27 Feb Dad’s Pork Dumplings, Gone Vegan
For a WASPy midwestern guy, my dad sure did make a mean pork dumpling (and mad latkes too, go figure). No matter how many he made, there never seemed to be enough (and in the rare occasion there were a few leftovers squirreled away, we would eat them cold for breakfast, nom nom nom!). The intense gingery flavor, the crunchy chewy texture, and the myriad dipping sauce options all command a visceral reaction of my tastebuds just on memory alone. Making the dumplings was an all-hands-on-deck family activity from start to finish, not only because of the sheer joy and warm fuzzy quality time it created, but also (because of what I now realize as an adult flying solo in the process) if you don’t want to be sitting in the kitchen for HOURS, it takes many hands to crank out the massive amount of dumplings we always consumed.Now, I haven’t tasted these OG dumplings in at least a decade and a half, starting the cord cut by peacing out pork from my diet when I converted to Judaism at the age of 19, and then sealing the no-pork deal by going full vegetarian 8 years ago. But damn do I dream about those dumplings ALL THE TIME. I’ve tried to recreate a meatless version over the years, and f*&! has it been a nightmare – I’ve never had so much difficulty converting a family recipe to vegetarian! They were always too dry, too bland, too wet, too flat, too smushy, too grainy, too spicy, too sticky, too crunchy, too gooey, or too broken (oh how many wrappers I broke!)…you name it I found a way to make them suck and so many batches were thrown straight to the trash in frustration, ugh! When I was home visiting my parents in North Carolina in December, I ALMOST got it- they were even dad and family approved that they were indistinguishable from the real thing. But, as it sometimes goes, when I got back to LA I proceeded to fail twice more when trying to replicate that batch. I was devastated, and hey, maybe that word seems a little hyperbolic, but here’s why I will say it is decidedly appropriate:
My dad is dying. He was diagnosed late this past summer with a terminal disease called PSP, Progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare brain disorder that causes severe problems with walking, balance and eye movements. The disorder results from deterioration of cells in areas of the brain that control body movement and thinking. Think about if ALS and Parkinson’s banded together to say, hey all the worst parts of us are comin’ for you and it’s all downhill from here, sorry life as you know it is done and there’s nothing you can do to cure it or help ease the struggle and you just have to sit back and watch your life slip away. It progresses very quickly and mercilessly. One of the latest results is that he just simply can’t cook anymore. The critical thinking skills it takes to follow the logic and progression of a recipe (even one you know like the back of your hand in your mind) goes poof and disappears. His eyes can’t look down to see the stove or the pan. His motor functions prevent him from the movements needed to chop and stir and saute. This man who had a natural ability to create insanely delicious food from whatever was hanging out in the fridge, now has to be content with the arduous task of putting together a simple PB&J. I sit watching, from thousands of miles away, someone who was brilliant, active, curious, and creative (both in and out of the kitchen), lose every part of himself that made him who he was and it breaks my heart in all kinds of ways. To me, perfecting these dumplings is keeping the memory alive of who he was when I was a kid, before the trials of life and disease consumed him.
Now just before my dad was diagnosed, two more heartbreaks came raining down on me. I found and quickly lost what I truly believed in my soul was my big grand real deal epic forever love story (unfortunately, he did not join me in believing I was “the one”). At the same time, I also walked away from my company that I had built and been dreaming of bringing to life for years and years (unfortunately, I did not join my partner in believing what we ended up building was “the one”). When I found both of these loves, it felt as if I had finally been given the ultimate beautiful real-deal dream-state kind of gifts to reward me for all the work, struggle, pain, missteps, and growth that I had been through to get to the place I was. Finally! I said. And then, BOOM! both were gone in a blink, and all I felt was confusion, pain, an inescapable feeling of failure, and a complete loss of drive to create. And then, yup, I got the news about my dad.
So, needless to say, between these three heartbreaks I’ve been struggling and lost for quite a while now (hence my lack of putting much up here on the site). I haven’t felt inspired or really had the love or emotional energy to cook (my takeout bills have gone through the roof) and I’ve felt pretty separated from my creative self – both resulting in many metaphorical and literal broken dumplings. I’ve been chugging along, trying to find my mojo again, adventuring in and outside of myself, trying to figure out what’s next, and while I’ve made progress every day, I haven’t had much luck finding my way back. It has, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it, really fucking sucked.
But then, over the course of a few days just two weeks back, three magical things occurred to help bring me a little light.
1. I finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, a read I probably wouldn’t have at my bedside if I hadn’t been working for the past several months as a part of Airbnb’s Magical Trips program, since at their big launch party the Airbnb Open this book was a gift to us all- and what a gift it was.
Liz talks all about fear and creative living, and the magical and near-supernatural source and force of ideas and creativity. I walked away with a few applicable nuggets that I carried around in my brain for the rest of the week.
-There is magic everywhere. Creativity is just floating around us waiting for us to shepherd it to life, on the page or in the pan, you just have to be paying attention when it knocks on your door. My sadness has been causing me to ignore a whole lot of this magic for a while now.
-BUT you also can’t just sit around waiting for that magical inspiration to strike. It takes a lot of work and a lot of goddamn failed dumplings before you strike gold, but I’d given up time and time again along the way. As Liz says “I don’t sit around waiting to write until my genius decides to pay me a visit. If anything, I have come to believe that my genius spends a lot of time waiting around for me–waiting to see if I’m truly serious about this line of work.”
-“Done is better than good”- basically our need for perfection often gets in the way of releasing our creative babies into the wild. Sometimes you just need to say: this may not be perfect, but it is time to just let go and see what happens. As an anxious perfectionist that often lets fear of imperfection get in my way, this was a solid takeaway.
