My brother-in-law Dee is coming for another of his innumerable medical appointments at the VA. He is getting tired of the biscuits and gravy that I have been serving the last two times he came. He has requested wonton soup.
I have never made wonton soup. I mean other than throwing a few frozen wonton into a can of chicken soup. I decided that it was time that I learn to make this classic Chinese soup.
I Looked at several recipes and videos on-line to get an idea of the range of what constitutes a wonton soup. I found a surprisingly wide variation. Every recipe included a wonton filling, a soup—broth plus any extra vegetables—and the wrappers. There was an assortment of fillings, soup bases, and the wrappers could be folded in a number of ways.
The most common fillings were pork or pork mixed with shrimp—although I found recipes for chicken, beef, or even vegetarian mushrooms fillings. The meat for the filling could be raw and ground, chopped, or cooked. Some recipes included just a little green onion and flavorings, others mixed in an assortment of vegetables—like garlic chives or napa cabbage—mixed into the fillings.
The broth is almost as important as the wontons in this iconic soup. Some recipes start by making a complex broth from scratch, many recipes used commercial chicken stocks, and one even used only water with a little bit of green onion. Some recipes filled the broth with extra vegetables, other’s added only a little green onion.
I did my usual ingredient and technique shopping. I think that this ingredient should go in my soup. I do not think that ingredient would work. This sounds like a good technique, but that seems like it’s too fussy. What I ended up with I can truly call my own creation—similar enough to be called a “wonton soup,” but not anyone else’s recipe.
For my filling I decided to go with the pork and shrimp combination. Jan is always trying to encourage me to make my dishes more vegetable forward. I decided to include napa cabbage in my filling and finishing the soup with Shanghai baby bok choi. For my broth, I did not want to start from scratch, but I did not want just plain canned broth either. I used a mixed technique of using some chicken scraps to boost the flavor of the commercial broth.
The traditional recipes for wontons do not include egg in the filling. In a meat filling, eggs do two things. First, it acts as a binder when you have disparate ingredients that do not bind on their own. The second thing eggs do is make the filling more tender, because—unlike the pork proteins that contract—egg proteins expand as they are heated.
If you are serving the soup as a main dish, you want 6-8 wontons per person. As a starter soup, you want 3-4 per person. You can freeze any remaining wontons for a later meal. Lay any extra wontons on a small tray and set them uncovered in a freezer. Once they have frozen—about 30 minutes—transfer the wontons to a sealable plastic bag.
Note: This recipe makes enough filling to stuff a whole package of 48 wrappers, if you do not over fill them.
Karl’s Wonton Soup
1 lb. chicken parts
2 Tbs. vegetable oil
½ yellow onion, chunks
1 stalk celery, chunked
½ tsp. Kosher salt
5 cloves garlic, cracked
32 oz. chicken broth
1 inch ginger root, smashed
2 star anise
2 Tbs. shaoxing
2 Tbs. light soy sauce
2 Tbs. fish sauce
1 tsp. dark sesame oil
4-6 thick white parts of napa cabbage, diced finely (about ½ cup)
½ tsp. Kosher salt
½ lb. ground pork
½ lb. shrimp, minced
2 Tbs. egg, lightly scrambled
1 green onion minced
1 Tbs. fresh ginger, minced
1 Tbs. shaoxing
1 Tbs. oyster sauce
1 Tbs. corn starch
½ tsp. dark sesame oil
¼ tsp. white pepper
wonton wrappers (square)
4-6 Shanghai baby bok choi
¼ cup green onion tops, cut into one inch pieces
1. Lay the chicken parts in a single layer on a lipped baking sheet and broil until they are well browned on all sides.
Tip: When I buy a chicken I usually cut out the back and wingtips. I then freeze them with any necks or other bits to use in making a chicken stock.
Note: I had a lot of wingtips from the last time I made chicken wings. These have very little meat, but a fair amount of collagen that turns into gelatin when cooked slowly.
2. Heat the oil in a large soup pot and sauté the onions and celery with the salt, until starting to pick up some color, 8-10 minutes.
3. Pull the vegetables to the sides of the pot and sauté the garlic until fragrant, about another minute.
4. Add some of the chicken broth to deglaze the pot and then add the rest of the broth.
Note: If I had more chicken parts I could have made a stock with just water, but here I was just trying to enhance commercial broth.
