Turns out Homer is right, pigs are indeed a wonderful, magical animal. Even the most unloved parts can turn out amazingly, given a bit of work and knowhow. And so we continue on with Pig Head project part two: Shanghai Soup Dumplings.Homer: Wait a minute wait a minute wait a minute. Lisa honey, are you
saying you're *never* going to eat any animal again? What about
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.
The idea for this one, indeed the whole pig head project idea arose during a conversation my wife and I had back in December while at the Seabreeze Farm Christmas fete. Over an excellent, amazing dinner we talked about headcheese with a couple seated near us. Suddenly, Meredith came up with an idea. An awful idea. A wonderful, awful idea! We'd steal the Whos' presents and ruin their Christmas... No, wait that was last year. I've still got their tartoofers. (And they're not getting 'em back!) But this year the idea was: Headcheese Soup Dumplings.
Soup Dumplings or Xiaolongbao are a type of steamed Chinese dumpling popular in Shanghai that contain an amount of aspic which, when steamed, melts into a soupy filling. They range in size from quite large (you need a straw to drink the soup!) to bite sized, and typically contain pork and shrimp. Most modern recipes have you use powdered gelatin to set the stock. But we had a suspicion that historically a more natural pork aspic would have been used (and probably still is, in good dumpling joints). After all, headcheese is just pork head meat suspended in its own aspic. With a few minor alterations we figured we could make it work.
The starting point for this was the article: Bon Appetit Master Class - Shanghai Soup Dumplings from the May, 2007, issue of Bon Appetit. It's a great spread with lots of photos, so score the magazine if you can. We tossed the issue long ago but had cut out and saved the two pages of the article. If you can't locate the issue, the recipe itself is up on Epicurious here. This was the starting point. From here I adapted things.
First I had to score a pig head. Seabreeze Farm came through in spades, scoring me a fresh half-pig's head of about six pounds. This was the other half of the head, the one that didn't go to pot-roast. I also bought four trotters, figuring that I would use them as an insurance policy to make sure that my aspic set properly. Step one, as with all pig head and trotter recipes, is to shave the head and trotters. Totally gross, totally necessary, and talked about before. Grab a disposable razor and get to work. The trotters had a fair amount of hair between the toes, and the pig still had some stubborn whiskers and eyelashes. Eww.
Into a four gallon pot went:
- 12 cups cold water
- 1/2 pig's head
- 4 trotters
- 1/2 cup or so of coarsely chopped white part of green onions
- 2 coarsely chopped leeks
- 2 coarsely chopped carrots
- 2 whole dried shiitakes
- 2 cloves of garlic, whole, crushed.
- Two 1" x 1/2" coins of peeled fresh ginger
- 1 T soy sauce
- 2 t Shaoxing Rice Wine
Make the dipping sauce. Combine:
- 1 C Chinese Black Vinegar
- 6 T soy sauce
- 2 T matchstick strips of peeled ginger
Hopefully the aspic will have set up and will look like this. Mmm, jiggly... and full of goo. Dumpling goo. We may have had a bit more than two cups, it probably wouldn't hurt to actually measure it instead of just eyeballing. Then go ahead and dice the aspic as best you can, shoot for 1/4"-1/3" dice, smaller the better. We could have probably done a better job of this, and certainly will do so next time.
Make the filling. Combine and mix well:
- The picked over pork head and trotter meat, should be about a pound or so. More is ok, so long as it's within reason. Finely chopped.
- 1/4 lb peeled, deveined shrimp. Blitz quickly in the foodprep or finely chop.
- 1/2 C finely chopped green onions, white parts.
- 3 T sugar
- 2 T soy sauce (or put 3 T of sweet soy sauce in instead of the soy + sugar)
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 3/4 t salt
- 1/2 t black pepper
- 1/2 t finely grated fresh ginger
- 1/2 t Shaoxing Rice Wine
- 1/4 t Sesame Oil
Make Dumplings. First you'll need dumpling wrappers and here we hit a snag. Despite my best searchings I could only find Wonton and Gyoza wrappers at my local Asian grocer. Don't use wonton wrappers as they are too thin to hold up. Yes, there were spring roll wrappers and so on, but you don't want those either. I went with a pack of about 50 3" round gyoza wrappers, then hit a moment of inspiration. A few months back I'd made Delicious Steamed Buns and they'd turned out well. So I picked up a bag of Vietnamese fluffy bao mix. Not traditional, but hey, why not give 'em a try?
Get your assembly station together and conscript your helper(s). Take a wrapper. Place a very generous teaspoon of filling in the middle and make sure you include at least 2-3 aspic cubes in each one.
To pleat the wrappers:
Wet the edge of the wrapper. We kept finger bowls full of water around for this. Then bring a corner of the wrapper up over the filling. Pull up more of the wrapper, pleating evenly as you go, until it's all gathered at the top. Then pinch and twist the wrapper top. There, done. Set on a parchment covered cookie sheet and keep going.
Alternately, go the gyoza method. Carefully fold the dumpling in half and pinch the edge sealed. For the Vietnamese bao, follow the package instructions and roll out the dough to 4-6 inches round. Fill with a big heaping tablespoon of filling, then pleat and twist as above.
How many dumplings this will make will depend on many factors. How full were your dumplings? How much did you actually boil down the aspic? How much pig head meat did you get? So prepare for a minimum of about 75 dumplings. We made somewhere around 50 little dumplings and 18 big fluffy ones. And that used a bit over half the filling... So yeah. Lots of dumplings. But they are small, and we found a serving of six little ones and two big ones to be a pretty ample dinner.
To cook the dumplings:
- Place 3 cups of water in the bottom of your wok or large skillet. Add a tablespoon or two of rice vinegar if you're steaming the fluffy bao, it will keep them whiter. Bring to a boil.
- Line each level of a bamboo steamer with parchment paper or cabbage leaves.
- Place dumplings around, giving them room to expand a bit. Especially the Vietnamese bao.
- Stick the steamer on the pot. Steam the small dumplings for 12 minutes if fresh, 15 if frozen.
- Steam the large bao for about 15 minutes with the lid on, then another 6 minutes or so with it off.
Leftover dumplings can be frozen for later use. Stick the parchment-lined cookie sheets in the freezer until the dumplings are frozen, then bag or tupperware them. Break them out for dinner or a snack as needed.
How was it? Excellent. These are really, really, tingly good. I was actually how surprised at how great they turned out. The only problem was our dumpling technique, which could use a bit of work. I still pleat my bao like a blind ape. But all that matters is that you get a good seal, otherwise the dumplings leak. A good one explodes with this awesome blast of soup when you pop it in your mouth, then moves into a porky-chewy thing as you eat the dumpling. The soup is subtly Chinese, not crazy overpowering in any sense, just very, very mellow and pleasant. It's delicious.
I would not use gyoza wrappers if I had it to do again. It really needs a thicker dumpling wrapper to hold up. Not sure what I'll do about that though. The Vietnamese bao turned out quite good. My only change would be to roll them out a bit thicker in the middle, so that the goo has more bottom to soak its goodness into. And I'd fill them a bit more fully. Still, given that we got at least 100 awesome dumplings from the pig head, I'd say it was a great success.