1/4 cup vegetable or peanut oil
1/2 package potsticker “skins,” sold at Asian markets and at some large supermarkets

The first step is to prepare the filling.

To drain the tofu, remove it from the package, squeeze it a little bit, and place it in a colander.  On top of the tofu, place a small plate and then weigh down the plate with something heavy (a small pot or a gallon-sized Ziploc bag filled with water will do).  Let sit for 15 minutes, pressing down on the weight every so often, to drain as much water out as possible.  Pat dry before using.  Crumble and place into a large bowl.

To prepare the greens (this step is unnecessary if you are using cabbage), blanch them in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds, then immediately plunge them into a bowl full of ice water. This will fix the color and make the filling cook more evenly.  Remove greens from ice water, squeeze them very well to remove most of the water, then chop finely and add to bowl with tofu.

After preparing the tofu and greens, add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and mix thoroughly.

Filling and Folding the Potstickers:

The basic technique is to place a teaspoon full of filling on a “skin,” gently dampen one edge of the circle with water, then crimp or fold the edges to seal the dumpling.  A good seal ensures that when you cook it, it won’t burst the seams and ooze filling out all over the place.  The crimping process is difficult to describe in words, so I’ll give you a few options.  One, check out a video on how to do it.  Two, look at my pictures, and see how I fold while pressing the filling down with a finger inside the potsticker.  Three, just forget the whole thing and seal each potsticker by crimping the edges with a fork, just as you would a pie crust.

For the first option, check out this video I found on youtube, and watch her fingers.  She is using thicker “skins” that might be homemade, rather than store-bought.  You’ll want to use less filling than she does, but the video provides a good tutorial on folding:

Some tips:  more hands makes for faster eatin’ — see if you can enlist others to help you.  Some people get so good at the process they can work at the speed of light.  I’m not that talented, as you can see from my messy folding, but still rarely have a potsticker disaster.

Don’t use any more than one teaspoon of filling for each potsticker.  Less is better than more.

Don’t let the filled, uncooked potstickers sit too long on a plate, or they may start to stick and rip when you remove them.  You may want to prepare some, then cook them, then prepare some more.  Retrogrouch and I do this, often eating potstickers straight from the stove, as we’re folding more.

Cooking the Potstickers:

Once you run out of filling, you are done, and you can cook the potstickers!  Cooking is a two-step process: first browning the bottoms in some oil, then steaming the potstickers until the skin becomes translucent.

You don’t want to use too much oil.  Just coat the bottom of the non-stick pan with oil (I confess I use a regular pan and more oil, but they are much more prone to sticking and ripping that way).  Place each potsticker into the hot oil.  To discourage sticking, I do this in a quick one-two motion, dipping it in the hot oil down on the pan, then immediately lifting it up again, then putting it down.  It’s ok to crowd the pan, but move quickly, watching the earliest potstickers so they don’t get burnt on the bottom.

Once all the potstickers are browned on the bottom, add about a 1/3 cup of water.  Again moving quickly, pour all the water in the pan at once, then immediately put the lid on the pan so you’ll get the full rush of steam.  N.b., if you don’t move fast, all the oil and water will spray all over your stove.  See the video for a good example of this process:

When the skins are translucent, and you can see the filling inside, remove the potstickers carefully. (See the picture above for what they should look like when steamed — can you see the green?)  You can use a nylon spatula and loosen the bottoms, then flip them onto a plate.  Expect to lose a couple.  The losers should be devoured by the cook before anyone can see your lack of professionalism.

To Serve:

Serve with rice and a dipping sauce made of one part Japanese soy sauce and two or three parts rice vinegar.  It can be doctored with a float of chili oil (la-yu), and some chopped scallions or sesame seeds or even chopped garlic, if you’re fancy.

Enjoy — and feel good that you’re using up some of those delicious local greens!

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