February 20, 2018

Dear friends,

I have not yet tried the Taiwanese pork belly buns or the honey-bacon shrimp with crushed peanuts. But I have tasted the spicy chili pork wontons in a citron sesame chili sauce, and that appetizer alone is enough to keep me coming back to House of Hunan in Fairlawn.

Some chefs get better with age, and that’s true of chef/owner Lawrence Suen, who keeps slipping luscious new items onto his list of seasonal specials. I loved the chili pork wontons so much that I had to have some the next day or I would burst, so I set about making them.

“Don’t ask me what’s in them because I don’t know,” Suen’s wife, Cheryl, had told me after dinner, so I brought home a couple of tablespoons of leftover sauce from the restaurant. I would clone it. Easier said than done.

The wonton dish, I learned, is actually an old Sichuan specialty. Why had I never heard of it? Maybe because the Akron area for decades was a Chinese-food wasteland, punctuated here and there with a few decent dishes from Chin’s and House of Hunan. And in my travels to larger cities, the spicy wontons had simply slipped through the cracks.

At its most basic, the dish consists of wonton wrappers stuffed with a seasoned ground pork mixture, gently boiled for 5 minutes or so, drained and served in shallow bowls in pools of a fiery Sichuan sauce.

I had no problem finding recipes, but I did have problems matching the exquisite flavor of Suen’s sauce. I could see sesame seeds, chopped garlic and finely diced green onion tops in his oily red broth. But what contributed that deep umami flavor that tempered the fire of the Sichuan chili oil?

I guessed sesame paste, available in Asian stores or as tamari in health-food stores and many regular supermarkets. I prepped the seasoned meat and the sauce a day in advance to allow the flavors to meld. Before dinner the next day, Tony helped me fill and fold the wontons in the shape of large tortellini. When the pasta was done and the meat filling cooked through, I drained the pouches and stirred one-third cup of the pasta water into the sauce.

Yeow, was it spicy! It was delicious, too, although not nearly as good as House of Hunan’s. I will keep tinkering with the recipe and eating the results of my experiments, with the occasional trip to House of Hunan to check my progress. Maybe I’ll never get it right, but I’ll have a great time trying.

I challenge you to try the dish at House of Hunan if you live in the area, then make my version at home and tell me what is missing. (The dish is surprisingly easy to prepare.) Together we can crack this mystery or, at the very least, have a couple of great meals.

FYI, I stepped down the heat in my recipe. If you like very hot foods, add more chili oil to taste.

SICHUAN SPICY WONTONS

Dumplings.jpeg

Sauce:

2 tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. finely minced garlic
1 heaping tbsp. minced green onion, green part only
2 tbsp. Sichuan chili oil (available in Asian stores)
1 tbsp. sesame paste or tahini
1/3 cup wonton cooking water

In a small bowl combine all ingredients except the water. Mix very well to incorporate the sesame paste. Cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, bring to room temperature. After the wontons are done, stir 1/3 cup of the cooking water into the chili sauce. Spoon sauce over the wontons in individual serving bowls.

Wontons:

12 oz. ground pork
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
2 green onions, chopped
1 tsp. chopped garlic
1/2 tsp. finely minced ginger
1 tbsp. sherry
32 wonton wrappers (most of a 12-oz. package)
1 egg white beaten with a fork with 1 teaspoon water
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame seeds

Combine pork, salt, sugar, onions, garlic, ginger and sherry. Mix well. If possible, refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to blend. The next day, bring to room temperature.

Place a wonton wrapper on a work surface. Place a mounded teaspoon of the pork mixture in the center the wrapper. With your fingertip, brush the edges of the wrapper with some of the beaten egg white. Bring two opposite points together and firmly seal the edges of the wonton to form a triangle. At either end of the long side of the triangle, bring those two points together at the bottom of the filling bulge and press together. Don’t encircle the filling in the middle; encircle it at the bottom, so the filling bulges upward. The result should resemble a tortellini. Continue with remaining wonton wrappers and filling. You should have about 32.

