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Quarantine Cuisine: Xiao Long Bao

Despite writing it up, I'd never posted this gem from back in the depths of Iowa quarantine in March 2020, but figured no time like the present, especially since many of us are still stuck at home with nothing better to do but cook delicious things! Do yourself a favor and try your hand at these––you won't regret it!

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Most of the things I post on here are things I have cooked many times before and feel reasonably confident I can produce well 90 percent of the time. I select these items mostly to avoid the embarrassment of appearing less-than-perfect to my dear readers.

Today's blog is different because this is literally the first time I have cooked this, or even anything like this, and y'all are now in for the ride along my learning curve.

The most grandfathered-in of my readers might remember my visit to a hole-in-the-wall xiao long bao joint in the French Concession in Shanghai. Xiao long bao ("XLB"), also known as soup dumplings, are a Shanghainese specialty filled with pork and, you guessed it, soup! The dumplings are steamed, served with a special vinegar for dipping, and the soup bursts forth when the dumpling breaks, covering the tongue with a warm, savory pork broth. XLB are some of my favorite little bites in the world, and since I seem to have nothing but time these days, I decided to try my hand at them.

The XLB in Shanghai were, as you can see, made to order by the experts, who pinch the little "button" at the top of the satchel with magnificent artistry. I might be a doctor, but I am not a doctor of dumpling pleats. Forgive.

While labor-intensive, and certainly demanding practice, I didn't find this to be nearly as difficult as I thought it would be, and mama and I enjoyed a nice, filling dinner that brought me right back to the flavors of Shanghai.

There are four components to the dumplings: the aspic, the filling, the dough, and the dipping vinegar. I'll go through prepping all four, in that order.

1: Aspic is a word I first heard in the film Julie and Julia, and was, apparently, one of the things which Julie most dreaded preparing from Julia Child's cookbook––it's essentially a meat gel. Now, I grew up in a world where the only thing that was gelatin was fruity and sweet, so gelatinous meat-product sounded pretty dreadful to me.

In Shanghainese XLB, the aspic is the soup––it allows you to fill the dumpling with the pork filling and gelatinous aspic, and the aspic will melt into the hot, delicious soup inside the dumplings when they are steamed. Traditionally, the soup is made by creating a rich pork stock, primarily by boiling pork neck bones and raw pork skin in water. I had access to neither, so after nearly giving up on making XLB entirely while reading about the aspic, I finally found a recipe that gave me a little bit of (western) leeway in creating it.

For my aspic, I purchased a really excellent jar of chicken bone broth from Epic Foods (in Austin!), which I knew would have top-notch flavor, and chopped a slice of bacon, a single green onion, and ginger. A cup and a third (roughly) of bone broth was brought to a boil with the solid ingredients and reduced by half.

Afterward, I drained out the solid ingredients and discarded, and added about a third a packet of gelatin (natural, organic beef gelatin, if you can!) to a quarter cup of cool bone broth, and added it back into the hot stock, letting the gelatin dissolve. Afterward, I put the broth in a flat, shallow bowl and in the fridge for an hour, letting the aspic set. It can be refrigerated until you're ready to use it.

2: The filling is fairly straightforward. Get a half pound of ground pork, the fattier the better. Finely mince a green onion and 2" of ginger root, and combine with 1 Tbsp of Shaoxing cooking wine (can be found on Amazon or at your local Asian market), 1.5 tsp each of soy sauce, sesame oil, and brown sugar, and a dash of salt and white pepper. The recipe I found said 225 grams of pork per unit of the ingredients above––silly me, I mis-converted grams to pounds, and wound up with a full pound of pork. Be diligent!

Mix all ingredients until well-combined.

You can refrigerate the filling for a while, and when you are ready, you'll remove the aspic and cut the gel into small cubes (the smaller the better), and then incorporate those cubes into the pork filling. Combine the aspic vigorously into the filling. Note that the aspic-plus-filling combo will break down if left in the fridge for too long. Don't combine until you're ready to form the dumplings, and combine way more thoroughly than the photo below!

