This past month, I had the privilege of photographing the October event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. Homeward Bound supplies over 500 beds each night to house the homeless, and its programs provide a pathway from homelessness back to housing and employment. Paul Fordham, the deputy director of Homeward Bound, shared that Fresh Starts Chef Events was their version of “the Food Network in a homeless shelter in Marin County.” A strange combination that initially began in 2009 with only 15 people attending their first event, to approximately 100 people now supporting their monthly events.
The Marin County Cooking Class for the month of October, “Get Acquainted with Dim Sum and Tea,” featured Chef Joyce Jue, a cookbook author and acclaimed instructor. This class was especially fun for me because I grew up eating dim sum at the restaurants in Chicago’s Chinatown as well as helping my mom make shrimp dumplings (also known as har gow), Chinese tamales (joong), potstickers and other dim sum treats at home. It was quite ironic for me to hear guests at the event say they would never attempt to make dim sum at home because it was so difficult, but homemade pizza was not a problem at all. I’m very much the opposite where pizza crust, fresh bread, pie crust — pretty much anything made with dough — completely freaks me out. It’s funny how culture and the experiences one has growing up totally shape a person’s outlook on food!
Dim sum, which literally translates to “touch the heart,” is traditionally served in the morning with tea, but it was fun to enjoy it in the evening, and I will admit, I was quite curious to see how these non-Asian chefs and students would pull this off! Chef Jue shared that whenever she goes to a dim sum restaurant, she orders the siu mai and har gow first because if these two dishes are prepared well, then the rest of the dim sum at the restaurant will be good. So true!
Chef Joyce Jue was born and raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and much of what she learned was from her mother. I could definitely relate to many of her stories, particularly those about sitting around the table as a young child and helping to make dumplings. My mom used to make her har gow/shrimp dumplings by hand, and being the youngest in the family, my job was relegated to flattening the dough in a tortilla maker. Growing up, I never thought that was strange, but now I realize that although it’s not the traditional way of shaping the dough, it got the job done! In the same way, Chef Jue shared that the traditional way of making the fillings for dumplings was to chop everything by hand, but nowadays, she just mixes everything in a food processor, much to the disdain of her mother.
The menu for the evening was filled with many little bites being shared by the table, similar to the traditional chinese way of eating. On the table to try first as an appetizer were Krupuk Udang – Indonesian Prawn Chips. I remember eating smaller, more colorful versions of these as a child and filling them with rice. Before they are deep-fried, they literally look like colored pieces of plastic. But once they are dropped into the hot oil, they puff up into these delicious, savory chips. Probably not the healthiest things, but tasty nonetheless!
The dishes were accompanied by teas donated by Fresh Starts Chef Events’ sponsor, The Republic of Tea. So fun to have a tea tasting!
The first dish Chef Jue presented was Shrimp Toast, which is basically pureed shrimp (shrimp mousse) on bread. The mousse is made with green onions, shrimp, rice wine, sugar, cornstarch, chicken stock, ginger, cilantro, and egg white.
Her shrimp toasts are a fusion of Chinese and Italian tastes. To each, she adds a slice of proscuitto, which is reminiscent of the Italian version of Chinese ham. She joked that in San Francisco, Broadway Street separates Chinatown from Littly Italy, so she took her little shrimp toasts and walked across the street to capture the Italian side. Apparently, her mother does not approve.
Each piece of bread (in her recipe, she uses baguettes), is topped with the shrimp mousse before it is deep fried. My mom used to pan-fry these, and they were such a tasty snack.
The second dim sum dish on the menu was Steamed Pork & Shrimp Basket Dumplings, otherwise known as Siu Mai. The Siu Mai were made with shiitake mushrooms, ground pork butt, shrimp, water chestnuts, green onion. Chef Jue shared that the main meat in China is pork and that in Southern China, it is shrimp, so most of the items traditionally made in Chinese cuisine are made of pork or shrimp. Beef was not usually eaten because cows were considered a work animal.
Chef Jue also emphasized the importance of using Chinese ingredients and a plethora of Chinese sauces. She said that the reason many of the Chinese dishes we try to make at home taste a little bit off is because we are often using Kikkoman soy sauce, which is actually Japanese soy sauce, not Chinese soy sauce. And that the sesame oil used in Chinese cooking should be roasted for a more robust flavor.