Bring at least 4 inches of water to a lazy boil in a wide pan. In batches, cook the wontons for 5 minutes, or until the pasta is done and the filling is no longer pink when you cut into a wonton. Remove with a long-handled strainer, transferring to shallow bowls. Place six wontons in each bowl for appetizers, or eight for entrees with steamed rice on the side.

Stir one-third cup of the wonton cooking water into the chili sauce, and spoon it over the wontons. Garnish with toasted sesame seeds. Makes 5 appetizers or 4 entrees.

GUT CHECK

What I cooked last week:
Split pea and ham soup; meatloaf, baked Japanese sweet potatoes; Sichuan chili oil wontons.

What I ate in or from restaurants:
Cavatelli with meat sauce, crisp salad, Massoli’s bread at Dontino’s La Vita Gardens in Akron; a Jane Roll from Sushi Katsu in Akron; an egg roll, pork wontons in a spicy Sichuan chili oil sauce, and cold Singapore noodles with apples, cucumbers and steamed shrimp from House of Hunan in Fairlawn; a soulful lima bean and ham soup, clam and corn chowder and African peanut soup at a VFW Auxiliary soup fund-raiser in the Highland Square area of Akron.

MICROWAVE BREAD PUDDING!!

Here’s another recipe I developed for a book on microwave desserts. I found that bread pudding is a natural in the microwave. I experimented with different breads such as croissants, brioche and French but found plain supermarket white bread works best when the cooking time is short, as it is in a microwave.

In the following recipe, I paired acidic pineapple with sweet, soothing custard and tossed in pecan pieces for crunch. If you have time, toast the pecans in a dry skillet to amp up the flavor. Remember that the size and composition of the mug (I used a 12-oz. Fiesta pottery mug) will affect cooking time.

PINEAPPLE-PECAN MICROWAVE BREAD PUDDING

1 tbsp. cold butter
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
1 tsp. packed brown sugar
3 tbsp. milk
3 tbsp. well-drained crushed pineapple
1 egg white
1/4 tsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt
1 cup gently packed white sandwich bread in 1/2-inch cubes (about 1 1/4 slices)
1 tbsp. broken pecan pieces

Place butter in a 12-ounce pottery mug and microwave on high power until melted, about 20 seconds. Add milk, pineapple, egg white, vanilla and salt and beat with a fork until egg white is thoroughly incorporated. Add bread cubes and pecan pieces and press into the milk mixture, folding to distribute pecans evenly. Microwave on 50 percent power for 2 minutes, 30 seconds in a 1000-watt oven, or 2 minutes in a 1100- or 1200-watt oven, adjusting time up or down for lower- or higher-watt ovens.

The pudding is done when the top is set but still moist, and the sides of the pudding look set when a knife is inserted between the pudding and mug. Eat from the mug or, if desired, let stand 2 minutes, loosen edges with a knife and invert onto a plate. Enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Dress it up: Toast the pecan pieces in a dry skillet before folding into the pudding.

Even better: Sprinkle the warm pudding with 1/2 teaspoon dark rum and top with whipped cream and a pecan half.

THE MAILBAG

From Mary D., Rocky River:
The next time you and Tony head up to Cleveland, you can get your Cuban sandwich fix at Sabor Miami Cafe and Gallery on Broadview Road in Cleveland. The Facebook and Yelp reviews are excellent (I’ll have to try it myself). Cheers!

Dear Mary:
I had no idea! I see that the little restaurant opened in another location, refined its menu and moved last year to its current location at 4848 Broadview Rd. in the Old Brooklyn area of Cleveland. The owner is Honduran native Mariela Paz. She serves an eclectic menu of Cuban and Latin American dishes and breakfast comfort foods. The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch only. The phone is 440-714-0202 or you can find Sabor Miami Cafe on Facebook. I’ll report back after I try the Cuban sandwich, which will be soon. Thanks, Mary.

 

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