Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Chicken and Dumplings

When I was a young'un, there was a food (I'm probably being generous here) called Jiffy Pop, whose advertising told you was "as much fun to make as it is to eat." I reckon that I was eight or so and about as susceptible to television commercials as are most eight-year-olds, and I eventually prevailed upon my mother to bring home and make a container of Jiffy Pop, and I was severely disappointed. Upon later reflection, however, I realized that Jiffy Pop's advertising was correct. Jiffy Pop, like, say, instant oatmeal, is exactly as much fun to make as it is to eat. Clearly it was my fault for making the unfounded inference that it was very much of either.

If I were more knowledgeable about and/or more resourceful with respect to computer graphics applications, I would here show you some sort of scatter chart with two axes: fun to make and fun to eat. There would be a line running out from the origin with a slope of 1, and items on that line would meet the fun to make = fun to eat criterion.

Many foods, of course, fall far off this center line, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. If something's really fun to eat, you might not care that it's no fun to make; cheese fondue seems to fall into this category. Or it might be moderately fun to make but lots of fun to eat; many cookies fall into this category, as do sandwiches made from leftover turkey, though you could reasonably factor in the fun you had making the turkey in the first place -- you see why mathematicians get the big bucks. There are clearly also edibles that are fun to make but not as much fun to eat. Gingerbread houses leap to mind. Even though the girls and I razed our gingerbread house last week, and every bit of it was consumed gleefully, it was still really all about the fun to make.

Ideally, of course, you would like to maximize your enjoyment of both the food preparation and the food consumption processes. (Advanced students might wish to factor in one or more additional axes. Ease of preparation is a big deal for many cooks, so that a food that is fun to make, easy to make, and delicious is the goal, in which case the grilled cheese sandwich might hit the trifecta for you. I would argue, though, that for most people, ease of preparation and fun of preparation are not independent, though whether the two are directly or inversely proportional will vary from cook to cook.)

For me, few foods are more fun to make or more satisfying to eat than chicken soup. I love going through the process of making the broth and adding the ingredients. There are a number of steps, but none of them is fussy, and there is a good deal of sensory reward throughout the process. The way the house smells when the chicken is simmering is especially pleasing. And, as I have probably said before, eating a good bowl of chicken soup is for me almost a spiritual experience. It's like imbibing life, or at least health. And, of course, it's delicious.

Chicken and dumplings is little more than a variation on chicken soup. Or at least that's how I make it. I do not wish to be culinarily hegemonic, and chicken soups, dumplings, and combinations of chicken soup and dumplings are so universal that anyone who claims to own the franchise is surely misguided. I don't even make chicken and dumplings the way my mother made it. I think that hers is very good, but everything about hers, except for the feeling I get from eating it, is different from mine. Mom always used a pressure cooker to cook the chicken, and she made her dumplings in long strips. I never actually saw her prepare it, but I believe that she must have rolled it out like biscuit dough and then cut it into strips instead of rounds. The dumplings were more substantial than fluffy (as, indeed, are mine), and they were very good. Mom also used a lot more vegetables in the final presentation than I do. I doubt that she would have considered making chicken and dumplings without adding a box of frozen peas.

I don't think that peas are an ideal addition to chicken and dumplings, but I would happily eat chicken and dumplings with peas in it. In my case, the tastes of the girls (and the amount of eye rolling I'm going to have to do when I watch them picking around their peas) need to be considered. The only green vegetable that both of them will reliably eat, and I didn't want to put any broccoli in my chicken and dumplings because I forgot to buy any doing so would have violated my culinary aesthetic.

In my book, there is nothing wrong with using a pressure cooker, and you could certainly make the dish in a great deal less time that way, but I think you get a better flavored broth if your liquid never goes beyond the simmer. Also, I'm a little bit afraid of the pressure cooker, though I have in the past used them, always without incident. I suppose what I mean to say here is that if you use a pressure cooker, you're still going to end up with something that's a variation on homemade chicken soup, and that's still going to be a good thing.

My preparation really takes either two days or an entire weekend day, though very little of that is actual cooking time. I am sure that there are other reliable ways to degrease a chicken stock, but the only way that I like is to put the whole pot in the refrigerator and let the fat congeal into a solid layer which you can then pull off of the gelatinous stock. In my case, the two days were separated by two additional days in the middle when I wasn't home early enough to finish the dish before dinner. No matter. On Sunday, I was pleased to have L. say how wonderful the house smelled and remark that I must be making chicken soup. Tonight, I was pleased to have both A. and L. ask for seconds, and that never happens.

