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July 31, 2014

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Skip the carving knife...just hand my some chopsticks

On the Christmas Eve episode of Splendid Table, British food writer Nigel Slater said that while many British cooks talk about trying something completely different for Christmas dinner, they usually resort to the traditional foods, mostly because they need something to carve.

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It's probably a good thing I'm not British because I've never been very good at carving. And don't even suggest using an electric knife. We got one as a wedding gift and promptly ruined it by using it to cut up large foam cushions. Worked great for that purpose, but obviously it was done after that.

Since my dad grew up in China, our Christmas dinners often involved various Chinese specialties. Our favorite was Chiao Tzu, which are basically steamed pork and veggie dumplings.

When we were kids, my grandma and mom made the wrappers from scratch. This seemed to take a LONG time because it involved making the dough and cutting out hundreds of circles. This number actually varied with the number of persons who would be at dinner.

If my cousin, Mark Ramseyer, was going to be there, this meant making more than usual. Fortunately for Grandma and Mother, he grew up in Japan, so his presence around the holidays was limited.

I think he held the record for eating the most Chiao Tzu - my memory puts that number somewhere around 45 or 50. I'm probably wrong. The most I've ever eaten at once was 25.

This year, we decided to spend our first Christmas away from home in Cincinnati, where our youngest daughter lives. We settled on Chiao Tzu for Christmas dinner. The girls wondered if I wanted to buy frozen ones. I considered that for about two seconds and instead bought the dumpling wrappers to make our own.

That was the easy part. The hard part comes later when you start to put together the dumplings. There are tricks to this - tricks I've somehow picked up from watching my older relatives do this over the years. The trick is getting those little tricks to work. Inevitably, a certain percentage of the little dumplings fall apart in the steamer.

The photos tell the rest of the story. For those of you who want to try this on your own, the recipe is included, along with a few of those tricks.

Chiao Tzu

1 pkg. round dumpling wrappers (available at Asian groceries, round ones work better than square), usually about 40 per pkg.
1/2 lb. lean ground pork
1/2 head cabbage (I use Chinese cabbage, but other kinds are fine), chopped fine
1/2 c. onion, chopped fine
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, chopped fine
2 tsp. sesame or peanut oil (actually, I used canola)
3 tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. salt (optional)

Dipping sauce for dumplings
Soy sauce
Rice vinegar
Teaspoon or so of sugar

We make this in varying quantities - depends on the number of persons eating.

Filling: Brown the pork in oil in a large skillet, then add the cabbage, onion, ginger, soy sauce and salt (optional). Let cool.

Making the dumplings:
Lay a cotton tea towel on a cookie sheet and lightly sprinkle with cornstarch (prevents sticking). Open package of wrappers. Using one at a time, cover the others with a damp cloth so they don't dry out. Have a small bowl of warm water nearby - you'll use this to wet the edges of the dumplings.

Fill each wrapper with 1 tsp. of the filling; fold over and pinch the edges together (similar to crimping a pie crust). Lay each one on the towel-covered cookie sheet(s).

In the meantime, have several large steamers ready. Put a small amount of water in the bottom and bring to a boil.

Trick 1: Spray the bottom of each steamer tray - trust me, this will prevent sticking.

Place dumplings in steamer - don't let them touch each other.

Cook for approximately 15-20 minutes, then carefully remove with a spoon or spatula.

Trick 2: boil some water and place in serving bowls to keep the chiao tzu warm until you're ready to eat. But also, you're going to want to start eating as soon as enough are steamed.

Provide each person with a small bowl. Place three or four chaio tzu in a bowl, pour in some of the soy/vinegar sauce and start eating.

If you're chopstick proficient, they're recommended.

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