June 06, 2005

Chicken & Dumplings

There may be few dishes so immediately evocative of homey and soothing comfort than chicken & dumplings. The thing of it is, there are just so very many variations that you cannot necessarily be sure exactly what other people mean when they say those magic words. Magic, because no matter how different one dish is compared to another, they still conjure up the same sort of warm-and-fuzzy feeling of being looked after. Even if you make it yourself.

Recipes range from fatty extraveganzas to more modern, lighter cuisine, from dumplings that resemble short, fat noodles to puffy, fluffy steamed buns that rest on the top of a stew, to perfectly round matzohs. Chicken can be on-the-bone or off, cut into serving-sizes or bite-sized chunks. Liquid can be a broth, a sauce, thick or thin, scant or plentiful. With vegetables, or without. There's really just no way to know.

I made chicken & dumplings for dinner last night. My version, for the record, is a creamy chicken stew (made with a milk-enriched veloute and no actual cream) with boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces, lots of vegetables (mushrooms, carrots, whole garlic cloves, celery, corn, and peas, this time) and big, fluffy, herbed dumplings that are dropped by the spoonful onto the bubbling stew and steamed, tightly covered, for 15 minutes. It is a one-pot meal.

My version is a lot leaner than that of my foremothers: I brown the bite-sized chicken pieces in a smidge of canola oil, sautee the "hard" veggies in sherry, and use a slurry of milk and flour without additional fat to thicken the sauce. The dumplings themselves are fairly lean already, although in recent years I've taken to using chicken schmalz (carefully poured from the pans of roasted chickens past, and stored in a mug in the freezer) instead of canola oil, because the flavour is just phenomenal. Add to that a little chopped parsley and some chopped sage leaves culled from the window-box garden, and you've got a tasty, tasty treat. They can go on beef stew, as well, of course (a little rosemary is nice, there, but with chicken we're getting precariously close to Scarborough Fair dumplings - parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme).

I am a firm believer in layers of flavour, so I add bayleaves and mustard seed and ground thyme to the stew mixture, and I've been known to add a shot of Tobasco sauce, too. I tend to under-salt this when I'm using homemade chicken stock in the sauce, so I have to constantly check it at the different stages of cooking to ensure the right amount. The final garnish is a healthy grinding of black pepper.

We eat a fair amount of chicken, actually. We don't eat a lot of chicken and dumplings, though, and I am not sure why. Maybe it's that I like it to be something of a special treat, and that might fade if served too often. Maybe it's that my repertoire is getting quite large, and it's hard to get anything into rotation on even a monthly basis, unless it's monumentally fast and easy, and while chicken and dumplings is relatively easy, it's not particularly fast. Every time we have it, though, I think to myself "Damn, these dumplings are good. Why don't I have these every week?"

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