Sep 14, 2008

Comfort Food

Well, we battened down the hatches and "hunkered down," as they like to keep saying on the news. But Ike brought us only a few breezy gusts of wind and not one drop of rain as it blew by just east of Austin.

Bless the hearts of all those folks in Galveston, Houston and all along the coast. I know it's unlikely, but I hope everyone finds their homes safe and sound upon return. Wish I could make them all something comforting to eat.

This is the kind of time you want some food to feed your soul. Chicken and dumplings is comfort food in the truest sense. Granted, it's not diet food. But this is not the kind of thing you eat regularly. It's something to reach for like a warm, soft blanket to pull around you like a hug. Chicken and dumplings can do that.

We made a big batch of these to take with us on vacation. Chicken and dumplings also make great cold weather cabin food. Happily, they hold up well to freezing. I might go so far as to say they were even better the second time around.

When I was growing up, my grandmother would make me chicken and dumplings. So they hold a place in my heart right up there along with her hugs, and the warm, soft quilts she made me. I still pull those quilts around me and they comfort me every time. Chicken and dumplings are like that. Like a hug in your tummy, and who doesn't need that sometimes?

Sadly, my grandmother is gone and I don't have her recipe. But my husband's family also makes chicken and dumplings – the closest I've ever tasted to my grandmother's, so we started with a recipe his mother provided. (Thanks, Phyllis!) I added a few more veggies, just trying to make them a little more of a well-rounded meal, and a few herbs. My husband is in charge of dumplings (being chief biscuit maker around here) and he has perfected these. These dumplings are worth marrying him for all by themselves.

We also noticed, after several experimental batches, that even though the dumpling dough is almost the same as biscuit dough, the texture is much improved – chewier – by using all purpose flour instead of the usual self-rising.

These also take some time. I used an already roasted chicken for some of the meat and to make the broth. You could certainly use an uncooked bird. This was just my shortcut. You could also add more veggies. Peas would be a nice addition. It's still an all day weekend kind of thing. But it's kind of Zen, actually. If you take your time and enjoy the process, the making of this dish can be as good for you as the eating of it.

This is a huge batch. But if you're going to go to all this trouble, is nice to be able to put some in the freezer for a rainy day or two.

Try them and see if you don't feel better.

Chicken and Dumplings

Before you start, put a stick of unsalted butter in the freezer.

Step 1: Make the broth.

one approximately 2 1/2 pound roasted chicken
1 onion, peeled and quartered
3 cloves garlic
2 carrots, peeled and cut in half
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut in half
2 stalks celery
5 sprigs fresh thyme
6 quarts of water

Remove the meat from the roasted chicken. Shred the meat and put it in a covered container in the fridge.

Note: I used the pasta insert that came with my stockpot to line the pan. Made it a lot easier to fish out the chicken bones and veggies after.

Toss the chicken bones and skin into a large stockpot. Add the onion, garlic, carrots, parsnip, celery, thyme, and water.

Bring up to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 60-90 minutes.

Remove chicken bones and veggies. You can strain the broth, if you like, but we didn't bother. Pour the broth into another container while you move on to the rest of the recipe.

2. Make the "stew" part of the chicken and dumplings.

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped into half moons
1 parsnip, peeled and chopped into half moons
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup pearl onions (frozen worked fine here)
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the stalks
meat from the roast chicken
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast
broth (above)

Sauté the vegetables and thyme in olive oil in the stockpot until softened. (They will continue cooking.)

Add the chicken breasts and broth and simmer until the chicken breasts are cooked through. Take out the chicken breasts and shred them with forks (like pulled pork). Return the shredded chicken to the pot. Add the roasted chicken meat.

3. Make dumplings (helps to have someone else making these while you're fiddling with the stew part.)

6 cups all purpose flour (yes, really, 6 cups; more dumplings are better)
3 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
8 tablespoons frozen unsalted butter (1 stick)
2 1/2 - 3 cups of buttermilk (we used low-fat)

In the biggest bowl you've got, mix together the flour, baking powder, salt, and pepper.

Using a microplan with large grate or a cheese grater, grate the frozen butter into the flour mixture. With your fingertips, mix the butter with the flour mixture (use a brushing motion with your thumb against your fingertips). You want the dough to have a pebblelike consistency. It's ok to have little pebbles of butter not completely mixed in.

Stir in (my husband likes to use his hands) 2 1/2 cups of the buttermilk. Set aside the extra half cup and see if you need it. Very gently, stir together the dough. If you still need it, add the extra 1/2 cup buttermilk (in little shots) until the dough comes together just a bit drier than biscuit dough.

Roll out the dough on a clean floured surface, half batch at a time with a floured pin. It should be about 1/4" thick. Cut into strips about 1" x 3/4" long.

Drop the dumplings into the simmering chicken stew. Note: we did the first half of the batch of dumplings, let them cook, and then sat down to eat. After we'd finished, we put the second batch of dumplings in and cooked them before letting the whole thing cool and putting into containers in the freezer. It's easier that way.

Once the dumplings are in, I used a Asian spider (or you could use a ladle or really big spoon) to move the dumplings around and turn them over so they cooked evenly in the broth. At first, they'll float. We found that the longer they cooked, even until they sunk, the better it all tasted. Even after refrigerating the whole thing overnight and reheating the next day, the dumplings were really good and the broth/stew was even better the second day after the dumplings had thickened the stew. Simmer the dumplings at least 30-40 minutes. When you first put them in the pot, you may need to raise the heat a bit.

Serves at least 8-10.

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