Being the independent, self-employed person* that I am, I'm used to wacky schedules, fluctuating workloads, and picking up the occasional odd job to make ends meet. It's a far more interesting lifestyle than the typical 9-to-5 grind I left behind, and I honestly wouldn't trade it for the world (if for no other reason than that I'm never going back to wearing pantyhose and heels again--never!). But I've never had quite such an interesting odd job offer as the one my mother laid in front of me a few weeks ago: teach a cooking class at her semi-regular 'Girls' Night' gathering. Would I accept? Of course I would! I think I may have actually done a little happy dance! Chef Laurel was ready to roll.
I love little finger foods, and I love Asian flavors. And what I really, especially love is teaching people to cook something new when they're at their happiest--glass of wine in hand, surrounded by lifelong friends in a warm glowing kitchen, not intimidated, totally relaxed and ready to have fun. This is the mindset I always try to achieve before I start my own cooking, and I've found there's nothing like being in a good mood to enhance the possibility of success when trying something new. A glass of wine or two helps things along, as well.
So keeping all this in mind, plus the time constraints of the evening, I narrowed the curriculum down to two irresistible bite-sized treats that most people have tasted but never made from scratch before: Potstickers (gyoza) and Chinese Almond Cookies.
* at least, that's the way I like to refer to myself on the good days, which truthfully are many. On the bad days, which are few, I can be found wailing on the floor, clutching the job section of the classifieds, beating my breast and tearing my hair. You know. The usual. ;)
Pictured: A warm batch of just cooked potstickers. Yum.
Potstickers (Japanese Gyoza Dumplings)
1 lb. ground pork
½ head Napa cabbage, shredded
1 large carrot, grated
3 green onions, finely chopped
1 tsp. fresh ginger, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 Tb. vegetable oil
3 Tb. soy sauce
wonton wrappers (commercially made ones are great & easy to find; I usually see them in the ‘salad’ area of the produce section)
For dipping sauce:
Rice wine vinegar
Toasted sesame seed oil
Red chili flakes or Asian hot sauce
Heat large skillet (make sure you are using one with a lid, as you will need it later) to medium high and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Add pork and brown in oil until meat is about halfway cooked. Add cabbage, ginger and garlic, and continue to stir until cabbage is wilted. Add carrot, green onions and soy sauce and stir for a minute longer. Break egg into skillet and stir quickly to combine with all ingredients. Cook 1 minute longer, then remove from heat and let cool. Spreading it on a plate and cooling it in the refrigerator for at least 30 min. is ideal, since this will allow filling to cool completely and the flavors of all the ingredients to combine.
Prepare a small amount of paste of equal parts cornstarch and water in a bowl. Place a small amount of the cooled filling in the middle of each wonton wrapper, dip your finger in the cornstarch paste, and spread a little around the edges to act as ‘glue.’ Pinch wrapper closed to seal, pleating with your fingers as you go. Makes about 45 potstickers.
Heat large skillet to medium high, add enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom generously (roughly 3 Tb., you may need more or less than this). Add dumplings in a single layer, cook about 1-2 minutes on each side (check them frequently, turn when they have a nice brown layer on each side. Add water to skillet until it is ¼” deep (STAND BACK, adding water to hot oil sometimes causes splatters!), place a lid on skillet and let potstickers steam until thoroughly soft, about 3 more minutes. Remove from pan and place on serving plate.
Mix soy sauce, rice wine vinegar (in roughly equal amounts) in a small bowl, add a splash of sesame oil, red chili flakes/hot sauce and sugar to taste, mix thoroughly. Dip potstickers in this sauce & enjoy!
Chef Laurel lays out the lesson plan! It's interesting preparing for something like this, almost the way I imagine crews have to prepare for a cooking show. I laid out all ingredients in pre-measured amounts and had 'starter' batches as well as 'finished' batches to demonstrate with, in order to cut down on time. Lots of work!
Demonstrating proper pleating & folding technique.
This is my best 'TV chef' face, ha ha! I'd like to think I'm channeling Martin Yan more than, say, Rachel Ray here, but either way I suppose it's a little cheesy. 'Look everyone......cabbage!'
After demonstrating a few myself..........
.......I put the ladies to work, assembly-line-style. Many dumplings were folded, and I'm proud to say none were lost. Such good students!
All in all, it was a great success. I'd love to do some more parties just like this! The group (about ten in all) was just the right size and eager to learn, and the dumplings and cookies (warm, almond-scented buttery treats, shiny with glaze and studded with sesame seeds) made perfect party snacks once we were done. They were challenging enough that no one had ever tried to make them before, but simple enough that they were amazed once they'd actually done it. Triumph!
Chef Laurel is officially available for parties, should you need her. ;)
Chinese Almond Cookies
1 cup (8 oz.) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame seed oil
1/3 cup whole almonds
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Place whole almonds in a bowl and cover with boiling water until covered, to blanch. After 1 minute has passed, pour off water, rinse with cold water, and drain again. Slip almonds out of their skins and set aside.
Beat butter and sugar together in a bowl until smooth, either with an electric mixer or by hand. Add whole egg, almond extract and vanilla, and beat until well blended. Start beating in flour and baking powder a little at a time until you've added the full amount and dough forms. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and chill for at least 1 hour, up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 325°. Divide dough into 48 small pieces, flatten each slightly into disks and place about 1 inch apart on lightly oiled or parchment-lined baking sheets.
In a small bowl, beat egg yolk with milk and sesame oil (really, make sure you get the toasted sesame oil, which is a lovely nut brown color and has a wonderful sesame aroma, rather than the pale yellow regular sesame oil, which has almost no taste at all) to blend. Brush the cookies lightly with egg mixture. Press an almond into the center of each cookie and sprinkle each lightly with sesame seeds.
Bake cookies in a 325° oven until lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cookies cool on sheets for just a few minutes, then use a spatula to transfer to racks to finish cooling.