The interminable wait on the other line of a customer service call can cause one to do many curious things. Some walk around their house discovering new places that need to be dusted, some engage in nail beautification and other forms of personal self-grooming, some scold their children assuming (incorrectly) that no one on the other line can hear them. To overcome the frustration of being in ‘phone jail’ I tend to flip through recipe books and research new food trends. While waiting on the phone today, for what felt like hours, I flipped through a Saveur magazine and had my eye on a few recipes that called for Brie and Camembert cheeses that I’m now itching to audition. But, after some thought, I decided instead to deviate completely from that path, heading out from the ile de France and ending up somewhere in the American South.
There’s something about Southern cuisine that appeals to me: it completely strips away any artifice. It’s void of pretentiousness and something about that roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in kind of food makes Southern recipes completely worthy of adulation. They say, “Hearty fare breeds hearty people; haute cuisine breeds degenerates” and the cuisine of the American South is a true testament of just that.
My brother-in-law, Amir, has had a yen for chicken and dumplings for the last few weeks and, well, I thought I’d torture him with this recipe while he’s at work and hours away from making this himself. This dish is creamy and hearty with delicious shredded chicken and fluffy little dumplings (swoon). Chicken and dumplings is a recipe that needs little tinkering but this dish is rooted in so many different family traditions, that every recipe ends up with slight variations and ingredient deviations. Visually, the dish will look the same from home to home, and the base is almost always the same, but every recipe that’s been handed down through the generations may be slightly varied. Cooking improvisationally is not an aberration for southern recipes but there are a few staple ingredients and methods that need to be followed to give this southern recipe authentication.
Some recipes call for cream over milk, some call for lard rather than butter, others use all-flour dumplings instead of cornmeal dumplings, some have dumplings that contain eggs and are rolled out (which some purists will argue are ‘egg noodles’ rather than dumplings) and others use boneless chicken rather than bone-in chicken. The people “down south” are ever-protective of the tradition of their recipes, and I realize that I may be inciting a riot with this comment, but there are good things to be said about every different recipe for chicken and dumplings. I’ve tried over a dozen different recipes over the years, all with slight variations and this recipe is a culmination of the best of all the recipes I’ve tried. I’ve even added my own small (very small) improvements. The ingredients are pretty well the same but I’ve modified the technique to maximize the flavour base. Some Southerners will argue that only people of the South can truly master this recipe, but it seems that a decent chicken and dumplings can, in fact, be made north of the Mason-Dixie line 😉
So, instead of bottom-feeding out of the fridge tonight, try this Southern favourite. It’s a sure favourite in my home and it may become a family favourite in yours too.
I used leeks in this recipe which lend a very mild onion-like flavour to the dish, but you can substitute it with celery and create a classic mire poix (carrots, onions and celery) for the base of this dish. Some recipes omit the carrots and peas altogether but I think the recipe needs the pop of colour from both to keep it from looking bland and all beige. The garlic is something that’s not completely traditional but I think it’s completely essential. It gives the dish a wonderful fragrance and depth.
Some chicken and dumpling recipes call for boneless chicken thighs that are stewed in the liquid of this dish (without being seared before), but I opted to use bone-in pieces with the skin on to render more flavour. I seared the skin to get the flavour but removed it afterwards (before cooking the chicken pieces in the liquid) to cut back on the fat. The bone in the chicken produces a stock of sorts in the liquid as it cooks, so it’s ideal if you don’t have stock and are using water instead, as you will still get the lovely flavour which the bones impart without actually having to make stock just for this recipe. If you’re in a pinch, last night’s leftover chicken can get a second act by being shredded up and added to the stew.
Many recipes call for adding cream which is really high in fat (35% MF) to make the dish creamy, but I tried it with 2% milk and found no difference between using cream and using milk. The milk is the obvious choice here as it’s both healthier and you’re more likely to have it in your fridge than cream. Bastardized versions of this (usually by people who aren’t from the south) include a can of cream of chicken soup, but take it from me, this recipe is sooo much better when made from scratch. It’s quite easy as well as the liquid is created with just stock and a little splash of milk instead of that quivering, congealed mound of commercial goop.
