01 March 2014

why I enjoy cooking / recipe #1: pork, shrimp and spinach wontons

I decided a couple weeks ago that I would finally start writing my memoirs. Last year, I had a major health breakthrough that was not explainable by modern science: my bleeding disorder had normalized and I no longer had to worry as much about accidentally cutting myself. For nearly a decade, I'd been petrified to hold, let alone use a knife in the kitchen. I've enjoyed cooking since I was a kid, so it had been one of the worst things in my life to not be able to cook the way I always had.

My love for cooking goes back to my childhood days, being in the kitchen with my mother or my grandmother. I would go with them to the grocery store to buy the ingredients and then I'd watch them make the most amazing things from what seemed to me like the simplest things ever. I also have great memories of helping my dad fry cod fritters and barbecue all sorts of things - steaks, marinated chicken, miso glazed salmon - and the times I spent with my family cooking are moments that I feel most kids these days have really missed out on.

Watching someone cook also impressed on me that cooking doesn't have to be complicated. I think some people who are not comfortable in the kitchen get a mental block about cooking because we have icons like Martha Stewart making it "look" so easy to make a wedding cake. Once you try and master the basics, you will have the confidence to improvise and try new things. I'll read recipes but most of the time, I have an idea in my head of things I want to do and what ingredients I want to use, and I find recipes too confining.

However, my friends on Facebook demanded last night to have the recipe for the wontons I made and photographed for my dinner, so I will indulge them. As time permits, I will add more recipes here.

Pork, shrimp, and spinach wontons

8 ounces frozen whole leaf spinach, cooked, chopped, and drained very well
2/3 pounds of ground pork
1 pound shrimp, shelled, deveined, and cut into thirds (U31-40 count is fine)
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon garlic powder
store bought wonton skins
chopped green onions, soy sauce, and sesame oil for garnish

Makes about 50 medium to large wontons, good for four large portions.  I tend to make a lot at once during the weekend, then refrigerate them after they've completely cooled, so I can eat the leftovers during the week.

Miscellaneous ingredient notes:
  • Last night I didn't have frozen spinach, so I tried using frozen kale instead and it worked just fine. Just note that spinach is less bitter than kale and I know not everyone likes the taste of kale. Another option if you don't have either is cooked napa cabbage, drained very well; napa is another traditional vegetable used in wontons, and these days most grocery stores stock it in the produce section.  I just find it's easier to work with frozen vegetables because you can have a box or bag of it in the freezer and don't have to run to the grocery store every time you want to make wontons. Also, you can save money by stocking up on the frozen veg when they're on sale. I also really like using chopped green onions in my wontons, but I realized after I'd cut my shrimp that I hadn't cut my onions and I didn't want to cross contaminate. If you don't like onions, skip them. I minimized the ingredients in this recipe to make it simpler.
  • You can probably get away with a leaner ground pork but remember folks, fat is flavor! I find the fat is worth it for the taste. Also remember that you're not going to be eating a huge piece of meat but in smaller, bite size portions, so if you're counting calories, increase the amount of vegetable you're using so the proportion of vegetable (and therefore fiber) to meat is higher.
  • Larger shrimp are more expensive and since we're cutting them up, there's no reason to spend more money on fancier ones. I like using 31-40 shrimp per pound-sized shrimp because they're not super tiny, so they're easy to peel and devein, but not super expensive either. Bagged, individually quick frozen shrimp is absolutely fine and I usually buy them when they're on sale; if you don't want to deal with defrosting the shrimp, buy them fresh from the seafood counter. I cut my shrimp into thirds so they're small enough to put into a wonton. Any larger, and you may run into the problem of not being able to close your skins.
  • Don't use gyoza skins. Wonton skins are square and gyoza skins are round. I cannot stress this enough. Wonton skins are much, MUCH thinner and much more delicate. There is a huge difference. It's worth it going to an Oriental grocery store to get the wonton ones if only gyoza ones are available in your regular grocery store. Also, if you have a choice, buy the wonton skins that are yellow colored, not white. It was never entirely explained to me by my grandmother why this is - my mom says it has to do with alkali in the dough, but I am not sure why this makes a difference, but the yellow ones taste so much better. Trust me on this.
  • I personally do not use salt in my recipe because I eat a pretty low sodium diet. I would recommend you use salt (either salt itself or via soy sauce) by adding it on top when you're ready to eat because you can control the amount of salt you use that way. Garlic is a great way to add flavor without adding salt. If you like your food spicy, you can add pepper to your filling. If you want to be a rebel, try using white pepper - the flavor is fantastically different than white pepper and fancier Chinese chefs use it instead of the black.
Right. Enough talking! Here's how to make your wontons:

