On Dumplings and Kreplach

October 7, 2011 · 4 comments

My father used to say that the best way to tell if you were in a Jewish neighborhood was to count the number of Chinese restaurants. Not that it mattered much to us — I grew up in a totally mixed town and regularly shared meals with friends who were Somali, Indian, Saudi, Japanese, Israeli, Pakistani, French, Taiwanese, Malay, Puerto Rican, Polish, German, and Dutch. And frankly, if I had my druthers and could choose to live absolutely anywhere, I would pack up my current neighbors (I adore them) and we’d all move to a neighborhood like the one I grew up in, running in and out of each other’s houses to celebrate Diwali and Eid, Rosh Hashanah and Chú Xī. I know it all sounds nice and liberal and let’s all hold hands and dance around the maypole, but it’s a pretty cool thing when you can shelve your differences — political, religious, whatever — and just feed each other delicious, surprising, excellent food. And I will go to my grave believing that if everyone stopped yammering at each other and just broke bread together, things would be much easier.

Anyway, back to the Chinese restaurant issue: my father was right, as he often was. Jews love — LOVE — Chinese food, for reasons I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Maybe it’s because everyone knows that the only place that pork is kosher is when it’s in an eggroll; I don’t know for sure. But there does seem to me to be a direct connection between kreplach and dumplings, so maybe that’s the original link: the word on the street is that kreplach made its way to Eastern Europe in the 14th century, via Venice, via the Spice Route, via the Far East.

I have a neighbor, Dan, whose eighty-something immigrant mother stands at her stove in the Bronx every year, dropping kreplach into a pot of boiling water; these dumplings — traditionally a way to use up stray bits of leftover meat, as all sorts of meat dumplings invariably do, regardless of heritage — never make it to the plate, because Dan and his family hover around and eat them the minute they come out of the pot. It’s the rule of noodles + meat that nobody ever talks about: look at the kreplach recipe card handed down by any ancient bubbe, and you’ll rarely see serving instructions. There’s a reason for that: they never make it to the table.

Today at sundown is the start of Kol Nidre, the holiest night in the Jewish calendar, and for the first time in years — I mean, really, YEARS — I’m going to temple with Dan (see above) and his wife. I don’t really understand why, suddenly, this is something I feel like I have to do, but the idea of slowing down and reflecting and atoning feels kind of important to me. There’s a fast involved — 24 hours until sundown the next evening — and I’m not entirely sure I’ll make it if my blood sugar crashes and I start craving mortadella. But assuming I do make it, I’ve decided to break fast not with the traditional scrambled eggs and challah, or lox and bagels. This year, I want dumplings. Could be kreplach or pierogi or Turkish manti or tortelloni or my father’s favorite, Ukrainian vareniki, too, I suppose. I could also add blintzes to that list, since, on the face of it, they’re just another way to roll something good up — cheese, potatoes, or fruit — in a noodle that you then lightly fry until golden, and eat warm.

This year, I blame all of my dumpling mania on the power of suggestion, and my tripping over Heidi Swanson’s great post about making vegetarian yellow split pea potstickers to take as an in-flight snack while she hurtles over the earth in a plane bound for London, from her home in San Francisco. That’s the thing I love about Heidi (among many other things): I can’t even get through security without having my potato chips confiscated by a uniformed woman with long pink fingernails and a Tazer, and Heidi manages to make it through with homemade dumplings and chile dipping sauce. Oh well. In any case,  they looked fabulous and suggestive, and they reminded me of the time when I read a piece about Kenny Lao’s Rickshaw Dumplings, and for weeks after that, I couldn’t eat anything else. I made them at home, and filled them with all manner of ingredient: chicken (very good), turkey (not so great), pork (great, but not on Yom Kippur), and an Asian-ized colcannonish kind of thing involving mustard greens, a bit of potato, hot red chile oil, and sesame oil (excellent). Although I tend to steer clear of those opalescent green dumplings that Chinese restaurants tout as being vegetarian purely by way of their Kermit-like color (GREEN! HEALTH!), I still believe that draped in a dumpling wrapper, even a shoe would be edible.