2. I watched the first episode of Season 3 of Chef’s Table. This premiere follows Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist monk in South Korea, who approaches cooking as a spiritual practice and creates stunningly simple plant-based dishes in her monastery for the fellow monks and nuns. Watching her create, tending her garden, cleaning her vegetables, cooking and plating her dishes – all had me entranced. It was a moving meditation. Now, this is polar opposite of how I cook- chaotic, messy, wild horses style, and lightyears away from many of the screaming chefs of episodes past. I dreamed of Jeong Kwan night after night. That weekend I took a trip to the snow in Lake Tahoe, and while cooking for our chosen family that weekend, I channeled her energy and hot damn I have never felt so creative and calm in the kitchen. It sparked something wildly new inside me, pulling that magic down from the universe as Elizabeth Gilbert describes.
3. I got home from my trip and got really deep with myself and sat and cried for a real long time (no link to this, thank goodness). I yelled at the universe for being so unfair and cruel and prayed to whatever God is out there to give me and my family a little peace. I mourned my losses from last year. I begged for something good to happen, even if it was something small. All I wanted was to feel some tiny sliver of hope and love and creativity again. I wept, then I slept.
The next morning I woke, walked to the kitchen, took a deep breath, opened up the fridge, took out those dumpling ingredients, channeled my inner Liz and Jeong, conjured up all the magic of those gingery umami filled loving childhood memories and got to work. And wouldn’t you just know it? They came out wildly…perfect.
So, my friends, wrapped up inside these little packets is so much more than just some tasty ground up filling. It is my whole heart. For my dad, for me, for love and creativity lost and found- I hope you take your time making these, enjoy, be zen, channel Liz and Jeong and all the magic, and pour your own heart and soul inside (and please, try not to give up on them until they make your mouth do a serious happy dance).
For more information on PSP, and how you can help, visit www.psp.org
Yields: 38 dumplings // Total Time: About 2 Hours
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or untoasted sesame oil
2 cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
½ cup FRESH ginger, peeled and sliced (please do not use jarred or dried, this is the main flavor of the dish!)
6 scallions sliced, white and green parts separated
1 large garlic clove, peeled and smashed
1 tablespoon unseasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Soy Sauce or Braggs Liquid Aminos
1 package of Westsoy Chicken Style Seitan (squeezed dry)
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
Two pinches Kosher sea salt
1 package of wonton/dumpling wrappers
3 tablespoons grapeseed oil or untoasted sesame oil, divided
3/4 + 1/4 cup water, divided
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Saute garlic, ⅓ of the ginger, the white part of scallions, and the shiitakes until the shrooms start to brown, about 5 minutes. Toss in vinegar and soy sauce, cook for 1 minute and remove from heat.
Transfer the ingredients from the pan (including oil) to food processor, add the remaining ginger, seitan, hoisin, green parts of the scallions, and pulse to mix until it reaches the consistency of finely ground pork. Taste and season with salt.
Create an assembly line with your filling, dumpling wrappers and a small bowl of water.
Lay out 6 dumpling wrappers on a parchment lined surface. Pack filling into a ½ tablespoon and level off, then transfer scoop into the center of a dumpling wrapper. Repeat for remaining 5 wrappers.
Dip your finger into the water, and paint the edges of one dumpling wrapper to moisten. Fold the wrapper in half diagonally, corner to corner, and gently press to create a seal. Fold all the corners in to create some semblance of a semi-circle (if you find round wrappers, or make your own, you can skip this step). Slowly and VERY carefully, from one end of the circle to the other, gently fold and press fold and press, creating a pleat or rope-like edge and a pretty tight seal (these wrappers are thin, they break easily, watch your fingernails!!! If you have tiny tears, it’s ok – just try to seal them up. Too big of holes and your filling will leak out in the pan) .
Then, place the flat edge of the dumpling on the parchment paper and gently press down to make it a flat surface instead of an edge, with the pleat edge on top facing you.
Repeat with the remaining 5 dumplings, then 6 at a time, the rest of the package. (If you’re amazing at this process, you’ll have some wrappers left over. If you have clunky hands like me and break a ton, you’ll have extra filling!)
In a large non-stick skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium high heat. Add ⅓ of the dumplings (don’t crowd the pan though, if you have a smaller pan than mine you may need to do 4 batches instead of 3) and cook until the bottoms start to turn golden brown, about 1-2 minutes.
Add ¼ cup of water to the pan, turn down heat to medium-low, and quickly cover the pan. Cook for 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate (You can keep them warm by covering with foil, but I like them better at room temperature so leaving them uncovered is fine if you work relatively quickly).
Wipe out any residual water, oil, or dumpling filling, and then repeat for the remaining batches.
Serve alone, or alongside your favorite dipping sauce. (My mom’s favorite is soy sauce with some ginger grated in, mine is Chinese hot mustard or Chili Garlic sauce)
There is a precarious balance between too dry and too wet when you’re filling your dumplings. I have found that laying out and scooping in filling of 6 at a time, and only wetting one wrapper at a time works just right. You’ll find your magic formula depending on how fast you work. If you’re a perfectionist, or very new to this, I suggest going 1 at a time.
The amount of filling in this recipe makes 38 dumplings. The package of skins I used has 48 skins, even in their wonton recipe in the back they give a 10 skin breakage leeway.
This can be a time consuming and frustrating process, grab a friend or lover and work on it together- and don’t give up! It may take a few times of making these before you get it right.