Our friend the LACMA curator invited us to join a group of foodies who have irregular, rotating themed potlucks. Go back and read that again — from time to time (although not with any regular timing) they meet at someone’s house. The host selects the theme and provides beverages. The guests each bring a dish that meets the theme. Today the meeting was in Santa Monica at a lovely house and the theme was the Chinese New Year. (新年快樂的牛年, by the way.)
I made a wonton soup. It turned out to involve substantially more work than the fifteen minutes’ prep time that the recipe indicated. First, you have to find ground pork. This is a little more difficult than you might think; my local grocery store does not sell ground pork. I solved that problem by buying a pack of pork shoulder and grinding it at home in the food processor.
Seasonings added to the food processor during the grinding phase included mustard seed, powdered garlic, rice vinegar, sherry, toasted sesame oil, black pepper, green onions, and turmeric. It was a great temptation to use savory, sage, and bay leaf — but that would be a French pork, not a Chinese one. I also added a can of water chestnuts and a couple stalks of celery to the mix. Captain Cuisinart reduced the slices of pork shoulder and Chinese-seeming spices to a pink-gray paste. This became my wonton filling.
This took about ten minutes and was easy enough. Hand-rolling wontons, however, is quite labor-intensive. I had a packet of about 50 wonton skins, and each one needs only a small amount of the filling — about a teaspoon’s worth. Turns out I’d made about twice as much filling as fifty wonton skins could hold — a few skins ruptured during the folding process. One advantage that the wonton skins have over Italian pasta is the ease with which a new piece can be grafted on a mistake — the skin is very thin and simply applying a “bandage” over the “wound” on the wonton with a wet finger melds and seals up the wonton nicely. Still, each wonton probably took me a minute to make once I was set up, so that worked out to nearly an hour of prep time assembling these little guys. And I never got the shape right — they came out looking a lot more like Japanese gyozo than Chinese wontons. But at that point, I realized it probably wouldn’t matter all that much. I wound up with just under four dozen wontons.
Cook the wontons by bathing them in boiling water, with a little salt added, for six or seven minutes. A few will break free from the bottom of the pot and float to the surface when they’re cooked through. The pork filling inside should be firm to the touch, indicating that the pork is cooked all the way through. Don’t overboil them or the meat will become tough.
The soup stock is pretty easy — it’s simple chicken broth with green onions floated in it. If you really want, you can leave it there. But I added a couple teaspoons of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and a dash of sherry to it. This gave the stock a little bit of sourness, but it was also much more interesting than plain chicken broth. Bring it all to a boil, then allow to cool a bit. Then add the precooked wontons.
Most of the foodies and urban hipsters who showed up said they enjoyed it quite a lot. Our hosts were happy to keep the leftovers and said it would be their dinner. So that was gratifying.
The Wife stole the show, though. Sure, I made a nice soup. But she made ginger cake with plum filling, from scratch, and hand-decorated it with a beautiful picture of a cherry tree in blossom, with the chinese hieroglyph for an ox (牛 — it is now the year of the ox, after all) on each side. Several people refused to cut into the cake because it was too pretty, and at least two people asked if it had been professionally-decorated. Several people took photographs of the cake before some teenage guests cut into it, unable to resist any longer.
The Wife could only see the flaws and mistakes she made. She pointed them all out to me in several fits of self-doubt, so I could see what she was talking about. But no one else could see any of them. This was a seriously beautiful cake — she’s profited immensely from her classes, which fit perfectly into her artistic talents and love of baking. I’ll try to figure out how to get the photo of the cake from her cell phone camera to here soon enough.
And I might add that a gingered white cake with the plum filling is a delicious combination. There were leftovers of my soup. There were no leftovers of her cake. There were only two other dishes — the mu-shu barbequed pork (tender, juicy, and tasted like I-want-more) and our friend’s homemade fortune cookies — that were completely consumed. I was also a big fan of the szechuan eggplant and a shrimp-and-rice-noodle dish that looked suspiciously like Pad Thai.
The Wife and I are both quite enthusiastic about starting a club like that up here in the Antelope Valley. We have some friends who enjoy cooking and I bet if we found maybe two other people, we could put together a good rotating feast.