Chef Jue added that an important step in using shrimp is to salt it ahead of time for maximum flavor.
Here she is making the dumplings into little baskets.
The Siu Mai then get steamed in bamboo baskets for a delicate texture.
The third dim sum dish of the evening was Skinny Cilantro Shrimp Rolls.
These shrimp rolls were made with green onions, water chestnuts, shrimp, rice wine, ginger and cilantro. The filling tasted similar to the shrimp toast mousse and had a comparable consistency, which provided a nice contrast to the crispy skins of the rolls.
Each roll was hand rolled and then deep fried.
By this time I was pretty stuffed, but I still had a little bit more room for Chicken and Spinach Potstickers, which were prepared next. These potstickers were filled with spinach and napa cabbage leaves, ginger, green onions and ground chicken.
Chef Jue noted that it’s important to wrap both the cabbage and spinach in a towel and squeeze all the water out in order to prevent a soggy filling.
She made it look so easy to wrap them. From experience, I know it’s much harder than it looks – especially if you make your own dough wrapper. But as I already shared about my previous aversion to making anything with dough, the store-bought wrappers seemed fine to me!
The story behind the name Potstickers is that a chef once mistakenly left their dumplings in the pan too long, causing them to stick and form a crisp, brown crust on the bottoms. A delicious mistake! The potstickers are initially pan-fried slightly on the bottom, and then water is added to steam them and cook them through. Chef Jue also quipped that the reason one has extra children in China is to help make more dumplings together!
The last dish Chef Jue shared were Mom’s Midnight Noodles, which is based off of her mom’s special noodle recipe. The noodles (or lo mien) were made late at night for her four children who were always hungry after watching late night movies.
The noodle dish was made with Chinese egg-wheat flour noodles, barbecued pork, baby bok choi and a special sauce consisting of oyster sauce, light and dark soy sauces, sesame oil and sugar.
A giant tray of barbecue pork!
Bok Choy was cut up and added to the noodles.
Noodles, which represent long life in Chinese culture, are a mainstay of Chinese cuisine.
I did save room for the house made dessert, a refreshing Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream (my favorite!) with mandarin oranges, kiwi, honeydew, dried lotus root and sesame tuile.
Aren’t these baked kiwis so pretty? I overheard the students say that pulling them off the trays was like pulling off stickers.
Beautifully presented and a wonderful finish to a delicious meal!
Check back next month for a Harvest Menu with Chef Tracy Shepos Cenami of Kendall-Jackson Winery. Her menu includes a Lobster Bisque, Short Ribs and Caramel Panna Cotta. In the meantime, enjoy this recipe for classic Siu Mai Dumplings!
Steamed Pork & Shrimp “Basket” Dumplings – Siu Mai
Makes about 3 dozen
4 dried Chinese black mushrooms (shiitake)
1 pound coarsely ground pork butt (slightly fatty pork)
1/2 pound medium shrimp, shelled deveined and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3 tablespoons minced bamboo shoots or fresh peeled water chestnuts
1 green onion, minced (white parts only)
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of white pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon shoaxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon Asian sesame oil
36 siu mai (or thin wonton wrappers – trim corners to make rounds)
1. Cover the mushrooms with warm water for 30 minutes or until pliable. Remove the mushrooms and squeeze out excess water. Trim off stems. Mince caps and put into mixing bowl with pork, shrimp, bamboo shoots and green noon. Mix thoroughly.
2. In a separate bowl, combine salt, white pepper, sugar soy sauce, wine, ginger, cornstarch and sesame oil. Mix thoroughly with meat mixture.
3. Lightly oil bottom of bamboo steamer basket before you begin wrapping. To start, lay one siu mai wrapper on flat surface. Using narrow spreader, put 1 heaping tablespoon filling in center, spreading to about 1/2 inch from edge.
4. Use fingertips to pinch sides of wrapper, many many tiny pleats around filling, to create a basket shape. Put between thumb and index finger to squeeze sides gently, which will pack filling and form basket.
5. Place dumplings in steamer. Add enough boiling water to wok so that it comes just below bottom of bamboo basket. Set basket filled with dumplings into wok over full boil. Cover and steam for 10 minutes.
6. To serve, siu mai can be dipped in light soy sauce mixed with chopped green onions.