Wrapped up in wontons
The eggroll's little jacket is a wonderful thing - and versatile, too
by Christine Barbour

May 17, 2006

Back before the advent of all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets (yes, hard to believe there was once a time when proprietors of a cuisine famous for fast, healthy, last minute cooking didn't let food sit around forever on steam tables), eggrolls were truly a splendid thing.

They were cooked to order and served hot, hot, hot - bursting with fresh, crispy ingredients. Dipped into nose-stinging mustard or sweet plum sauce, they bore little resemblance to the limp, soggy bundles offered on buffet lines today. True, you can eat all you want of these steam table eggrolls, but really, who wants to?

Thankfully, all is not lost for eggroll lovers who can't find a good Chinese restaurant because these savory appetizers are a cinch to make at home. As it happens, packaged eggroll or wonton wrappers are one of the great convenience foods of all time. They make light of all kinds of seemingly complicated food projects and in the process, make us amateur cooks look pretty impressive in the kitchen. Following the instructions on the package, you can turn out all the perfectly crispy eggrolls you can eat, and more.

As you might expect, wonton wrappers are also good for making wontons. Wrap them around a seasoned filling, twist them into little hats, and fry them (as in the ever-popular crab Rangoon) or float them in a flavorful broth.

Even better, make potstickers, those fat little dumplings that are sizzled in a hot pan til their bottoms turn brown and crusty, then steamed until cooked all the way through. Dipped in a spicy sesame-soy sauce, potstickers are delicious - silky, crunchy, and chewy in texture, sweet, salty and piquant in taste. And I have found that the promise of all-you-can-eat potstickers is enough to persuade guests to help fill the dumplings, making short, friendly work of a tedious task.

There is really nothing mysterious about wonton skins, when all is said and done; they are essentially fresh pasta made with flour, salt and eggs. Local grocery stores usually sell them in the produce section. The large squares are meant for eggrolls, small ones for wontons, and round shapes for dumplings like potstickers. As their ingredients suggest, however, their uses go far beyond Chinese food.

These wrappers can be used in any recipe calling for fresh pasta - for instance to make cannelloni, lasagna, free-form noodles or, best, homemade ravioli. Even professional chefs sometimes admit to using wonton skins for ravioli. Make your favorite ravioli filling - as simple as ricotta and herbs, or more complicated, like wild mushrooms, or butternut squash or goat cheese or shrimp and sea scallops - then spoon it onto one wonton skin, cover it with another and seal with a little water or beaten egg white brushed on the edges. Trim and crimp the edges, slip the raviolis into boiling water, cook briefly, drain and sauce. It's an amazingly impressive result for comparatively little effort.

Wonton skins also make excellent wrappers for samosas - the wonderful Indian fried pastries stuffed with a spicy filling of potatoes and peas. Crackly and light, wonton samosas are perfect for dipping into fragrant coriander chutney.

These wrappers are so versatile, they even adapt beautifully to no filling at all. Cut them into rectangles, place on an oiled baking sheet, brush very lightly with more oil, flavored maybe with taco seasoning, or basil, dried garlic, and pepper, or curry powder, or sesame oil and sesame seeds or just plain salt, and bake at about 300 degrees until crispy.

But be sure to make a lot - if my experience is anything to go by, you'll want all you can eat of these chips too.

Wonton Samosas

(filling adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking. Barron's, 1983.)

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger

1 hot green chili, finely chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

3 tablespoons water

4-5 medium potatoes, boiled, peeled and cut in 1/4 inch dice

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon ground roasted cumin seeds

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons lemon juice

30-40 round dumpling wrappers, or squares with the edges rounded off.

Vegetable oil for deep frying

Heat four tablespoons oil in large frying pan over medium heat. Add onion. Stir and fry until brown at edges. Add peas, ginger, chili, cilantro and water. Cover and simmer over low heat until peas are cooked, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary.

Add remaining filling ingredients. Stir to mix. Cook on low heat 3-4 minutes, stirring gently. Taste to check balance of salt and lemon, adjusting to taste. Turn off heat and allow to cool.

Assemble pastries by laying out wonton skin on counter and spooning approximately 1 tablespoon of filling in center. Brush water lightly around edges and pull up edges to form a triangle. Press tightly to seal. If the triangle shape doesn't work easily for you - these will taste the same if you make them in crescents.

When pastries are all made, fry according to deep-fryer instructions until golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with chutneys.

Potstickers

1/2 pound ground lamb (or 1/2 pound cleaned, deveined shrimp, finely chopped; or chopped firm tofu)

1 egg white, beaten

4 cups shredded savoy or white cabbage

1 cup finely shredded carrots

1 cup finely chopped shitake mushrooms

1/2 cup shredded green onions

1 1/2 teaspoon finely diced chili pepper

1 1/2 teaspoon finely diced ginger

Drizzle of sesame oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon brown sugar

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro (optional)

30-40 round wonton skins, or squares with ends rounded off with scissors

2 teaspoons cooking oil

Dipping sauce: (mix the following ingredients, according to your taste)

Soy sauce

Sesame oil

Rice vinegar

Chili sauce or chili oil

Be sure all ingredients for filling are finely chopped. Mix thoroughly.

Lay wonton skin on counter. Place a heaping teaspoon full of filling in the center of wonton. Using a brush or your finger dipped in water, moisten the edge of the wonton. Bring sides of wonton to meet over filling, and gather in sides, making small pleats to allow for fullness of the filling. Flatten bottom.

Set wonton aside on baking sheet lightly dusted with cornstarch. Repeat with more wonton skins until filling is used up.

At this point, wontons can be frozen, or cooked immediately.

Heat a heavy frying pan with a tightly fitting lid over high heat. Most books warn you not to use nonstick pans because the point of a pot sticker is that you want it to stick. I use nonstick anyway. I care less that the dumpling stick, than that it gets crusty and brown on the bottom, and that will happen just fine with a nonstick.

When pan is good and hot, film it with a small amount of vegetable oil. Set dumplings in pan, flat side down, and reduce heat slightly. Allow to develop a good crust on the bottom (but do not burn), approximately two minutes. Add 1/2 cup water to pan and immediately cover with lid. Steam dumplings for another 5-10 minutes, until pork is cooked through. Add a bit more water if necessary.

When dumplings are done and all the water has cooked away, turn them out onto a plate.

Serve hot with dipping sauce.