LivingSmall@20: Dumplings

LivingSmall@20: Dumplings

Handwork as thought, frugality as practice.

Published on Substack: SEP 11, 2023

Sheet pan with freshly made dumplings
Totally non-authentic Pelmeni

The weather is changing, the garden is full of tomatoes and greens and herbs and zucchini, and I’ve been slightly obsessed with making dumplings.

The past few years, the cookbooks I’ve been most intrigued with are those by writers who are describing the cooking traditions of Ukraine, Georgia, the Causcaus, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Writers like Olia HerculesAlissa Timoshkina, and Caroline Eden. One thing these regions have in common is dumplings …

I mean, who doesn’t like a dumpling? Even the word is endearing. Look at those little dumplings up there in the photo! No wonder we call babies “my little dumpling.”

We often have leftover mashed potatoes around here, and I have never yet managed to make a gnocchi that isn’t, well, leaden, so I’ve been thinking for weeks about how to use mashed potato as a base for a veggie dumpling. These ones have potato, some sauteed greens, carrot and onion, lots of parmesan, some riccotta, and I think an egg. There are two tricks I’ve discovered — one is to put it all in the Cuisinart so there are no poking-up bits to break the pasta, and the other is to use some breadcrumbs to stiffen it up. The first batch I made yesterday, the mix was a too loose, it was hard to work with, and kept oozing out of the seams. This second batch held up better.

While I have a few traditional ravioli trays that I also like using, I splashed out a whole 9 or 10 dollars on Amazon for one of these pelmeni makers. You roll out a disk of dough until it covers the unit, put fillings in the little holes, roll another round of dough out, lay it on top, and roll over the whole thing with a pin until it cuts the dough. Then you turn it over and whack them out onto your sheet pan. Some Pam and flour on the metal thing help a lot. They don’t have the adorable tortellini shape of true pelmeni, but they’re quick to make.

I was thinking this morning as I walked the dog about how to make the too-loose potato-based ravioli mixture work better, and it occurred to me that this process of figuring out how to make the thing I want to make is actually what I like best about projects like this. How can I find something interesting to do with leftover mashed potato?

This is what I mean by frugality as practice. Since I keep chickens, I worry less than most people about food waste — because mine comes back as companionable animals who make eggs — but I do think that somewhere in the last 30 years we all lost the plot when it comes to cooking and frugality. Food blogs are full of comments about people who “won’t eat leftovers …” Um. Okay. End of the empire, as Himself would say. The disposable culture of “have it your way” in combination with a food industry who LOVES to sell you single-serving items, who loves to encourage you not to learn to cook for real, who just wants you buying more garbage processed food from the middle of the supermarket, is the same capitalist energy that is burning up our planet.

One thing I love about cookbooks like Carpathia, or Home Food, or Salt and Time is that they write about food as something precious. Delicious, but precious. Frugality and thrift both connote a sort of pinched-mouth parsimony, a negation of generosity, when the truth is they are expressions of deep generosity. What is more generous than thinking through what you have so that you can feed people? So that you can make something wholesome go further? So you can delight someone by magicking a dinner out of what you have on hand?

There’s also the pleasure of learning new handwork. For me, a few days of walking around thinking about how to make dumplings is not lost time. And while I’m not doing the more handcrafted method, I’m not rolling out dough and cutting it into rounds, doing that fold and twist that characterizes a true pelmeni, merely figuring out how the mold works and what can I do with it is interesting. Learning a new skill that I hope will mean, eventually, that I can make a batch or two on a Sunday morning with leftovers we’re tired of and freeze them so one of these nights, when I’m fried from a long day at work, there’s something delicious and easy to eat for dinner?

As someone who learned to shop and to cook after our dad left because there was no money, and who has cooked my way through long years of being really, truly, utterly broke, I find frugality a creative challenge. I’m always slightly shocked by younger people in the food media who learned to cook from late-period Food Network, when everything was cheffy or competitive — or by people who only learned to cook in culinary school, and who don’t have any real lived experience of home cooking as an everyday practice. It was a brilliant ploy on the part of capitalism, to commodify home cooking as something “aspirational,” something that relies on recipes. Which drains the fun, and creativity, and every-dayness out of cooking.

For me, frugality as a practice isn’t just about saving money. I’m so much more stable now that there’s some wiggle room in my budget. But for me, frugality as a practice is, among other things, a practice of care, of respect. If we respect the world around us, a world coming apart at the seams because of our utterly wasteful ways, then learning to use what we have, instead of always going out to buy more more more, becomes part and parcel of respecting the material world in which we live. It’s part of respecting our communities, and the people who work to grow, harvest, butcher and manufacture our foodstuffs. It’s part of respecting that food security is a gift.

So on those days that I’m wandering around thinking about what I can make from these odds and ends around my house so I can feed us both in a way that is delicious, that’s part of the same respect for the world as waiting in winter for the elk to clear out of the yard before taking the dog out, and, I suppose, even though I’m terrible at it — probably part of the same generosity that I should be extending to the tourists who drive me so crazy.

In the meantime, while I work on my Zen of Tourists, I’m going to keep playing around with dumplings. I’m completely looking forward to thinking about what I can stuff in a dumpling this winter. The meat dumplings I made are …. fine, but they could be much more delicious, so there’s a challenge. And the great thing about the circular mold is that it’s easy to use, doesn’t require mechanical equipment, and makes dumplings in bulk. I have two big bags of frozen dumplings now — one bag of meat, one of non-meat. I spent a lovely Sunday morning in the kitchen with a BBC mystery on the computer, rolling out dough, filling the little holes, rolling out more dough, then popping out enough dumplings to keep us fed for a few more weeks.

Dumplings. Food for the soul.

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