Keep mixing until the aspic breaks down a bit and blends with the pork

3: The dough is pretty easy-looking on paper, but I am not a person who bakes very often, so I don't really know my way around a rolling pin these days. Fortunately, I have access to the great technology of the 21st century, so I broke out the Kitchen-Aid mixer (20th century, I guess!) and added 1.5 cups of flour to the bowl, with the regular mixing attachment. Next step is to boil some water. Add 1.5 tsp of cooking oil, then add tablespoon after tablespoon of boiling water until you have a workable dough. The recipe said seven tablespoons, but I found I needed at least ten or 12 before the dough started to come together.

Once it was mixed well and in a single "ball" of dough, I switched to the dough hook and set the mixer on low for a gentle knead. While I went to put my shoes (and pants) on for the day's walk with Maks, I let the hook knead the dough, and then took the dough out, floured up our very fashionable Formica countertop, and kneaded a bit, covering the dough and letting it sit for at least an hour while we took our walk.

When we returned, I spilt the dough in half (roughly) and rolled one half into a long "cylinder."

Then, I cut the dough into 12 little gnocchi-sized nuggets.

Each nugget needs to be covered in flour and rolled into very thin circles of dough about 3 inches in diameter. I am way too embarrassed by the job I did with a rolling pin, so took no photos of this step––few of them even remotely resembled a shape that one could call "round." There were many curse words.

Once you've rolled out all the skins from that half of the dough, place the dough across the palm of your hand and press the filling into the dough. Using the hand with the dough, pinch one side of the rim of the dough together, and then pinch again with the other hand, pressing the new pinch into the original pinch and repeating until you have (for lack of a better word) a little "nipple" on top of the dumpling. As you can see, I did not do particularly well creating a beautiful series of pinches on top of the dumplings... needed to consult a YouTube tutorial!

Oh well; the primary goal is not beauty, but rather ensuring that each dumpling is sealed so that the soup won't spill out when they cook.

Cover the finished dumplings with Saran wrap and repeat the process with the other half of the dough.

4: For dipping, XLB traditionally are served with a Chinese vinegar with some optional ginger slices. This vinegar isn't readily available in America's heartland (surprise?), so the recipe-giver suggested combining a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to imitate the flavor of the traditional vinegar. I must say, the vinegar did taste rather familiar!

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Cooking the XLB is the easiest part! Traditionally, you'd use a bamboo steamer basket to cook these, boiling water in a wok, steaming the dumplings in the basket, and then serving directly in the basket. Again, America's heartland is not teeming with bamboo steamer baskets, so I took the old wok and added a round wire rack, which I covered with a layer of cheesecloth to avoid sticking.

Once the water boiled, I covered the wok and cooked the XLB for about ten minutes, which turned out to be too long––six to eight minutes is the recommendation in the recipe, but the XLB didn't really look "plump and translucent" like the recipe said when that time expired, so I cooked the pork a bit too hard.

Be careful moving the XLB to the plate––I broke the thin dough on a few of the dumplings, and the soup went spilling forth onto the plate.

I was actually sorta happy with the way that (most of) the dumplings looked on the plate. The traditional way to eat them is in a Chinese-style soup spoon. The first several will be far too hot, so place one in the spoon, bite off the "nipple" of the dumpling, and suck the hot soup out through the top, then dip the bottom of the spoon in the vinegar and ingest the rest of the dumpling. Be careful! After a few dumplings, you should be able to just take the whole XLB in your mouth without fear of being burned, and let the hot, savory soup fill your mouth when you break the dough.

There's something so wonderful about these little morsels. While I cooked them a little too long, used a distinctly different broth than a traditional XLB recipe, and didn't do a great job pinching the tops, I found the meal comforting and delicious. There is definitely a learning curve here, but hey, what do we have but time these days to learn new things? After a windy walk, it was the perfect little warm dinner treat. I look forward to trying again!

We don't have a wine to cook by with this meal, since we didn't really have a wine that would pair well, so we decided to make a couple of margaritas after dinner was over, which helped us make it through the evening news on Rachel Maddow's show. If you haven't seen the margarita blog, check it out and make a few!

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