Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pot Sticker Party

Philip told me a cute joke a few weeks ago: I have CDO. That’s OCD but the letters are in the right order. As it should be. I chuckle whenever I retell it, but as we were waiting for our breakfast Sunday Morning at Westside Diner on Ballenger Highway, I thought about that joke in a different light.

I’m always the last one to get the memo, but when did eating breakfast out on a Sunday in Flint all of a sudden become the popular thing to do? We went to three restaurants before settling on Westside. Every place was packed to the gills and the parking lots were completely full. Doesn’t anyone go to church anymore? Every table at Westside was full, so we had to sit at the bar. That’s where I reconnected with my CDO moment.

We were seated right in front of the window looking into the kitchen, so I had a perfect seat to watch the whole operation of feeding the masses as it unfolded. With orders coming in hand over fist, you’d think the kitchen would be a complete mad house. Not so. There were three cooks back there, each one calmly doing his own thing, yet food was flying out of the kitchen faster than the servers could get it out. It was CDO.

You have to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive to be a short order cook in the first place, but these three were working as a single, well-oiled machine. One did nothing but cook eggs, the second cooked meat, potatoes, and the occasional pancake, and the third one barked out the orders, made the toast, and brought each dish together in its final form. The scene was breathtaking, and they made it look effortless. They obviously had a well rehearsed plan, and they were sticking to it.

I channeled the genius of this approach when Philip and I recently hosted a Pot Sticker Party for eight guests at our house. We offered the meal up at a Service Auction at our Church a few weeks ago, and the thing sold for forty-five bucks a person. Sixteen people bought tickets, so we’ll be hosting a second one later this summer.

Pot sticker parties are so much fun because they’re intentionally social, and everybody gets to help make what they eat. Throw in a few side dishes, and you’ve got a delicious Asian dinner party that looks almost effortless. Except that it’s not. It takes a great deal of preparation and planning, and once everyone arrives, you need one person to take control, assign duties to each guest, and orchestrate the event from beginning to end.

This is where my inner control freak comes out. And it all starts with the planning.

Pot sticker menus are fairly simple by design. The dumplings take center stage, but you need a soup course, both to kick off the official eating part of the night, and to allow the cooks a little extra time in the kitchen. A couple of side dishes as accompaniments to the postickers is more than enough. A simple dipping sauce or two is essential, so don’t forget to include them. The more difficult part of the menu is creating a variety of fillings for the pot stickers. You can use beef, pork, chicken, turkey, or shrimp (combinations of these work really well too). Vegetarian pot stickers rock the house if you have a good recipe, but be prepared for a lot of prep time. (I have a great recipe, if anyone’s interested).

While making, cooking, and eating the pot stickers only takes an hour or two, the prep time can take anywhere from six to seven hours, depending on how many people you invite. We started our prep two days ahead of time because finding six uninterrupted hours at our house is simply not possible For last week’s party, we made four fillings: ground chicken, ground turkey, shrimp, and vegetarian. With some variations, each of the first three fillings consisted of a mixture of the raw meat/shrimp, lots of finely chopped ginger (I don’t use measurements, but the more quantity the better, I’ve found), minced garlic, finely sliced scallions (and tops), mounds of chopped cilantro, and varying amounts of sesame oil. I think I used over a pound of fresh ginger root for this whole event. That in itself takes a good hour to chop. Once you’ve got all the ingredients in the bowl, the rest is easy. Just mix it up for a few minutes, put it in a zip lock back or cover it, and store it in the fridge for up to a couple of days.

I made a Thai sweet and hot soup to go with our meal, and I chose this recipe because it’s about the easiest Asian soup recipe I could find. It comes from a great cookbook called THAI: the essence of Asian cooking. I got it from the discount rack at Borders for three or four bucks. Basically, you combine vegetable stock, Thai red curry paste, lime zest, brown sugar, soy sauce, fresh lime juice, and finely cut carrot sticks in a pot. Once the mixture comes to a boil, turn down the heat, simmer it for about twenty minutes, and it’s done. To serve it, put chunks of extra firm tofu and fresh spinach leaves in the bottom of the bowl and pour the broth over it. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a great way to start a meal.