Tomorrow evening, I won’t be going anywhere near lox and scrambled eggs. When the holiday is over and I can start accumulating all of the coming year’s transgressions in my big, fat TRANSGRESSIONS folder, I’ll be doing so while holding chopsticks and dunking my soft pillows of goodness into a sweet, spicy dipping sauce.

After all, it’s my heritage.

 Asian Mustard Green Dumplings with Sweet Spicy Dipping Sauce

This recipe was born out of the deep sadness I felt recently while visiting a local Chinese restaurant in my Connecticut town; I didn’t feel much like pork, so I ordered the vegetarian variety, and they arrived, a sort of globby, unrecognizable mass of non-meat substance packed inside a traffic light green wrapper/purse. What would happen, I thought, if you replaced the unrecognizable mass with bitter Fall greens — mustard is my preference — and cooked them down to a delicious, spicy tangle in a bit of sesame oil and tamari, adding grated ginger, garlic, and scallions? What would further happen, I wondered, if you fried them quickly, and then dipped the dumplings in a sweet/spicy sauce? I found out: you get a light, crunchy, tender, dumpling that, in its bitter sweetness manages to hit all the big Jewish New Year points. Furthermore, it’s vegetarian — VEGAN, even — and if you can manage to find rice flour wrappers and super high-quality tamari, it will be gluten-free. (And if you can’t find them, you can go here, to Andrea Nguyen’s brilliant post about making gluten-free dumplings. Andrea is the author of, among other spectacular books, the Asian dumpling bible, called, appropriately, Asian Dumplings.) As for the potato, put it in; leave it out. The dumplings held together perfectly without it, but it will offer some heft, should you need it.

Makes approximately 2 dozen

4 tablespoons neutral oil (I prefer grapeseed or canola), divided

4 loosely packed cups fresh mustard greens, thoroughly rinsed of dirt and dried in a clean kitchen towel

1/4 cup diced waxy potato (optional)

1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger

4 scallions, white and light green parts only, chopped (darker tops reserved)

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil

1 tablespoon tamari

Shanghai-style, round wonton wrappers (store bought)

Dipping sauce:

1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce (reduced sodium is fine)

reserved liquid from greens

reserved scallion tops

1/4 teaspoon prepared Thai roasted chile sauce (nahm prik pao)

1/4 teaspoon sugar (optional)

Heat 2 tablespoons of the neutral oil in a large, straight-sided saute pan set over medium high heat, until it shimmers. Carefully add the mustard greens, tossing them with long-handled tongs until they just begin to wilt. Add the potato (if using), ginger, scallions, and garlic, and continue to cook, reducing the heat to medium low if the pan begins to dry out. Add the sesame and chile oils along with the tamari, and continue to cook until the greens have completely wilted, the potato has cooked through, and the garlic is opaque, about eight minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat. Set a small colander in a bowl, and let the greens mixture rest in it; press them with the back of a large spoon, to extract as much liquid from them as possible, but reserve it, and strain it out through a fine mesh sieve. Set it aside.

Place the wrappers side by side on a lightly floured work surface and set a small bowl of cold water nearby. Using a dinner teaspoon (or a grapefruit spoon, which works really well), place a small amount of filling in the center of each wrapper (see image above). Dip your index finger in the water, and lightly dampen the outer edge of the wrapper. Fold it in half to make a half moon, and press to seal it. You can crimp it with a fork, or pleat it if you’re feeling fancy, but I don’t bother. Repeat, until all the filling is used up.

At this point, you can freeze the dumplings on a cookie sheet, and then place them in a zip lock bag for a few months; this means that one day, when you get home from work and it’s late and you’re hungry and tired, you can throw them into some broth, or fry them up and have a quick dinner. And you’ll thank me.

Moving on:

Combine all the dipping sauce ingredients in a bowl, and set aside. Taste and adjust the sweetness and heat, adding teaspoons of water to thin, as necessary.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of neutral oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until it shimmers. Add the dumplings, and DO NOT MOVE THEM. Don’t shake the pan, don’t stir, don’t flip them around. Let them brown for about four minutes, and then very carefully pour in three quarters of a cup of water (it will sputter furiously). Quickly cover the pan, and give it a good few shakes before letting it rest. Continue cooking the dumplings for another three or four minutes, remove the cover, and serve immediately, with the dipping sauce.