5. Add an equal amount (32 oz.) of water.
6. Stir in the rest of the soup ingredients—ginger root, star anise, shaoxing, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sesame oil.
7. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 3-5 hours.
Tip: The longer the better.
8. Strain the solids from the broth.
Note: Wonton soup is usually served with a clear broth. What to do with these solids is a bit of a thing with me. Most chefs would simply discard these solids, as used up. For most soups, I try to recover any bits of meat and vegetables from these solids that I can. For this soup, the chicken pieces I was using had very little actual meat on them and the vegetables were mostly broken down after five hours of stewing. There are limits, even to frugality.
9. While the soup is simmering, finely dice the white parts of the napa cabbage.
Tip: Reserve the leafy parts for adding to the soup later or for a side salad.
10. Put the cabbage in a small bowl and sprinkle the salt over it.
11. Toss the cabbage to distribute the salt and let it sweat for 30 minutes.
Tip: Re-toss the cabbage every five minutes to redistribute the brine solution.
12. Squeeze out as much liquid as you can and place the cabbage into a medium mixing bowl.
13. Add the rest of the filling ingredients and thoroughly mix them together, 5-10 minutes.
Tip: Lightly beat the egg in a small cup and measure out two tablespoons into the filling.
Note: Set the rest of the egg aside to use in sealing the wontons.
14. Cover the filling with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 30 minutes to meld.
Tip: You should do the same for the remaining egg.
15. Remove half of the wonton wraps, place them on a small plate, and cover them with a damp paper towel.
Note: A wonton wrap is dough that has been rolled out into a very thin sheet. The wraps come in both square and round shapes. They also come in as thicker sheet—these are used when you plan to fry, rather than boil, the wontons—AKA pot-stickers.
16. Arrange the filling, wraps, the egg cup, and a clean plate around a work surface.
Tip: A spoon and a small brush are also useful.
Note: Filling the wontons is a labor intensive process. Traditionally it is a task form many hands—roping your family and/or guests into helping is a bonding experience. Working alone, I found it useful to lay out three wrappers in a row to speed up the process.
17. Lay the wrapper with a corner pointing at you.
Note: I chose to use square wrappers and a triangle fold.
18. Place a small teaspoon of the filling in the center of the wrap.
Tip: Do not overfill the wrappers, any excess filling will ooze out the edges of the wrapper and prevent a good seal. A loose edge might rupture when the wonton is boiled.
19. Brush a thin wash of egg along the two edges of the wrapper that are pointing away from you.
20. Lift the corner facing you, fold it over the filling, and align it with the point that is away from you.
21. Press the edges down to make a triangle and gently press down on the edges to seal them.
Tip: Push as much air out of the wanton as you seal it.
Note: Do not slide your finger over the edges. The wrappers are very thin and will rip easily. You should have a triangle with the long side facing you and the point facing away from you.
22. Bring the outer points together over the filling and dab a bit of egg on one of the points.
23. Bring the other point over the egg wash and pinch the ends together to form a fat rectangle.
Note: You may fold the remaining point down or leave the envelope open.
24. Lay the filled wonton on the plate and repeat until you are out of filling or wrappers.
25. Rinse and cut the bok choi in half lengthwise—through the base.
26. Lay the cut edge face down and—still lengthwise—cut the bok choi into ¼ inch wide slices.
Note: You will have some pieces that are ¼ wide strips and others where the strips are still held decoratively together by the base.
27. Set a medium pot of water to a boil.
Tip: Most of the Chinese cooks boiled the wontons separately, so that the surface starch would not thicken and cloud the soup. Only the Western cooks boiled the wontons in the stock.
Note: Reheat the soup in its own pot.
28. Add the wontons to the boiling water pot and simmer for 5-6 minutes.
Tip: You should boil the wontons and bok choi at the same time so everything is done at the same time.
Note: When the wontons are fully cooked they will float to the surface. Scoop them out with a spider.
29. Add the bok choi to the soup and simmer for 2-4 minutes.
30. Scoop the soup and bok choi into a individual bowl and top the vegetables with the warm wontons.
31. Garnish the bowls with the green onions and serve immediately.