For cookbook author Liz Crain, nothing says“I love you” like a steamer full of dumplings.
Photography by Natalie Gildersleeve
Any cookbook author will tell you that working on a book is a long, arduous labor of love. But when Portland author Liz Crain was working on her first solo cookbook last year, she had two loves by her side that made the labor a lot easier: a fluffy white floor cleaner named Rubin and her own personal DJ — Portland fixture DJ Jimbo, actually — who kept a steady stream of vinyl flowing on the record player, a cocktail in her hand, and a knife and cutting board at the ready to chop onions.
“He’s my sous chef and cooking DJ,” Crain says of her partner. “I’m pretty lucky.”
Chef tip: Having a four-legged friend on-hand in the kitchen to pick up scraps is always a bonus!
The result of all that hard work is the aptly titled Dumplings = Love, her just-released ode to hand-rolled, hand-formed little labors of love that people love to eat. Packed with tips, ingenuity, and mix-and-match recipes, the book makes homemade dumplings accessible to anyone — especially all of us spending more time at home together.
“Whenever there’s a meal train, maybe someone had a baby or is going through an illness, I always make dumplings,” Crain says. “They’re handmade and a savory comfort food. It makes people feel really good, and I like making people feel good.”
Rolling out the dough, filling it just right, pinching it closed with pretty pleats — making homemade dumplings is so hands-on that anyone lucky enough to receive them can’t help but feel pretty special. Plus, they’ve got that hidden-treasure appeal. “What you see on the outside isn’t what’s inside,” says Crain. “There’s something special about that, something magical.”
And that’s why dumplings make for an ideal make-together meal. “There’s a lot of room for error in dumpling making. It’s not like making a souffle,” says Crain. Sitting together talking while filling and twisting the dough, cooking them up in a steamy kitchen, then eating them from the same platter — dumplings obliterate formality and foster a cozy, communal, laid-back vibe.
For couples that really enjoy cooking together, Crain says it’s easy to get super creative with the wrappers, mixing in vegetable and fruit powders, like beet or carrot, to create vibrantly colored doughs that can be combined and rolled out to create stripes, swirls and polka dots. “It’s so fun and adds a whole other level to the presentation.”
Even if you make dumplings ahead and freeze them, something Crain highly recommends, you can still get creative with how you serve them. “If you have a good enough variety in the freezer, it can be really fun to fill a lazy Susan in the middle of the table, pop a bottle of bubbly and sample the flavors,” she says. “If you have the same type, you can cook them three different ways: steam them and serve with a salad, then pan-fry some, and then boil some in dumpling soup. You can really extend the meal and let it last a long time.”
Bonding over dumplings isn’t just for couples; kids love the hands-on craftiness of making them too. “My nieces are 8 and 10, and they’re the biggest dumpling fans you’ll ever meet,” says Crain, who will often spend hours on Zoom calls with them as they whip up “use what you have” dumplings. “They really love the creativity, being able to make their own decisions and be empowered in the kitchen,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll make free-form shapes. They might do a spiral at the bottom and the top. They might hide something inside one.”
And really, that’s why making your own dumplings at home is totally worth the effort, says Crain. “When you make dumplings, you’re the master of your own culinary universe.”
Pork & Shrimp Shumai
Recipe by Liz Crain
Makes 4 1/5 to 5 cups of filling for 50 to 60 dumplings
I’ve easily made shumai more than one hundred times, and no batch is ever the same. Sometimes I make the filling lighter and sweeter with more shrimp, and other times quite spicy and gingery to ward off winter colds.
The shumai from Mai Leung’s 1979 cookbook Dim Sum and Other Chinese Street Foods were one of my gateway dumplings. I found a used copy of the cookbook in my early thirties, when I was head over heels for dim sum, and I’ve traveled with it tucked in my carry-on many times since. Leung was a natural-born storyteller who highly valued her culture’s culinary traditions. She never missed an opportunity to educate and inspire through her books.
- 60 store-bought dumpling skins
- 5 to 6 dried whole-cap medium shiitake (black) mushrooms
- ½ pound small (51/60 count) to medium (41/50 count) shrimp, peeled and minced to a chunky paste
- 1½ pounds ground pork
- 4 to 5 scallions (both white and green parts), thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, sake, or dry sherry
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon store-bought sambal
- 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1. Set out the store-bought skins.
2. Fill a small pot halfway with water, bring to a boil over high heat, and remove from the heat. Add the dried mushrooms to the pot and fully submerge them under a smaller lid or plate. Let them steep for 40 to 50 minutes, until soft.
3. Using a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms from the pot, and then using your hands, squeeze out and discard the excess water from them. Trim and finely dice them. You do not need to save and use the mushroom reconstitution water. I encourage you to keep it, though, for stocks, sauces, et cetera.
4. In a large bowl, combine the mushrooms, shrimp, pork, scallions, sugar, salt, pepper, cornstarch, wine, soy sauce, sambal, and oil. Stir vigorously, smashing and spreading with a wooden spoon, for 2 to 3 minutes, until fully blended and tacky. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.
FORMING THE DUMPLINGS
The steps for forming the shumai are paired with how-to photos in my book, which really help. If you’ve never shaped shumai before, and this is at all confusing, then please head to YouTube and watch my video for doing so. Shumai steps are the first of three in the video and start about 3 minutes into the video.
1. If using store-bought skins, moisten the perimeter of several at once, before filling, by dipping your index finger in water, two to three times per skin, and tracing it along the inside half- to one-inch perimeter of the dumpling skin. This makes it easier to form the tops of the dumplings without any cracking. If you use homemade skins, skip this step, since they should be plenty moist and pliable.
2. Lay a dumpling skin in your nondominant hand, over the upper
part of your palm and your fingers, and use a butter knife, flat bamboo spreader, or shallow spoon to place a scant to heaping tablespoon of filling in the center of the skin. Gather the skin up around the filling so that it naturally pleats (expert dumpling formers will purposely fold and articulate each pleat).
3. With one hand, cinch the open top of the dumpling by making a
circle with your thumb and index finger, while forming the dumpling and pressing the bottom of it with the palm or fingers of your other hand. This creates a fairly flat base so that the dumpling sits up in the steamer.
4. Always place formed dumplings on a lightly floured surface before cooking them so they don’t stick and lose their bums, and cover them with a dry towel so they don’t dry out.
5. Garnish the top of the filling before or after steaming, if desired.
STEAMING THE DUMPLINGS
1. Fill a steaming pot one-quarter to half full with water, allowing 3 to 5 inches between the water and the steamer, and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Lightly oil the steamer, or place perforated parchment paper, cheesecloth, or thin cabbage leaves in it. Situate the dumplings inside, leaving ½ to 1 inch between each dumpling. I recommend steaming no more than three stacked tiers at once.
3. Once the water is boiling, carefully place the steamer on the pot, and steam the dumplings for 7 to 8 minutes.
4. With oven mitts or a kitchen towel, carefully remove the steamer from the pot, and serve the dumplings directly from the steamer or transfer them with tongs to a platter. If serving directly from the steamer, set it on a plate or platter to capture drippings if you like. Remove the lid at the table for grand, steamy effect!
NOTE: I love to serve these dumplings with the book’s Soy-Lime dipping sauce and Chili Oil. I recommend any soy sauce-based sauce with a little citrus or vinegar and some sort of heat – chili oil, hot sauce etc. – added. Enjoy!