Going to college was a real eye-opening experience for me. I never realized how great I had it at home, until I was introduced to dorm food. Our cafeteria served a hodgepodge of mystery meats, overcooked veggies, and inedible starches that were half a step above t.v. dinners. Even more shocking to me was how many of my fellow students seemed to be ecstatic about the offerings. I'd come from eating amazing home-cooked, multi-course meals that were both tastier and healthier. To say I found the dorm food disappointing would be a massive understatement.
So in a way, it was inevitable that I would learn how to cook. It was a necessity if one wanted to eat well on a student's budget. And even now, when I can afford to eat pretty much wherever I want, I still prefer a home-cooked meal at least 9 out of 10 times. This winter solstice soup epitomizes the best of home cooking: clean, comforting, tasty food that you just can't find in a restaurant. My mom used to make this only once a year—per Chinese tradition—on the winter solstice, and I would look forward to it all year long. This year, I finally attempted it on my own, and frankly, it may get bumped up to a regular dish, tradition be damned.
The star of the soup is the sticky rice dumplings, also know as yuan, which are kind of like really chewy gnocchi. They are usually served in sweet soups (red bean, for example) as a dessert. But I prefer this satistfying, savory version.
Winter Solstice Soup (aka Tang Yuan)
I cooked a pork bone in some existing home-made chicken broth. If you were to make this broth from scratch, you would do the following:
Bones from a chicken carcass
One or two meaty pork bones
Water to cover
3 stalks of green onion
3 slices of ginger
¼ cup of Chinese rice wine (michiu)
Salt to taste
1. Place all your bones, as well as the ginger and onions in a large stockpot. Cover with water.
2. Bring water to a boil. Then skim off any scum that appears. I highly recommend investing in a cheapy scum skimmer, a nifty gadget I learned about on Steamy Kitchen. A spoon will suffice, however.
3. After the initial skim, add the rice wine, lower the heat, and simmer for at least an hour.
4. Salt to taste. Remove the bones, ginger, and onion, reserving the pork bones for their meat.
½ daikon, peeled and cut into 3 inch chunks
8 shiitake mushrooms, sliced (I used fresh; if you use dried, you will need to rehydrate them in warm water for about 20 minutes)
3 lap cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced
Reserved pork from making the broth (removed from the bone)
Place ingredients in the broth and cook over medium heat for half an hour.
DUMPLINGS (enough for two)
1½ cups of glutinous rice flour
Roughly ½ cup warm (just under boiling) water
Place rice flour in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add your water a little bit at a time until it forms a dry dough, stirring with a chopstick. The dough should be about the consistency of play-doh and should not stick to your hands. I ended up using about just a smidge over ½ cup of very warm water. Set the dough aside to rest, covered in plastic wrap, for about half an hour.
After half an hour, pinch off a marble-sized piece of dough and roll it between your palms until it forms a ball. If you have
Place about a dozen dumplings in the bottom of a soup bowl. Spoon a few ladles of soup on top. Garnish with cilantro and fried shallots.