Not so long ago I went to the best party in years. The guests brought wine or beer. The hosts provided the makings for Chinese dumplings. And everyone did the work assembling them. I walked into a kitchen full of mostly strangers and left having enjoyed a good conversation with nearly every one of them.
Clearly, there are icebreakers, and then there are dumplings.
Trying to stuff three different fillings into two types of dough and get the pleats right made everyone bond big-time. The hostess, whose skills are seemingly genetic, taught the first arrivals how much pork or vegetables or shrimp to mound into each wrapper, and how to seal it, and the lesson was passed along as more guests turned up, bottles in hand. Over the course of the afternoon we filled nearly 300 dumplings. And then we got to eat.
As soon as the sensational pot sticker-style dumplings were off the stove, we dunked them in a well-spiced dipping sauce and slurped them up as we stood around and kept talking. Nothing more was really needed for refreshments, but the hosts had bought scallion pancakes from a Chinese grocery to nibble while we wrapped, and they handed out quirky Chinese candies as sweets to finish.
Now I'm convinced dumplings are one of those productions -- like tamales -- that are most fun to tackle in a group, with many hands making tedious tasks go faster. You could assemble them all in advance all by yourself, but division of labor can actually ramp up the festivities. Luckily, dumplings are so forgiving that even those made by the klutziest guest will cook up fine and taste great.
The experience is even easier to repeat if you take a few shortcuts. Our hostess made some of the dumpling skins from scratch, with amazingly silky results, but even she was not prepared to roll out and cut 300. If she saw no stigma to store-bought, neither should you.
Having grown up boiling dumplings, she also was far more adept at that tricky technique than a novice would be. Her method involved bringing the cooking water to a boil no fewer than three times. Steaming and pan-frying are much simpler, although you sacrifice the rich and flavorful broth created by boiling that our hostess served at the end.
For the fillings, pork bound with Napa cabbage, flecked with mushrooms and seasoned with garlic and ginger is classic. (The meat, I learned, should not be too lean nor ground too fine.)
Our chief cook added minced shrimp to about a third of the pork mixture to create a second filling, but for guests who are meat-averse, a better bet would be a blend of shrimp, scallops and crab, held together with an egg white but also seasoned with garlic and ginger. And for vegetarians, a filling based on spinach and tofu is a safe option. (Cooked eggs give it more body, but they can be omitted for even fussier eaters.)
The toughest part of making the filling is getting the ingredients evenly incorporated, especially with the pork. It takes muscle to blend everything together; the designated mixer should be someone who knows from the elliptical trainer.
Anyone can fill. You need a big table to gather around, a few small bowls of water to dip into to wet the edges of the skins to seal them and baking sheets to hold the finished dumplings. A small bit of filling is mounded in the center of each wrapper, folded into a half-moon and then pleated across the top side so that the skin pulls around the filling tightly. Keep the drinks flowing and the work goes surprisingly fast.
When it's time to cook, one person should be in charge, but many can take shifts. You need a bamboo steamer or a pot with a steamer insert and a wok or just a big skillet with a lid. Steaming makes the dumplings silky; pan-frying them over medium heat produces wonderfully crispy bottoms.
The dipping sauce can be made well in advance, just by mixing soy sauce, sesame oil and any seasonings you choose (grated ginger, fish sauce, hot sauce). As a whimsical dessert, I like snickerdoodles flavored with five-spice powder. And as an appetizer, scallion pancakes are a great choice, especially made using a shortcut from "Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen": flour tortillas filled with chopped green onions and toasted sesame seeds, coated with egg and fried to order.
Make those in batches and guests won't notice you are letting them do all the work on the dumplings.