The following article appeared in May 2014 in my Rutland Bites column the Rutland Reader.
Cooking means many things to many people. Maybe you see it as just another chore. Maybe it’s your passion. Maybe it’s impossible because your fridge contains nothing but beer and your oven is where you hide your dirty laundry. Whatever the case — cooking is better with friends.
I love to cook because I love to feed people. When friends join me in the kitchen, it becomes a social activity and one in which we can learn from one another — especially if you’re the guy who has yet to master the intricacies of boiling pasta.
You can make just about anything with a small group in the kitchen. It helps to have a leader in this process, and if this is a regularly scheduled event, why not rotate the role and let him or her choose the topic? You could select different cuisines or techniques to learn each time.
Asian cuisine is a good topic to throw into the mix. Many Asian foods, like spring or summer rolls, dumplings and wontons, require an assembly line type of production that works well for a group. What’s nice is that with foods like these you can easily prepare several dozen and if you’re not eating them all right then, everyone can leave with their own supply to stock the freezer.
Let’s start with the wonton. A wonton is made with a thin square of flour-based dough. You prepare a filling, typically with pork — but feel free to get creative — place about a tablespoon of filling in the center of a wrapper, moisten the edges and then fold it up. Wonton wrappers are inexpensive, are commonly found in grocery stores and are worth buying rather than trying to make your own dough. You can freeze them until you need them, too.
For a basic pork filling, combine a pound of freshly ground pork with three cloves minced garlic, a tablespoon of minced ginger, three chopped scallions, 2 tablespoons soy sauce and a tablespoon of cornstarch. If you want to get more adventurous, add any of the following: a splash of fish sauce and sesame oil, a little lemongrass, and a few chopped water chestnuts and rehydrated black mushrooms.
Combine it all together and feel free to adjust the amount of these additions to the pork. I like it with plenty of ginger and garlic. It’s not a bad idea to sauté a small piece of this meat filling and taste it before assembling all of your wontons and realizing that they’re bland later on.
There are many variations on the wonton and you can seal them up in different ways. You could simply take all four corners of the wrapper and pinch them together, in a loose fashion commonly found in wonton soup. Or, you could bring opposite corners together to form a triangle, seal and squeeze out the air, then pinch the two opposite ends together to form the style pictured above. It sounds like a process, but once you've done a few it becomes rather easy.
There are many ways to cook a wonton as well. You can deep fry, if that’s your preference. It’s not mine. I prefer to steam them over a little water in my handy metal steaming basket. I just place a few lettuce leaves in the bottom of the basket so the wontons don’t stick. It doesn’t take long before the filling is cooked, maybe 12 minutes. If making wonton soup, just boil them in the broth (which can be as simple as chicken broth and soy sauce). Even baking is an option I just came across.
A good dipping sauce for wontons is made up of ½ cup water, ¼ cup sugar, ½ cup rice vinegar and optionally, but recommended, 2 tablespoons fish sauce. Simmer this together with a little grated carrot until the sugar is dissolved.
Rolls get just a little more complicated, but not much. Spring, summer and egg rolls are all common; keeping them straight is a challenge though. Here’s a very simplified explanation. Spring rolls are fried and contain cabbage and other vegetables. Summer rolls are not fried and have a translucent rice paper wrapper. They may or may not contain meat and have a nice crunch of vegetables. Egg rolls, on the other hand, are mostly meat filled and are fried.
I say pass on the frying and make summer rolls. It’s almost summer anyway. Your gluten free friends will appreciate it since they’re made with sheets of rice paper. Rice paper is extremely delicate to work with, as there is almost nothing to it. The key is to soak the sheets in hot water until they’re just pliable enough to work with, which I found to be about 8-10 seconds.
Once they’re soaked, spread a small amount of torn lettuce leaves, a few rice noodles, some sliced scallion, grated carrot, mint, cilantro, basil and your cooked protein of choice, such as a sliced shrimp, onto the bottom third of the sheet. Then fold in the slides and bottom and roll like you would a burrito. It might take you a couple of tries before you get the hang of it, but your mistakes are still edible. A simple peanut sauce made of peanut butter, soy sauce, vinegar and ginger, would be great.