Monday, March 24, 2014

An Italian Conquers Chicken & Dumplings


While I love to cook, and do so more from the heart than a recipe, chicken and dumplings always intimidated me. It being an old southern tradition, typically handed down through generations of southern cooks, I figured it was a meal you could only make if you were brought up watching it magically come together in your grandmother's kitchen.

Marinara sauce, for example, is something for which I've never read, consulted, or owned a recipe. Years of practice mimicking my mother, recalling stories she told of her grandparents making it, and relying on my sense of smell and taste are my "recipe." But I'm half Italian. I was raised on homemade Mediterranean cuisine.

Chicken and dumplings seemed out of my reach. Sure, I've lived in the South for my entire adult life. Sure I've seen, smelled, and tasted amazing chicken and dumplings. But it was not a customary dish of my childhood. Even if I could find a good recipe, could I replicate it?

And my family, the boys in particular, can be awfully unforgiving at the Sunday dinner table. I could make an amazingly rich, thick marinara that would knock the socks off Marco Polo. But one of my children would notice, and call me out on, the fact that I'd been short on bay leaves and used one less in a particular batch. And while I know they know even my under-herbed marinara is still way better than store bought or even restaurant quality sauce, they are still compelled to offer their unabashed commentary.

Could you imagine what they'd say if I tried chicken and dumplings?

But one day, after Hubby kept droning on and on about a cooking show he'd watched on how to make chicken and dumplings, I decided to give it a whirl. Actually, I thought about giving it a whirl. It wasn't set in stone until I bought the whole chicken a couple of days later. My mantra became, "If I can boil a chicken, I can make chicken and dumplings."

The pressure was really on when I verbalized to my mom that I would be serving chicken and dumplings for Sunday dinner. Once I said it aloud, there was no going back.

It was obvious to me that Hubby began to panic a bit when he started offering to go to the store and buy self-rising flour and buttermilk. I declined the offer. I was prepared, after lengthy recipe research, to jump in head first and old-school it. But it wasn't until I hopped out of bed on Sunday morning that I even decided upon fluffy ball dumplings over flat strip dumplings.

As I lost myself in the process, the smells and sights came together beautifully. When my youngest son said, "Finally! Dumplings!" and then proceeded to eat Sunday dinner without complaint or commentary about the food, I knew for sure I had successfully conquered chicken and dumplings.

After reading lots of recipes, including tons of positive and negative commentary about each, I did not actually select and use a specific recipe. Here's my version:

Chicken Prep | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
1. Clean and rinse a whole chicken.
Give some of the raw liver to your cat.
He will love you forever. 
Onion & Carrot Prep | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
2. Dice half a large onion and five or
six medium carrots. I use organic
due to my irrational fear of pesticides.
Also add freshly ground sea salt 

and black pepper. It was physically difficult 
for me to not throw in garlic, but I refrained.
Boil the Chicken | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
3. Fill the pot with water, cover, and
cook for an hour or so. You want it
to boil so as to cook the chicken. You
don't want your Hubby to run into
the bedroom screaming, "Is this
supposed to be boiling over?"
Cool Skim Reassemble | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
4. When the chicken is completely cooked,
remove the chicken from the pot and let the broth
and the chicken cool for 30 to 60 minutes.
After cooling, skim some of the fat off of
the broth and put aside. I skimmed off
about half a cup before I tired of skimming.
Pull the chicken meat off of the carcass with
your bare hands. You do not need a knife if
you cooked it properly. As you pull the meat off,
peel off the skin and put it aside. Treat your dogs
to some of the skin when you get a chance.
They'll love you forever. As you pull the meat off
the carcass, add it back to the broth.
At this point, I also added frozen peas.
I like peas. It's a matter of taste. If my middle
son was home, I would have skipped the peas.
Put the pot back on the stove over low to
medium heat to slowly reheat the broth and chicken.
Dumpling Prep Cool | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
5. Remember the bowl in which the chicken cooled?
That's what I used to make the dumplings.
Add 4 cups flour, 6 teaspoons baking powder,
1 teaspoon cream of tartar, 4 teaspoons sugar,
and a pinch of salt to the bowl (after removing
the carcass, skins pieces, and bone debris, of course).
Thoroughly mix these dry ingredients.
Remember that half a cup of skimmed fat? Add
enough milk to the skimmed fat so that you have
1 1/3 cups liquid. But don't pour it in the flour yet.
Room Temp Butter | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
6. Add two sticks of room temperature butter
to the flour mixture. I do not recommend using 

the microwave to soften the butter. It just doesn't 
come out right and ruins the dough.
Then use a pastry cutter if you have one, or, if not 
(like me) use a fork, and cut the butter into the
flour. Once you have the butter and flour combined,
you can make a well in the middle and pour the
fatty milk mixture into it. Then mix it all up. Sounds
like a biscuit recipe, doesn't it? Yes, the fluffy
dumplings are basically boiled biscuits.
Dumpling Balls | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
7. Rather than roll out your dough as for 
biscuits, roll the dough into balls. This part is suspiciously similar to making meatballs. 
Don't make them too big.
Once your chicken and broth comes to a boil, you
can carefully, slowly, deliberately drop the
dumpling balls one by one into the broth. Try not 

to splash the burning hot broth on your hand 
or all over your stove, wall, and floor. When
the last ball is in, set your timer for 10 minutes.
Do NOT cover the pot, yet!
Simmering Chicken & Dumplings | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
8. This is what it will look like while it
simmers for 10 minutes. At this point, I feared
I had failed and readied the number to the pizza
place. When the ten minutes are up, it is time to

cover the pot and turn the heat completely off. 
Let the chicken and dumplings sit for another 
10 to 15 minutes.
Chicken and Dumplings | Navigating Hectivity by Micki Bare
9. No one was more surprised than me at the
results. The chicken and dumplings meal is
now ready to be served. It will still be
molten-lava hot, so let it cool in your bowl for
a few minutes and blow on each delicious spoonful.
We had enough for five, plus lots of leftovers for on of the boys to take home, Hubby to take to lunch the next day, and for me to freeze for one of those nights I'm too tired to make something new for supper.

It took me some time to figure out how I could be so successful with chicken and dumplings on my first try. Then it dawned on me. Yes, it is a southern delicacy. But it is not drastically different from its Italian cousins, chicken and gnocchi soup or chicken cacciatore. Plus, I've been in the South long enough to understand some of the technical points to creating hearty southern food.

Micki Bare, mother of three, wife, daughter & writer is the author of Thurston T. Turtle children's books. 
Email: mickibare (at) gmail.com
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