For sides, all I do is cook up a big old batch of sticky rice (sushi rice), which I serve in individual bowls alongside the pot sticker plates, and for our most recent gig, I made a simple Asian slaw. It too was pretty uncomplicated: finely cut Napa cabbage, red and yellow peppers, chopped Serrano peppers, cilantro, and a dressing of rice vinegar, peanut butter, soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil.

Before any of that can be enjoyed, however, you have to make the potsickers.

Just before everyone arrived, I painstakingly set up the assembly line: a newspaper-covered table with foil-covered cookie sheets (I also use baking trays and cutting boards as well—the point is, you’ll need a lot of surface space as the pot stickers are made. The official count last week was 350 pot stickers made by eight people. Small bowls of water were situated between the pans, and a small spoon was placed in front of each person’s station.

Working in teams of two, each team working with a different filling, the routine goes something like this. You lay a wonton wrapper in the palm of one hand and scoop a very small amount of filling into it with the other. Then you wet your finger, rub it all along the edges of the wrapper and seal it into a half moon shape. There are two basic approaches to doing this. One is simple to fold the wrapper in half and seal it all along the edge. The other is to crease as you go, which makes a nice little pattern and makes the dumplings look just like those you get at a restaurant.

As the trays get filled with dumplings, the runner, that was me, puts each finished tray in the freezer for about ten minutes. This flash freezes them so they don’t stick together while they’re waiting to go into the pan. The runner also has to get a fresh pan, refill the meat bowls, replenish the wrapper supply, and most important, refill everyone’s drink who’s working the assembly line. And he does all this while starting to fry the first batch of pot stickers. When you fry three to four hundred of these babies, you gotta get started as soon as possible. Part of the fun of this kind of party is eating a batch, taking a break and socializing, eating another batch, socializing some more, etc. etc. It’s not uncommon for our Pot sticker parties to last until well after midnight.

Once the filling is all gone and the “making” phase is over, our guests were again split into teams and each assigned a new task. Some helped Philip set the dinner table, some cleaned up the assembly line mess, and some helped prepare the side dishes and cook the dumplings. Cooking pot stickers is unbelievably easy—if you follow a few basic rules. Like using only non-stick frying pans. I’ve tried everything, and the best pan is the basic ten dollar nonstick, Meijer pan. It’s gotta have a lid too, because there are two stages to frying pot stickers. In the first stage, you have to heat a tablespoon of peanut oil on the highest temperature you’re stove will tolerate. (Peanut oil can cook at the highest temperature of almost any oil without burning.) Once the oil is smoking hot, set as many pot stickers in the pan without letting them touch each other. They’ll stick and make a big mess.

Although the temptation to jiggle them, touch them, turn them, fondle them, and/or shake them is great, just leave them alone for about five minutes. Let them get very brown on the bottom, almost burnt is ok. Then, in stage two, pour in a quarter cup, give or take, of vegetable stock, put the lid on them and leave them alone again. Let them cook until almost all the liquid is evaporated. Then shake them around so they don’t get glued to the bottom of the pan. When the liquid is absorbed, they’re done and ready to be plated.

Just so one person doesn’t get stuck in the kitchen all night, and so that everyone can see firsthand how to cook the dumplings, we usually rotate the cooking staff so two people at a time are in the kitchen. We use two big pans so to maximize how many we can make at once, so after the two pans of pot stickers are done, then two new cooks take over. By the end of the night, everyone will have had an equal hand in contributing to one of the coolest dinner parties you can imagine. You can either try this yourself at home or come to the Service Auction next year and bid on ours. For the right price, we might even let you stay and clean up after everyone leaves.


  1. A dinner party where you get to help with the cooking -- what a great idea! It sounds like a lot of fun and I'm sure everything was yummy. :)

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