This winter has been a proper winter for the first time since I moved back from the East Coast in 2010. The drought-stricken pastures have been soaking up the water and the cow wallows are thick with mud. The hills have returned to their proper verdancy. It's been cold enough that I don't have apologize for keeping the heat at 80 degrees, and the rain-whipped streets look properly gray and shimmering.
Time for dumplings. Perfect for wintry weather, they're globally ubiquitous, because who doesn't like hot little meat buns? Or veggie bags? Or cheese parcels? Dumplings provide a vast culinary canvas; people can make dough out of most grains and cram pretty much any foodstuff inside. One thing I miss about living in New York, actually maybe the biggest thing, are my favorite dumpling-esque foods — pupusas and soup dumplings. The former are El Salvadorian masa harina circles stuffed with meat or cheese and beans, served with pickles and hot sauces. The latter, called xiao long bao, are China's greatest contribution to the world as far as I'm concerned. Forget movable type and paper, it's dumplings filled with meat and soup. Definitely forget gunpowder.
I have ranted about my obsession with Georgian cuisine (country, not state) several times and I'm happy to report I actually have some second-hand commentary via my parents, who went to Georgia and had a blast. Along with stories of thuggish, hairy men with both hearts and chains of gold, they returned with tales of delicious cuisine, including, of course, Georgian dumplings. Called khinkali, these precious packets of juicy heaven are made with a distinctive dough knob on top, and it is customary to show your prodigious appetite by lining up the uneaten knobs at the edge of your plate. My father says 40 or more is not uncommon. Apparently they're insanely popular, with lots of purveyors selling out early.
The process seems daunting but, trust me, they're easy. If they look blobby, call them rustic. The only point of concern is really squishing the dough to ensure a proper seal, and half the yum is in the meat juices that seep out and fill your dough sack with rich broth. For this reason, you don't want ground beef or pork that is too lean. An 80-percent lean mix should work. It only takes a few tries to get the knack of umbrella-folding the dough and pinching it shut. Make sure your hands are dry — moisture makes the seal slip. It's a Georgian point of pride to get as many pleats as possible, so you can have fun with that. You can make a small batch — I made half the recipe, which yielded 14 dumplings, good for two or three people for dinner, and the whole thing took about 45 minutes. Georgians don't use a dipping sauce, as there's plenty of juice in the dumpling, but I bet a sort of vinegar-based sauce would be a nice foil to the richness of the meat. You're meant to pick them up using the dough knob as a handle, eat the meaty part in a few bites and toss the knob to the dogs. Or if you have a competitive streak, line 'em up along the plate and spell out your name in knobs.
Makes 28 dumplings, serves 4.
Ingredients and method:
4 cups flour (plus more for flouring board)
2 ½ teaspoons salt, divided
1 ¾ cups warm water, divided
½ pound ground pork
½ pound ground beef
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons cilantro
¼ teaspoon ground caraway
1 pinch cayenne pepper
3 onions, small, peeled and coarsely chopped
For the dough
Mix the flour, 1¼ teaspoons salt and 1¼ cups warm water in a bowl. Knead for 5 minutes. Cover and let it rest for 30 minutes.
For the filling
Combine the meat, 1¼ teaspoon salt, pepper, caraway, cayenne and ½ cups warm water in a bowl. Finely chop the onions and cilantro in a food processor and add it to the other ingredients. Using your hands, knead the mixture thoroughly.
Roll the dough into a log and cut into 28 pieces. On a floured board, flatten a piece with the base of a glass and roll with a pin into a roughly 6-inch round. Place about 1½ tablespoons of filling in the center. Make overlapping umbrella pleats all the way around the filling in a clockwise direction. Holding the dumpling firmly in one hand, pinch the tip of the dough to twist the pleats firmly and squeeze the top ½ inch to make a seal and create a knob.
Cook the dumplings in salted boiling water for 12 to 15 minutes. Drain them well. Finish them with freshly ground black pepper and serve with shots of vodka.