For the Lunar New Year: Watercress Dumplings

Happy New Year, again!

Yesterday was the first day of weeks-long celebrations of the beginning of the Year of the Ox. It’s snowing today and tomorrow, so we hope for better weather by Sunday when D.C.’s Chinatown will host a parade, lion dance and other festivities.

To start the celebrations of Lunar New Year 4707, we opted for a cozy dinner at home with spicy garlic eggplant, dry-fried Sichuan-style long beans, hot & sour soup, and watercress dumplings.

I use the term “dumpling” deliberately because these little packets of happiness can’t really be classified as Japanese gyoza, nor as Chinese wontons, Korean mandoo, Polish pierogi, Italian ravioli, or any other filled “pasta pocket.” But they are “ono,” nonetheless. When I learned this recipe from my mom, we used to make them with spinach, but watercress is definitely better. The slight bitter undertones of the vegetable counters the fattiness of the meat and balances the dumpling. Earlier this month we made these dumplings with pork instead of turkey for a dinner party, and the contrast between the savory veg and fatty meat was even more appreciated.

The watercress we’ve found since we moved away from the Islands are quite a bit smaller than what we were used to finding on Oahu. The stems and leaves are smaller, and are sold in smaller bunches than their Hawaiian cousins. We need 2-3 bunches of these smaller cress to equal the amounts we are accustomed to for our soups or flash-cooked greens. But for this recipe, one bunch is just about right.

Dumplings are often thought of as appetizers, but we often make a dinner of them with just rice and miso soup. And this is a great project for the kids or a group of friends — the additional hands make quick work of filling and folding all the little pouches.

The cooking method described below combines the best of pan-frying and steaming: the dumpling is crispy on one side from initial pan-frying, and juicy and cooked through by steam. You will need a large flat bottomed skillet with a fitted lid for this. For a more calorie-conscious dish, you can line a steamer with lettuce leaves or wax paper and just steam them (about 5 minutes or until meat is cooked through), or you can add them to simmering broth to make a full-meal soup. Steamed or fried, alone or as part of a larger meal, these dumplings have tried and true appeal with children and adults alike.

50+ dumplings, plus extra filling

1 small bunch watercress, about 1/2 lb (225g)

Wash well and drain, but do not completely dry. Remove thickest stems. Pre-heat wok over medium-high heat. Add watercress with any water on leaves after washing to hot wok. Stir through until vegetable is just wilted and still bright green. Remove from pan, and allow to cool completely. Finely mince leaves and remaining smaller stems, and set aside until needed. This can be done up to 2 days ahead and refrigerated until needed.

1lb (450g) ground turkey or pork
3-4 stems scallions, thinly sliced
2 tsp. sake or very dry white wine
1/4 tsp. sugar
1 slice (coin-size) of fresh ginger, minced (about 1/2 tsp)
1 large clove garlic, minced
generous seasoning with sea salt and ground black pepper

Combine meat and all seasonings, and massage well to incorporate. Set aside in fridge for at least one hour, and up to 24 hours, to allow flavors to marry. Add cooled cooked and minced watercress, and combine well.

To Finish:
1 package round gyoza wrappers, about 10 oz/ 280g (50-60 sheets)
small bowl of water

Place a scant teaspoonful of filling in the center of one wrapper. Dip your finger in water, and wet the edge of top half of wrapper. Bring bottom half of wrapper over the filling and press the center down to seal. Pleat the sides of the wrapper around the center, then press down to seal. Because the filling is rounded, the sides will naturally want to fold over each other. Set aside and continue until filling or wrappers run out.

To Pan-fry:
Have ready: a lid that fits snugly over the skillet you are using, a small container of oil for easy pouring, and a small cup of water.

Pre-heat large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 TBL. oil to pan, and swirl to coat entire bottom of pan. Place dumplings in pan, making sure they do not touch (or they will stick together), and gently press the filled center against the pan. Let fry about 30 seconds, then add about 2 TBL of water directly into the pan — trying not to pour water onto the dumplings themselves — and immediately cover with lid. Turn heat down to medium, and let cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until pan stops steaming. Do not remove cover while steaming!

Carefully remove lid and check whether filling is thoroughly cooked by gently pressing on the meat-filled center: it will feel firm when the meat is cooked through. Using spatula or small fish slice (UK), remove dumplings to serving plate and cover to keep warm.

Turn heat back up to medium-high, and add 1 TBL oil to pan, coating bottom evenly. Add more dumplings, and cook as you did the first batch. Repeat until all dumplings are cooked.

Serve with rice, miso or other light soup, and Dipping Sauce (below) for a light meal. Or serve as an appetizer or part of a buffet.

In each dipping bowl, combine the following ingredients:
3 TBL rice vinegar
2 tsp soy
1/4 tsp sugar (optional)
3-5 drops chili oil

We don’t often have wine, other than sake, with Asian meals. But we’ve been waiting for an excuse to try this French wine called “Wasabi White” from the amusing Now & Zen label (Alsace). We both love the wines of Alsace but were a little skeptical about the cutesy label. Wasabi White proved to be in keeping with our expectations of Alsatian wines as being food wines first and foremost. It was both dry yet with enough fruit to tame and round out the rich and spicy notes in our meal, especially the garlic eggplant. In keeping with the Asian theme, we used large teacups instead of wine glasses!

Like watercress as much as we do? More recipes with watercress:
Green Papaya Soup (Tinola)
Portuguese Bean Soup
Flash-cooked Watercress