Winter does not retreat. Here’s what I want: a table by a fogged-up window, with fat won tons, drizzled with hot pepper oil and stinking of garlic and ginger, bobbing in a huge bowl of steamy broth. Where? Why, at home – where else?
It’s not hard to have won tons or dumplings at home. You buy a bag of 60 frozen ones for a few bucks and boil them at home. I wouldn’t really call it cheating; you could do much worse. They are relatively healthy, convenient, cheap and a better choice than many other frozen options.
But what if you could get all that and have it freshly made (you control the ingredients and the seasonings) and have the taste be about a thousand times better?
You can. Making won tons is so easy, it almost feels like cheating. You buy the won ton skins in a package at the store. They are rolled to the perfect thickness, cut to the perfect size and have the perfect moisture content. Even the most fanatical cook will agree that store-bought won ton skins and phyllo dough are better.
Your won ton filling, whatever it is, will usually be a mixture of minced meat: chicken, duck, pork, shrimp or a combination. I love the combined flavors of not-too-lean minced pork and shrimp, and the texture, too. Ginger, garlic, sesame oil and serrano chilis are happy additions, along with a spoonful of spicy fermented bean paste.
If you can get Chinese garlic chives, by all means use them. They add a green freshness to the won ton filling that is more vegetal than garlicky, and quite delicious. If not, carry on with scallions. As with meatballs, idiosyncratic variations of fillings are part of the experience. Taste your filling in advance, though, to ensure that it is well seasoned. Fry a little bit, check the seasoning and correct it. Because it will be wrapped in dough, the filling should be bright.
Won tons can be served plain or in broth. I prefer the broth version, but here is where I draw the line: Don’t cheat on the broth. You’ll never get a good one from a can or a cube. If you don’t have worthwhile broth, stir-fry some spinach with garlic and a splash of water, then use the greens and their juices to moisten the dish.
Red pepper oil, in my opinion, should always be on hand.
Pork and Shrimp Won Tons
½ pound ground pork, not too lean
½ pound fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined and roughly chopped in ¼-inch pieces
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon sweet rice wine, such as Shaox ing rice wine (or use sherry)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon spicy Chinese bean paste, also called chili bean sauce (or use chili paste)
2 serrano chilis, finely chopped
1½ cups chopped Chinese garlic chives (or use ¾ cup chopped scallions, green and white parts)
36 won ton skins, about 3 inches by 3 inches, available at Asian markets and many grocery stores
1 small egg, beaten
Cornstarch for dusting
8 ounces baby spinach leaves
½ cup chopped cilantro
8 cups good chicken broth, hot, salted to taste
Red pepper oil (optional), see note
Put pork and shrimp in a chilled mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper and mix briefly with chopsticks, wet hands or wooden spoons. Add rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, bean paste, serrano chilis and garlic chives. Mix well to incorporate. Pan-fry a small flat patty to check seasoning; taste and adjust. Transfer mixture to a small container, cover and chill at least 30 minutes, or longer if you have time, up to 24 hours.
To prepare won tons, remove a few won ton skins from package and lay them on dry work surface. Put 1 teaspoon filling in the center of each square skin. Paint edges of square lightly with egg. Gently fold one side over the other, pinching edges together. You should have a folded rectangle. Now pull the lower corners in toward each other and pinch together to make the traditional curved won ton shape. Place won tons 1 inch apart on a baking sheet or platter. Dust lightly with cornstarch and refrigerate, uncovered, until ready to cook.
Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, put a small handful of spinach and about 2 tablespoons cilantro in each person’s deep, wide soup bowl. When water is boiling, drop 10 won tons into pot; cook for 2 minutes. Remove with wire bamboo spider and divide among bowls. Repeat with remaining won tons. Pour about 1½ cups hot broth over each serving. Drizzle with red pepper oil if desired.
Makes about 30 won tons, 3 to 6 portions, depending on serving size.
Note: To make red pepper oil, heat ½ cup vegetable oil in a saucepan until quite warm. Turn off heat and add 4 red Chinese chilis, ½ teaspoon cayenne, ½ teaspoon hot paprika and 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil. Let cool. Store at cool room temperature.