I shredded the chicken but kept the pieces relatively large. This stew is meant to be hearty and the long shreds of chicken are far more appealing in this dish than small indiscernible chicken pieces that are better suited for a chicken soup.
Making fluffy dumplings is actually a lot more complicated that one would think. They often go gummy and dense and don’t puff up in the way they are supposed to. I added a bit of corneal to the mix as I find that this helps combat the problem of dense dumplings. The grittiness of the cornmeal melts away and leaves a fluffy, airy dumpling. I made the mix and set it aside for a few minutes to let the baking powder activate so when I went to scoop it out, it was already filled with little air pockets. I scooped out golf-ball sized dumplings; you don’t want them too large as they’ll take too long to cook and are less appealing to eat. Some recipes call for you to roll the dumplings into little balls using additional flour but I figured this dish is meant to be rustic and homey and dropping the dumplings in by spoonfuls yielded a more authentic and beautiful look to the dish. Other recipes call for you to use the reserved chicken fat that is left after searing the chicken to flavour the dumplings. I’ve tried this in the past, but I found that it left the dumpling tasting like used, burnt oil so I chose instead to use only unsalted butter to give the dumpling flavour.
Resist the urge to lift the lid of the pot once you drop the dumplings. The lid creates a little pocket of steam that’s needed to help the dumpling puff up and become airy. Allow them to cook the entire 15 minutes before removing the lid.
Chicken and Dumplings
3 lbs bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (thighs and legs are the most tender)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic
2 leeks (light green and white parts only) – or celery
1 large onion
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
5 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
5 cups (1250 ml) unsalted chicken broth (or water)
1/4 cup whole milk (or 2%)
1 cup frozen green peas
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or Crisco shortening
2/3 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
Prepare the chicken stew: Slice the leeks (or celery, if using) length-wise and then dice into pieces. Dice the onions and carrots. Wash the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towels. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wide pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add half of the chicken pieces and par-fry the chicken until golden and crisp on both sides (about 4 minutes on each side). Transfer the chicken to a plate and remove the crisped skin. Add the other tablespoon of oil to the pot and crisp the remaining pieces of chicken and set aside.
In the same pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Mince the garlic, add to the pot and toast lightly for a few seconds. Add the diced carrot, leeks and onion, thyme and 1 teaspoon salt. Sweat the vegetables for about 5 minutes until they are softened. Stir in the flour until the vegetables are coated. Add 1/2 a cup of the chicken stock to create a thick mixture. Add the remaining 4 1/2 cups of stock to the pot along with the milk. Arrange the chicken pieces in the bottom of the pot. Cover and simmer for about 40-50 minutes until the chicken is fully cooked.
Remove the chicken from the pot and place on a cutting board. Remove the meat from the bones and shred the chicken. Discard the bones. Return the shredded chicken to the pot.
Prepare the dumplings: Stir the flour, baking powder, and salt together. Add the butter (the mixture will be crumbly). Add the buttermilk to the flour mixture until incorporated. Mix in the parsley. Set aside for a few minutes — the baking powder will begin to activate the batter causing it to puff up.
Return the stew to a simmer and stir in the peas. Drop the dumpling dough by tablespoons on top of the stew. You should get about 16 dumplings in total. Leave a little bit of room around each dumpling to allow the dumplings to puff up and expand as they steam. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover and cook the dumplings for about 15 minutes until the dumplings have doubled in size. Serve immediately as the dumplings will begin to sop up the juices of the stew. To save time, the stew can be made ahead of time and refrigerated but make the dumpling batter right before you intend to use it and bring the mixture up to a simmer before dropping the dumplings in. For leftovers: If, after refrigerating the stew, the dumplings have absorbed most of the moisture, simply add a little water (and salt if necessary) to the mixture to loosen it up before reheating.