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We’ve eaten our fair share of dumplings. There is an eatery near us – I don’t think it’s flash enough to call a restaurant – that does a mean trade in food from north-west China near the border of Russian and Kazakhstan. Spicy lamb skewers; ‘the big chicken plate’ with potato, green capsicum, cabbage and hand-made noodles; and gorgeous boiled dumplings with wafts of ginger and sichuan pepper. These days we have to order two large plates of dumplings to share between our family of three, as our two-year-old daughter can put away a frightening eight or so. With only one plate, this leaves my husband and I going rather wanting.
We made a trip to China about four years ago and tried not to be too ambitious with our one-month visa, covering just a small corner of the south-west rather than cramming in the whole country. Our appetite for dumplings went into overdrive, especially in towns in Yunnan where we found rustic little dumpling houses opening onto the street, steamer baskets stacked up in the doorways. Pork dumplings for breakfast – sometimes in hot steaming soup – was the stuff of our dreams.
A great surprise was the cousin of the dumpling – the larger steamed bun. No filling of sickly sweet barbecued pork to be found, but interesting vegetarian versions with spicy tofu, salted greens or mushrooms, to be washed down with a cup of hot soy milk while you waited for a bus.
Our favourite filling when making dumplings at home is with pork, a little salt and a bucket load of sliced spring onion tops. You can easily buy ready-made skins, but a quick mixture of flour, a pinch of salt and water is so easy to mix up and gives you rustic, authentic dumplings.
In my time of slowly getting to know the dumpling, I think they’re best served with a cool, crisp Chinese salad fresh with rice vinegar, and I’m slowly growing my repertoire. I make a smashed cucumber salad, a cabbage salad, and this fantastic peanut and celery salad. Cook it whenever there’s a call for a Chinese salad, such as with spiced skewers or steamed fish.
1 cup raw peanuts in their skins
11/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 tablespoon black or white rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
11/2 tablespoons oil for stir-frying such as peanut or sunflower
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
1/2–1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (depending on their heat)
4–5 celery stalks, wide bottoms cut in half lengthwise, sliced
Boil the peanuts in a saucepan of water for around 15 minutes, until they have softened a little.
Meanwhile, combine the soy sauce, rice wine, vinegar, sesame oil and sugar in a bowl. When the peanuts are cooked, drain them and toss immediately in the dressing. Set aside for 30 minutes or longer to soak up the flavours.
Heat the oil in a wok over high heat and add the garlic and chilli flakes. Sizzle briefly, then add the celery and stir-fry for 2–3 minutes. Add to the bowl of peanuts and mix well. You can serve the salad immediately or leave it to cool to room temperature.