Wandering the aisles of the local megamart, Alton ponders the huge variety of items available. Most shoppers, he says, have a list of a hundred items (more or less) and rarely deviate from it. For perspective, Alton offers the fact that this particular store has that many kinds of canned soup. Why is this? Have we lost our sense of curiosity? Are we so focused on the list that we never discover new ingredients? Alton believes so – and that’s a crying culinary shame. Alton suggests shoppers running their usual store circuit stop, step away from the cart, and look around for something never seen, never tasted, never used. For example, wonton wrappers. Alton used to pass these by without a second though, and now cannot live without them. They look innocuous, but inside them, Alton claims, lurks a culinary currency that can elevate standard stuffing to cultured cuisine. Wrappers may be baked, broiled, fried, sautéed, or steamed. Their secret is out – or will be, after Alton presents this treasure of the megamart on... Good Eats!
Wonton is an Anglicized version of a Cantonese phrase wantan that means “cloud swallowing.” At Wong’s House of Foo in Atlanta, a waiter delivers a bowl and Alton extracts a wonton from the broth. It does look like a cloud... kinda... sorta... Wontons have other uses, too – potstickers, steamed dumplings, and even the little noodles for hot & sour soup. They’re wontons cut in steams and deep fried.
Wontons are formed of flour, salt, egg and water, so why not make them oneself? Alton has two reasons. First, it is difficult to roll the noodle dough thin enough to achieve the right effect. And second, it takes time, and when time runs short, Alton prefers to work on the payload, rather than the missile.
Wonton skins come in stacks of sixty or seventy wrappers, each a three inch square. Alton likes the square shape, which is versatile and easy to use. But for cooks who prefer a round shape, Alton mentions gyoza which are potsticker wrappers. Except for the round shape, these are identical to wontons. For larger applications, look for spring roll and even egg roll wrappers – but these last two use a somewhat different recipe and are harder to seal, so they don’t work well for dumplings. There’s also rice paper, a brittle and translucent cousin of the wonton wrapper. It works well for steaming but must be soaked before use. Don’t keep it chilled, and it is not interchangeable with wonton skins. And neither are moo-shu shells (also known as Chinese tortillas).
Back in his kitchen, Alton balances on a unicycle as he explains the Chinese goal of balance – yin and yang, dark and light – even “great taste / less filling.” In food this takes the form of fan t’sai. The fan, or starches and grains, must balance with t’sai, the meat and vegetables. By definition, the wonton achieves this balance perfectly as the wrapper balances the filling, creating thoughtful flavor combinations and contrasting mouth feel. The perfect potsticker has a crunchy exterior and a plump, moist body. To achieve that, the cook must encourage the food to stick to the pan.
Alton starts with the payload, mixing ground pork with scallions and eggs, red bell pepper, kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, brown sugar (either light or dark), cayenne pepper, ketchup and mustard. Alton dons gloves and kneads the mixture by hand.
Turning to the skins, Alton removes them from the package and covers them with a moist towel to prevent them drying out. He extracts one and brushes two adjacent edges with water. A half teaspoon of filling goes in the center, and Alton pinches the edges shut, crimping two pleats into each side. As he crimps he forces air out of the middle. Wontons go quickly from freezer to fry pan with little or no thawing. They may be frozen on a half-sheet and stored in a zip top bag for as long as six months.
To cook his, Alton heats a large skillet over medium heat. Remembering that these are supposed to stick, Alton uses a standard, not non-stick, skillet. The pan is hot enough when water jumps around. Alton brushes on a thin layer of vegetable oil – not too much, he doesn’t want to sauté the wontons – just enough to conduct heat efficiently. Then he loads eight to ten potstickers into the skillet, leaving space around them. Cooking too many at once, he cautions, drops the temperature of the skillet too much. Alton leaves the potstickers alone for two minutes, regardless of what he sees. At the end of that time, he add chicken broth (water will work, but brings less flavor to the party), lids the pan immediately and reduces the heat to low, waiting another two minutes. Removing the lid he watches the potstickers deflate slightly – a good sign. Then he gently removes them from the skillet and stashes them in a foil cone and that into the oven to keep the warm. He deglazes the pan with a little water before proceeding with the next batch. Dip these in hoisin sauce and you may never go out for Chinese again – well, not so often, anyway.
Alton wonders next whether he should stick with Chinese flavors with a dozen other cuisines would work as well. But first, he needs to learn about steamers...
Steaming, as Alton tells us from a steam room, cooks food in a healthy way. To help him learn how to best steam food, Alton brings W into the steam room. Her first offering is a bamboo steamer, but Alton nixes that idea: bamboo falls apart, cannot go in the dishwasher, and worst of all, harbors bacteria and every flavor ever cooked in it. To solve these problems she offers stainless steel: efficient, easy to clean and cooks a lot at once. Alton disdains such cookers as loud and expensive, taking up a lot of space, and the steel can get hot enough to burn the wonton. Sighing, W presents the electric steamer: dishwasher safe, easy to use and comes in a variety of sizes. But Alton scorns that one, too. Like the stainless steel model, it’s big. It has a bewildering array of parts and the simple spring timer isn’t accurate. He asks what else W has, but she’s out of ideas. Then she realizes Alton planned to build is own steamed, another of his gimmicks – and whole meeting was a prank to get her in a steam room wearing only a towel! Alton can’t keep a straight face, and she snatches her gear back and storms off, catching wolf whistles and promising Alton he’ll hear from her lawyer.