Chicken and Dumplings

For the broth:

One whole fryer chicken
Three leafy celery stalks
A handful of baby carrots, or one large carrot
One medium onion
2 cloves
1 large bay leaf
2 whole cardomom pods
10 peppercorns
3 quarts water
1/2 t. coarse salt

Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Truss it with kitchen twine.

Cut the baby carrots in half or roughly chop the large carrot. Cut the onion in half and stud each half with a clove.

Bruise the cardomom pods. Place them in a piece of cheesecloth along with the bay leaf and the peppercorns, and tie it up into a bouquet garni.

Place all the ingredients into a stockpot. Add the water and salt, and bring to just below the boil. Simmer for an hour, turn the chicken over (it will not be quite submerged) and simmer for another hour. Remove the chicken to a plate and let it cool and then refrigerate. Strain the stock into another container and refrigerate. When the chicken fat has solidified on the top of the stock, remove it, and do with it whatever you normally do with chicken fat.

For the soup

1 pound baby carrots
4 T. butter
1/3 c. all purpose flour

For the dumplings

1.5 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 t. salt
4 T. butter, cut into small cubes
1 T. chopped fresh dill
1 t. dijon mustard
2/3 c. milk

Remove the meat from the chicken, discarding the skin and bones. Cut the chicken into rough pieces.

In a saucepan, bring the strained chicken broth to a simmer and add the baby carrots.

In a wide stockpot or casserole, heat the butter until melted. Whisk in the flour and cook over medium low heat for four to five minutes. Leaving the carrots behind for the moment, ladle a cup of the broth into the flour and butter and whisk briskly. Continue adding broth and whisking, until you have added about three cups of broth. Let the veloute simmer for a few minutes, then add the rest of the broth and the carrots. Add the diced chicken and return to a simmer. Correct seasoning.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the butter and rub in with your hands until the mixture has the texture of coarse meal. Add the dill and mix with a fork. Mix together the milk and mustard and then pour it over the flour mixture. Mix together with a fork. Add more milk if necessary so that the dough is about as moist as drop biscuits (i.e., too wet to roll out, but it will still hold its shape on a spoon).

Using two teaspoons, drop spoonfuls of dough onto the surface of the soup. Cover and simmer for ten minutes. Serve.

There is no getting around the fact that chicken and dumplings is a low glamour dish (though it does look better than in that terribly washed out picture). You can add some green vegetables to give it more color, and you could add more and different herbs to the dumplings for the same reason, but it's not meant to be visually stunning. There are a lot of other things that you can add to the dumplings, and some of them would likely be very good, but I wanted to keep mine very simple.

If you want larger and lighter dumplings, you could add another teaspoon of baking powder. I like mine to be very doughy without being overly heavy. Adding the lesser amount of baking powder also means that you can put more dumplings in the soup. For the same reason (you generally end up with less dumpling than you want, so it's good to do as much as you can to maximize your dumpling load) you want to use the widest pot or casserole that you can. I very nearly got out V.'s electric skillet, but I got almost my whole batch of dumpling dough into the pot without having to do that.

Take special note of how my chicken is trussed in the picture above. Now make sure that you truss yours in a much more thorough manner. The entire reason for trussing the chicken is so that it doesn't fall apart in the soup. It is rather tedious to have to fish a disintegrated chicken out of the soup, but that is exactly what I ended up doing. Use twice as much string and wrap it well.

Of course, you could accomplish the same thing by cooking the chicken for a much shorter period of time. You would also probably end up with more flavorful chicken meat. When you simmer the chicken for two hours, though, all of that flavor goes into the broth, and that's a trade off I'm always happy to make.

All of the versions of chicken and dumplings that I've had have thickened the chicken broth, and most of them ended up with a sauce that was a good deal thicker than the one I made here, which is really very lightly thickened just to give a tiny bit of body: it is still very much a soup. You could use another method to thicken if you like, but I find that the roux works very well, provided, of course, that you cook the butter and the flour thoroughly before you start adding the broth. I had a little over two quarts of broth when I started this evening, and the amount of flour I used for the roux seemed about right.


Anonymous lindy said...

Yum, this looks delicious. I am all set to make me some broth this weekend.
Re trussing: When making broth, I use a pasta pot with insert, so that when the broth is done, I can lift the chicken (or beef bones or turkey necks or whatever) and depleted soup veg out all together. Probably this is a common method, but I felt clever when I thought of it a few years ago, It was particularly handy, since it had never occured to me to truss the bird.

2:51 AM  
Anonymous Lynn D. said...

Cardamom in the broth sounds really interesting--I'll have to try it.

3:06 PM  

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