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Winter Wontons

January 11, 2010

January 18, 2009

Tenderly folded wontons dance in a boiling bath, first low and slow and then rising light and bouncy to the top of the pot. The air is filled with the sweet perfume of ginger, scallions, pork and soy. Soon chicken broth will add its comforting fragrance to the bouquet and steaming bowls will meet cold and hungry friends, still shaking the snow from their sleeves and hair. Wonton soup may not be the first thing that comes to mind as a woodcutter’s lunch, but it is sure to become a requested favorite.

I never thought I would be spoiled for beef by ground pork. That was about the last thing I expected. But after substituting pork for ground beef in pierogies, meatballs, and whatever else called for beef, everyone around my table has lost their taste for cow. One of my cookbooks claimed that the Chinese word for meat was the same as the word for pork. I’m assuming they meant Mandarin, and I haven’t verified that assertion, but I can see why it might be true. Pork, especially the homegrown variety, is just so much more flavorful than beef. Of all the dishes I’ve made with the dwindling ground pork, wontons was a fast favorite.

Irene Kuo’s book The Key to Chinese Cooking, delicately illustrated by Catherine Moy, describes wontons as Chinese snack food. She goes on to describe “…having a bowl of wontons from the night vendors who trotted gracefully through the streets of Shanghai…” and “…the narrow, winding back streets of Chungking [where] there were many small stall-like restaurants, where the proprietor scooped wontons from a bubbling pot into a small bowl and seasoned them with dashes of soy sauce, sesame oil and red chili oil…” Kuo’s classic book of Chinese cooking is full of this sort of description; rich and specific and always stimulating both the appetite and the cook’s imagination. In addition, she instructs on technique, from frying a fish whole to march-chopping meat. The recipes are mostly simple and easy to execute, and substitutions are given for exotic ingredients.

If you can get your hands on Kuo’s cookbook, you will find the recipe for wonton wrappers. You can also find recipes online if you search for “wontons.” I have found the store-bought wonton wrappers work very well in a pinch, although they often are more rectangular than square, requiring a bit of fudging to make the sides of the triangle meet. Wonton wrappers from the store feature instructions on folding and retail for $2.99 for 48 wrappers, just enough for this recipe.

Irene Kuo’s Wonton Soup

1/2 lb ground pork

key2chinesecooking_347 Seasonings:

  • 1 1/2 Tbs light soy sauce
  • 1/8 tsp sugar
  • 1 Tbs dry sherry or Chinese rice wine
  • pinch of black pepper
  • 1 tsp peeled, minced ginger
  • 1 tsp finely chopped scallions
  • 1 Tbs cornstarch, dissolved in 4 Tbs stock or water
  • 2 tsp sesame oil

40 wonton wrappers

8 cups chicken stock

2 cups spinach leaves, chopped roughly

salt or light soy sauce to taste

March chop the meat to loosen its formation. (Chop one way and then the other.) Put it in a bowl and add the seasonings; mix until smooth. Divide into 40 tiny portions and wrap them in the wontons.

Bring 8 cups water to a boil in a large pot. Turn heat to medium high and drop in the wontons, stirring gently. When the water boils again, add 1 1/2 cups cold water; when it boils again, add another 1 1/2 cups cold water. When it comes to a boil for a third time, let it boil for about 2 minutes. The wontons are cooked when they float to the top. Do not rinse.

After boiling, the wontons may be stored, covered, in the fridge for 2 to 3 days. Submerge them in cold water to separate them before adding them to soup.

Bring the stock to a simmer over medium heat and drop as many wontons as you want for your meal into it. Serve 4 to 6 per person for a soup course. Add the torn spinach and when the stock comes to a boil, turn to medium low and simmer for 2 minutes. Season with soy sauce or salt if the broth is not already salted.

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