Hot chili peppers will warm up a Chinese dinner.By Carolyn Phillips
In China's heartland, in the province known as Sichuan, each mouthful of food is a bite of history. The iconic flavors of this region - the searing chilies, numbing Sichuan peppercorns and aromatic garlic of its home-style foods, as well as its refined and rich banquet dishes - are regarded by China's gastronomes as signatures of one of the country's greatest cuisines.
Fiery chili peppers have come to embody Sichuan's cuisine. Sichuan peppercorns and garlic have long held sway in many of China's regional dishes, but peppers are the upstarts that thoroughly overhauled Sichuan's cuisine.
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. It was most likely not long after that dictionary was written that the peppers blazed their way into China's heartland either via Portuguese merchant ships or through trade routes from India and Southeast Asia. Only then did central Chinese dishes come to be slicked with red hot oils, spiked with crispy dried chilies, and sparked with that herbal zing of fresh peppers.
Sichuan-Style Wontons in Chili Oil
Serves 6 to 8 as part of a multicourse meal, 4 to 6 as a main entrée (approximately 80 to 90 wontons)
For the dumplings:
1½ pounds organic pork (ratio of 7 parts lean to 3 parts fat ideal)
2 inches fresh ginger
1½ cups lightly salted stock
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
3 tablespoons rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
3 green onions, white parts only, trimmed and finely minced
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil
Freshly ground black pepper (about 1 teaspoon)
For the skins:
1 (16-ounce) package of thin wonton skins
Cool filtered water, as needed
A few tablespoons flour or cornstarch
2 quarts boiling water
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons red chili oil, or more to taste
3 tablespoons good, light soy sauce, or more to taste
3 tablespoons roasted sesame oil, or more to taste
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced, optional
A bit of sugar to taste
3 green onions, green parts only, trimmed and cut in thin circles
1. Cut the ginger into ½-inch pieces, and whirl in a blender or food processer with about ½ cup of the stock. Strain out and discard the solids.
2. Rinse the pork and pat dry with a paper towel. To prepare the meat in the traditional manner, lay a wet kitchen towel under a heavy chopping block and cut the pork into 1-inch slices. Use the back of one or two cleavers to pound the meat into a fine mince, pausing to remove any white tendons from the meat. If you wish to use a food processor, cut meat into 1-inch cubes and pulse until finely chopped.
3. Place minced pork in a large work bowl and use your hands to stir in the ginger-flavored stock, beaten eggs, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, the whites of the green onions and the sesame oil. Stir the meat in one direction and slowly add the rest of the stock in small increments so that the pork absorbs all of this liquid. It will be light and fluffy.
4. Chill the filling for an hour or longer, if you have the time, as this will firm it up and make it easier to wrap.
5. Before wrapping the wontons, place two baking sheets next to your work area and cover them with clean tea towels. Dust towels lightly with flour. Have a couple extra towels ready to cover the filled wontons - the skins will crack if they dry out. Place a couple tablespoons of cool filtered water next to the filling, as well as a flat piece of wood or bamboo, or a small spatula or blunt knife. If you are going to cook the wontons right away, fill a large pot with 2 quarts water and bring it to a boil while you fill the wontons.
6. Use your dominant hand to scoop up the filling and your other hand to hold the wrapper. Curl your fingers in a loose fist with your wrapper hand and place one wrapper on top of the circle formed by your forefinger and thumb. Wet a finger on the other hand and draw a circle on the wrapper. Scoop up about a tablespoon of the filling and place it in the center of the wrapper, and then fold one corner up over the filling to form a triangle. Lightly wet one of the bottom angles and bring both bottom angles together, seal these two ends by pressing them together, and your wonton is complete. Place the filled wonton on a flour-dusted towel, cover it with another towel, and wrap the rest of the wontons the same way.
7. You can freeze the uncooked wontons by just placing the wontons on the towel-covered trays in the freezer for a couple of hours until they are frozen solid. Remove the wontons to a freezer bag and keep frozen until you are ready to cook them; they can be boiled directly from the freezer and should not be defrosted first.
8. Mix together the sauce ingredients (except for the peppercorns and onions), taste and adjust the seasoning as desired, and divide the sauce among however many bowls you wish; feel free to double the sauce if you really enjoy spicy flavors.
9. To cook the wontons, drop them in small handfuls into the boiling water while stirring with a wooden spoon. As soon as the water comes to a boil, pour in 1 cup cold water. Bring the pot to a boil again, and pour in another cup of cold water. When the pot boils again, the wontons should be floating gracefully.
10. Use a Chinese spider or slotted spoon to gently remove the wontons into the prepared bowls. Toss them lightly in the sauce and sprinkle with the chopped green onions. Serve immediately.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
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