Devouring Dumplings

Dumplings are one of the world’s great comfort foods.  In a single handcrafted portion a dumpling can provide us with an immediate, compact, soothing taste of home.  Made from traditional ingredients and often ritualistic methods of preparation, a dumpling can be viewed as a true cultural touchstone and provide a window into the heart of a cuisine.

Dumplings come in all sizes and shapes, ranging from savory to sweet.  They can be steamed, boiled, simmered, or fried.  In general, you could say a dumpling consists of dough wrapped around a filling; in some cases, a dumpling is made with ingredients directly incorporated into the dough.  Depending on regional availability the dough can be based on potatoes or other tubers, a flour or grain, such as wheat, corn, farina, or rice.

For variety, consider the vast choices in Chinese dumplings: from steamed or fried won tons and pot stickers, to the elaborate array of steamed dumplings used in diverse dim sum offerings.  By contrast, the baked or fried empanadas of Spain or Latin American can vary widely, too; instead of dainty morsels, they are frequently sumptuous enough to rate full meal status.

Molded and simmered dumplings such as Italian gnocchi, German spaetzle, and French quenelle are all precursors of our own colonial dumplings.  Here In the United States Chicken and Dumplings remains a regional favorite.  Hailing from South Carolina, our Cornmeal Dumplings include both egg and baking powder―promising moist, airy pillows, and not heavy gobs of dough.Dumplings

In the old days a tough old bird may have been the appropriate choice for this homey dish, but today we tend to opt for something that does not require hours of simmering to tenderize it.  A whole cut-up chicken can be used; if particular parts are preferred, include some dark meat for a richer flavor.Chicken and Dumplings in bowl

Since Chicken and Dumplings are regarded as a full meal, use plenty of vegetables like carrots, onion, potatoes, celery, and turnips, even a few green peas, if available.   For ease, prepare the chicken and vegetable mixture ahead and reheat it; add the cornmeal dumplings and cook them just before serving.  They are the crowning glory, and the perfect foil for this hearty chicken stew.

Chicken and Cornmeal Dumplings

Ingredients

2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded, minced (optional)
1 chicken, cut up or 6 chicken thighs, skinned
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
8 baby portabella mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed, quartered
1 tsp mixed dried herbs, such as thyme, rosemary, marjoram
1 bay leaf
2-3 carrots, peeled cut into bite-sized chunks
2 turnips or rutabagas, peeled, cut into bite-sized chunks
2 medium red potatoes, skins on, cut into bite-sized chunks
½ cup parsley, chopped
3 cups chicken stock, approximate
1 large handful of frozen peas
Salt and pepper to taste
Cornmeal Dumplings (follows)

Directions

  1. In a large pot, heat 1 tbsp oil over medium heat; add the onion and toss to coat, then add the garlic and jalapeno, and cook until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes.  Remove the mixture.
  2. Lightly dust the chicken with the flour lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.  Over medium-high heat, add 1 tbsp more oil to the pot and toss in the chicken pieces; cook to quickly brown all over, 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. Reduce the heat to medium and add the mushrooms; when they begin to release their moisture stir in the herbs.  Add the carrots, turnips, potatoes, the reserved onion mixture, and the parsley.  Pour in enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables and chicken, add a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and bring to a boil.  Lower heat to simmer, cover the pot and cook until vegetables and the chicken are tender, about 30 minutes.  Add water or stock as needed to keep the chicken covered with liquid. Stir in the frozen peas just before adding the dumpling.
  4. Prepare the cornmeal dumplings.  Drop by teaspoonfuls on top of the simmering chicken, cover and cook additional 20 minutes.  Serves 4.

Cornmeal Dumplings

Ingredients
½ cup cornmeal
¾ cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 Tbsp butter
1 egg
1/3 cup milk
2 tbsp parsley, minced; or 1 Tbsp fresh herbs, minced (marjoram, thyme, rosemary, etc.)
6 cups soup or stock

Directions

  1.   Sift dry ingredients, cut in butter with fork or knives.  Beat egg and milk together and add liquid to the dry ingredients until just blended, the batter should be stiff.
  2. Wet a teaspoon and dip it into the batter; drop spoonfuls into simmering stock until barely touching.  Cover the pan tightly and simmer without lifting lid, about 20 minutes.  Serve hot.
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