1. Organize your prep table. In a small bowl, add a small amount of cold water and put it on your prep table. Take several paper plates and wrap them in plastic wrap: you're going to wrap your wontons on them. Loosen the plastic wrapping on the skins so they'll be easy to access later. Also get several large plates lined up on the side of the kitchen near your stove: this is where you're going to put your cooked wontons when you're done.

2. Bring a saucepan of water to a low boil. Add the frozen spinach to the saucepan. Turn heat up to high until the water boils, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon. Shut off the heat.

3. With a slotted spoon, drain spinach from the saucepan and spread it out on a plate to cool faster. I use the back of the spoon to squeeze more water out of the spinach by pushing it up against the side of the pan, then move the spinach to the plate.

4. Wash your hand well. When cool enough to the touch, squeeze as much of the water out over the sink with your hands. (You don't want watery wontons!) Move the spinach to a cutting board and chop. (If you're one of those people that thinks touching food is icky, use paper towels. I personally like to get in there and like to be "one" with my food. (Don't judge.  I cook better than you, don't I?)  Put chopped spinach in a large bowl with the ground pork.

5. Shell, devein, and rinse your shrimp. Before moving the shrimp to your cutting board, pat dry with paper towels. Then chop your shrimp into three pieces each. You'll be using two to three pieces of shrimp in each wonton. Add to your bowl.

6. Crack egg in a small bowl and beat white and yolk together. Add beaten egg to your bowl. (I'm a rebel, I crack the egg directly into a empty spot of my bowl and beat it in there so I don't have an extra bowl to wash. My mom taught me that trick.)

7. Add garlic powder and mix with a small spoon until the shrimp and vegetables are mixed throughout the pork. Don't beat the meat to death (I don't recommend you using your hands for this, like you might for a meatloaf or meatballs), but make sure the ingredients are pretty well incorporated.

8. Line up several single wonton skins on your plastic-wrapped plates. Begin assembling your wontons by placing two to three shrimp pieces in the exact middle of your skins. Then add your pork and vegetable on top of the shrimp. It's important to get the filling in the middle of your skin or you'll have trouble closing them. I like having like five of these ready with their filling in place before I start closing the skins, so I can have an assembly line going.

9. Dip one finger in the small bowl with water and wet the border of two of the four sides of a skin. Don't use too much water, the skin will get too sticky; just use enough.  Then fold the skin over to make a triangle, as if you were making a turnover. Make sure you've sealed it airtight, or you run the risk of them exploding like a balloon when you cook them.

If you want to be fancy like me and make them "real" wontons, take the two bottom corners of your triangle and twist them, almost like you're making a tortellini. It's hard for me to explain it into words and this video kind of shows what I do, but it looks like I'm going to have to video tape myself doing it one time, because the way my mom taught me to do it is so much more elegant than this.


10. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop your wontons in gently and make sure they don't stick together or to the bottom of the pot. Stir very gently so you don't break the skins. Bring the water back up to boiling, and from that point, start counting the time. Your wontons will be ready in 6 to 8 minutes, depending on how much filling you used: less filling, less time.

11. Turn off the heat and drain with a slotted spoon to your plates that are waiting. Try to spread them out, as when they cool off they'll stick.  By draining them this way, they're ready to eat as is. You can pick them up with chopsticks and eat them with soy sauce, sesame oil, and green onions to taste.

*Another option is to serve them with soup. For each serving, put a small amount of soy sauce and sesame oil at the bottom of a bowl. Have a kettle of hot water at the ready. When the wontons are done, drain and place them directly into the bowl. Add hot water from the kettle on top of the wontons, so the soy sauce and sesame oil mingle together with the wontons. Sprinkle green onions on top.

See, that wasn't difficult, was it? ::grin::