Spinach and Eggplant Steamed Buns

I have a thing for glass bottles and jars.

It's the little hipster inside of me trying to get out.  I like to drink out of mason jars, eat from old jam jars, admire my collection of milk bottles.  I like that they're not matching, but cohesive in their own way.  I like that they used to be something else.  

These are the last few days in my house.  In my town.  Cooking in my kitchen.  I've been home on vacation since July Fourth, and I go back to Chicago on the fourteenth.  Once I move into my Hyde Park apartment on September 1, that'll be my home.  It's not like my family is moving to some other east coast house that I could get used to calling home.  My dad's apartment isn't home, and the new apartment he and mom will have once she comes out to Chicago too won't be home either.  The "home is where your heart is" cliche doesn't even apply here.  My heart is in so many places.  So home is where I'll be.  I'll have all of my cooking gadgets and gear, my glass bottles and jars, my cookbooks.  I'll have my roommates and my schoolwork, and I'll have the crew team.  It's sad that my student apartment is going to be the most stable thing in my life, isn't it?  Well that, and my cookbooks.  Those aren't going anywhere, and they're not going to change.  

Isn't that the best thing about books?  You can hold them in your hands.  Feel their weight.  The pages have that peculiar paper smell that only ripens with age.  And it's funny, how it seems like the text is more lasting when it's typed up, logged away on someone's harddrive, or in the cloud.  But there's something about your access to it having an off-switch that makes it seem less real.  Like it could slip away from you at any moment.  A book, though, its pages may yellow and the binding may crack a little - but its yours, and it'll never leave you if you take care of it.

Spinach and Eggplant Steamed Buns
adapted from Love and Olive Oil

1/2 c warm water (~100 degrees F)
1 tablespoon honey
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 1/2 c all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 c milk, room temperature
~2 teaspoons canola oil

1/2 - 3/4 pound baby spinach
1 medium eggplant
~1 tablespoons canola oil
~1 teaspoon sesame oil
~1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
~1 teaspoon ginger root, minced
2 Kaffir lime leaves

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the water and honey, then sprinkle over the yeast and let sit until very foamy, ~10 minutes.  Stir in the milk and salt, then fold in the flour.  Once the mixture has come together, knead the dough on a clean, floured surface for 4-6 minutes until smooth and still slightly sticky (we're not trying to pass the windowpane test here).  Place the dough in an oiled bowl, making sure the exposed surface of the dough has also been oiled.  Set aside in a warm place, covered with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel, for ~50 minutes until doubled in bulk.

Meanwhile, set the oven to 400 degrees F.  Cut the eggplant lengthwise into thin, flat slices (you'll have ~8 of them, depending on the eggplant).  Lay them on parchment paper without any oil or seasoning, and bake until softened (the exterior will appear to be dry, so press down lightly to see how soft the inside has become).  Flip the slices over every 10 minutes.  You're not trying to cook the eggplant completely, just until it is soft inside without having slumped.

After removing the eggplant from the oven, heat ~1 tablespoon canola oil, Kaffir lime leaves, garlic, and ginger in a medium skillet over medium-high heat.  Dice the eggplant in the meantime and set aside.  Once the aromatics have softened, add in the eggplant and saute until the flesh has become cooked all the way through and caramelized.  When they're just starting to slump, add in the soy sauce.  Remove the eggplant from the pan, then add the spinach into the hot pan in batches to wilt all of it down.  Drain off any excess liquid before chopping the cooked spinach and adding it into the eggplant.  Adjust seasoning and set aside to cool.

Now comes assembly.  Punch down the dough and move it to a floured work surface (I just used a cookie sheet with some flour dusted on it).  Pat the dough into a square, then cut it into 16 equal pieces. Roll them between your hands to make small spheres of dough, then set them aside under a clean kitchen towel to rest for 10 minutes.  Cut out 16 squares of parchment paper (about 3 1/2" across and tall) and bring a pot or wok with ~2" of water to a boil.  Working with 4 balls of dough at a time, roll each one out into a flat circle, ~1/4" thick.  Place the dough round onto your palm and cup your hand to create a little well, and spoon ~1/4 c of the filling onto the dough (don't overfill it, otherwise you won't be able to seal the bun).  Bring the edges of the dough together around the filling with your other hand, pinching tightly to seal.  Then place it on your work surface seam-side down and push on it gently.  You'll have a little knot of dough on the bottom that protrudes upward into the pocket of filling, and the whole package will be sealed nice and tightly.  Place each bun on a square of parchment paper and load a bamboo steamer with the packages.

Once you've formed all the buns and they've been placed into the steamer, set them over the pot of boiling water and cook 10-12 minutes until the dough has cooked through thoroughly.  The amount of filling I made yielded 10 buns, but I had enough dough for 16, so I just froze 6 of them for future use (they should keep for a couple months in the freezer).  Serve with Sriracha or another sauce of your choosing (they really need something spicy and saucy to go with them).

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