Back in his kitchen, Alton says everything you need for a quality steam is already in the kitchen or at the store. He builds his steaming inside a large pot with a half inch of water on the bottom. Inside it, he layers rings (either pastry rings or tuna cans with both lids removed), and on top of them perforated pie pans.
The steamer ready, Alton turns to his next filling. It starts with firm tofu. Alton cuts the block in half and lays the halves on towels, then wraps them and puts a plate on top and a weight (a can of food) on that. This will squeeze the tofu and force most of the liquid from it. That takes about twenty minutes; Alton leaves it while he takes a road trip to Harry’s Farmers Market in Marietta.
At the Market, Alton commandeers a cart from its owner and comments on the peppery and slightly sweet flavor of ginger, a plant vital to Asian cuisine – a “prime time player.” Ginger also finds use in cookies, such as the gingerbread man Alton finds in the top of the cart. Ginger comes as ground, pickled, crystallized and fresh rhizome, which is what Alton wants today. He looks for a heavy “hand” – the term given the fresh rhizome – that has a fresh, spicy fragrance and a smooth skin. Wrinkly hands (unlike wrinkly television hosts, he’s quick to point out) are past their prime – avoid them. Store fresh ginger in the fridge, wrapped in a towel and inside a zip top bag, for as long as three weeks. Seal ginger tightly and toss it in the freezer for up to three months. And do not substitute the ground sort. It works in desserts but not wontons. Finally, Alton notes that some stores sell young ginger. This variety has a subtler flavor. It’s interchangeable, but most recipes need more young ginger to achieve the same flavor. About this point the shopper from whom Alton liberated the cart catches up to him. Biting the head off the gingerbread man, he returns man and cart to their owner...
Back in the kitchen, Alton assembles the payload: the tofu, grated carrot, shredded napa cabbage, scallions, red bell pepper, the fresh ginger, some cilantro, a bit each of soy and hoisin sauces, a little sesame oil, kosher salt and black pepper. Finally, Alton adds a lightly beaten egg to keep the filling from falling apart. He stirs this lightly (kneading would break up the tofu).
Taking a wrapper from his stash, Alton wets all the edges and then puts a half teaspoon of filling in the middle. He folds opposing corners together, and then the other set of opposing corners, sealing all the edges and forcing out all the air. The result looks a bit like a hobo’s bindle. Alton then sprays the pie pans lightly with non-stick spray and sets the dumplings inside so that they do not touch. He steams them for ten to twelve minutes. Alton floats his steamed dumplings in a little chicken broth, but they may be served in a variety of ways.
For those wondering when Alton plans to fry something, the answer is: for dessert. He starts by combining sugar and water in a small saucepan to form syrup. While it simmers, he splits and scrapes a vanilla bean, adding the contents and some orange liquor to the sugar, the removing that from the heat. While it cools, he chops some dried pears and scoops the bits into his food processor. Why not let the processor chop them? The sticky pears, when whole, will stick to the blades and simply spin around. Cut into small cubes, they won’t. Alton pulses the pears until the start to clump, then adds the syrup and pulses until the filling is smooth. Using a spoon, Alton mixes in some toasted and chopped walnuts, then stashes the mixture in the refrigerator for an hour or so. He cautions against making this more than a day or so ahead of use – longer, and it will dry and turn gummy.
To fill these, Alton puts a wonton wrapper on his loosely closed fist and then puts a little water the usual half teaspoon of filling into the center. As he pushes the wrapper gently into the space inside his fingers, he draws the edges together to form a kind of small purse and then pinches them closed and flares them out again, to form a kind of bulb shape. He covers these with a moist paper towel as he heats a half gallon of oil (vegetable or peanut) to 360º F in a large Dutch oven. (An electric fryer would work, too.) He cooks the treats in small batches of eight or so, putting them all in at the same time with a spider – this ensures they’ll be done at the same time. He checks the temperature, raising the heat if needed to bring the oil back to 360º F. Cooking takes a couple of minutes, but Alton keeps an eye on them: he’s looking for “golden brown and delicious” which is difficult to time precisely. Alton’s landing spot for cooked wontons is a cooling rack inverted over newspaper; this wicks oil nicely away. When the wontons are cooked, Alton fishes them out with the spider and lets them drain a few seconds back into the pot before setting them on the rack to cool. They’re delicious by themselves or with ice cream.
All of this goodness is possible because Alton took the time to look beyond his list to the possibilities around him at the megamart. He advices viewer to proceed safely to their own store and to take a little time and toss aside the shopping list blinders. Maybe, right around the next end cap, he’ll discover new and exciting... Good Eats! Share this article with your friends