The wonton soup you love so much at your neighborhood Chinese restaurant probably isn't all that good.
Back when my family had a Chinese restaurant in Missouri, wonton soup was a popular item. But there was nothing to it. It had been "dumbed down" to make it faster and cheaper to produce. The wontons were made in-house, but the amount of filling was probably half of what we'd include if we were to make them for ourselves. The soup was water-based instead of stock-based, so there wasn't much depth to the flavor. We weren't trying to dupe the customers. It was more a function of our trying to meet expectations that Chinese food should be cheap and fast. People were willing to wait 30 minutes for their Domino's pizza, but they scowled if they had to wait more than a few minutes for their order from us.
But that was the middle of the Midwest back in the '80s and '90s. If I were to run a Chinese restaurant today with what I have learned about restaurants through my work as a newspaper food writer, it would be a different animal: I would love it if the Chinese equivalent to La Carta de Oaxaca existed in Seattle. For about a split second after the first time I ate at La Carta, I thought about getting back into the biz. The simple sophistication of food and atmosphere at La Carta inspired me. But then I came to my senses.
In a way, this blog is the manifestation of that initial desire to share the kind of Chinese cooking I make at home. In fact, I purchased the domain name just after my revelatory dinner at La Carta some four years ago and I'm only now putting it to use. Better late than never, right?
Homestyle wonton soup for me involves, more often than not, scratch chicken broth. If I have the time, I make the broth from a whole chicken with ginger, shiitake mushrooms, maybe a stalk of green onion, soy sauce and a splash of white wine. It simmers for a couple of hours to develop that richness from the chicken and from the shiitakes. The wontons themselves take very little time to make, especially considering I made all the wontons that were sold in the restaurant from the time I was 8 years old until I left for my first newspaper job at The Denver Post when I was 24. Long time. Many, many, many wontons. I basically could make 108 wontons, which is how many fit on a tray, in about 7 minutes, or 6 seconds per wonton.
If I don't have the time, I might make a celery broth. My mom did this and, even though I didn't like to eat celery back in the day, I loved the flavor it imparted. Now I use Chinese celery, which you can find in an Asian grocery store. It resembles its Western counterpart in color and general shape, but the stalks are longer and much thinner. The flavor is more aromatic than regular celery. I stir-fry the chopped celery in some soy sauce, add water, let simmer and build the flavor from there with the addition of white pepper, maybe a splash of white wine and some sliced shiitakes. (Next time I make the celery broth, I'll jot down a more explicit recipe to share.)
The other time-saving and budget option is to make broth from chicken bones, which I can buy from Uwajimaya for less than $2.50 for a pack of four breast frames. I simmer the bones in water with sliced ginger in a lidded pot and I can get a light broth within an hour -- in which time I can multitask and make the wontons while dealing with my toddler, checking my email (or Facebook and Twitter) and putzing in the kitchen.
I mentioned the other day that I own several OXO kitchen utensils that were designed specifically for the Japanese market. One of the pieces is a skimmer, which deftly does the trick of removing the foam from the surface of the bubbling liquid. I checked with my friend who works at OXO and the Japanese line is indeed available only in Japan. So if you want these tools you have ask someone who lives there to send some or try to get them off Amazon Japan -- though I'm not sure if and how that works.
Wontons are easier to make than potstickers, for sure. But there's still some dexterity involved. If you've ever made tortellini, though, this will be easy. (Sorry about the fuzzy focus. My hubby the TV producer wasn't home yet to help with shooting the video.)
The best part about this recipe is that the ingredients cost me less than $10.
SIMPLE WONTON SOUP
4 chicken breast frames
2 1/2 quarts water
4 slices ginger (about 2 inches long, 1/8 inch thick)
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 of Chinese cabbage, sliced (about 4 cups)
1/2 pound ground chicken
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon soy sauce or salt to taste
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1 egg, beaten
1 package wonton wrappers
To serve (optional):
Broth: Combine the chicken breast frames with the water and ginger. Bring to a boil then turn down heat to medium. Start skimming the scum off the top. After about 20 minutes and a final skimming, add the soy sauce, shiitakes and wine. Cover pot with lid and let simmer for another 20 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary so the pot doesn't boil over. Taste the broth and add some salt, if needed. Remove the bones and discard. Add the cabbage, replace the lid and continue to simmer on low until ready to serve.
Wontons: In the meantime, combine the ground chicken, green onions, soy sauce, white pepper and sesame oil in a bowl. Mix well. Place about a teaspoon of the chicken filling on the corner of a wonton wrapper and roll it up a third of the way and then use a little bit of beaten egg to help seal the wonton. (See the video for a demonstration of the folding technique.) Repeat until finished with the wrappers. There are about 40-45 wrappers in a package. Bring a pot of water to boil and cook the wontons for about 5 minutes. Strain and transfer the wontons to the soup and let simmer for a few minutes. Taste the soup again and adjust the seasoning, if needed.
Serve immediately with optional cilantro and chili sauce.