Chicken and dumplings…I count very favorite foods (collard greens and fried okra come to mind first) and foods that connect me with my family (pork barbecue, chicken pie) but chicken and dumplings seem to transcend those on my “favorites” list. Chicken and dumplings, in addition to being a food, also seem part medicine. If stress, sickness or want seep into my bones, and I am in need of strengthening my mental health, chicken and dumplings always sooth me. Chicken and dumplings may be the very best medicine I have ever ingested. I am fully convinced that a bowlful could easily ease my worries over financial difficulty, bodily harm or infirmity, lovelorn matters of the heart, or anything else that might put me on my butt, literally or figuratively.
I want to call chicken and dumplings a “southern food,” one originating in the American South. Though that might not be true. In a quick survey of the internet and cookbooks I own there seem to be recipes all over the U.S. for chicken and dumplings. Though I do notice that recipes from places not of the American South seem to make a royal mess of the essence of chicken and dumplings (putting whole, bone-in pieces of chicken in to “jazz up” the look being a main offender west of the Mississippi).
I think a more accurate depiction of the history of chicken and dumplings is that necessity is the mother of invention. In poor rural places (re: the American South) families that may have nothing definitely had chickens running around the yard, and a bit of flour in the pantry, and these two ingredients plus water can produce chicken and dumplings. The chicken offers most everything for the meal; the flavor, fat, meat, etc. But this “poor food” endures because though it is not much to look at in terms of “presentation” it is just so good, and healing, and in my opinion tastes better than just about any food that is all about “presentation.”
Wherever this humble stew originated, the meal definitely has its regional differences. In the North Carolina Piedmont where I grew up and continue to live I called chicken pieces and flat dumplings “chicken and dumplings.” But my father, who grew up only an hour east (in Eastern North Carolina) called this same dish “chicken and pastry.” And I have seen others in Eastern North Carolina cook the same dish much longer, until the chicken almost dissolves into the much more watery broth, and call it “chicken slick.” My maternal side of the family, from the Southwest Virginia hills above Roanoke, made their chicken and dumplings with not flat dumplings, but what seemed to be billowy pillows of flour. My great-grandmother, who always cooked for what seemed like an army, knew when to save time, and used canned biscuits she would cut into two for her dumplings!
I offer here my way of making chicken and dumplings, not as a way of pretending I am some authority or star chef of this basic dish, but hopefully as a way to help those who want to make them skip the many mistakes I, and others, have made in the past on the way to making this “medicine.”
Chip Millard’s Chicken and Dumpling Recipe
- 1 whole chicken, 4-6 pounds
- salt, pepper and thyme, for seasoning
- olive oil
- 1 rather large onion (sweet preferred)
- a container of mushrooms (baby bella preferred)
- carrots and celery, optional, use if you have around
- dumplings (I use Mary Hill), two packages if you are making a big pot
- black pepper
- milk, half and half, or heavy cream
- an orange, tangerine or clementine
- hot sauce, such as Tabasco
(click on any of the photos for a larger version)
First, bring a big pot of water to boil, the water being about halfway up the side of the pot. Add some salt (I use kosher sea salt) for taste and “to help the water boil faster” (is that true?). Also, add a tablespoon of olive oil, it helps prevent the whole chicken from sticking to the bottom of the hot pot and burning.
Once the water comes to a rolling boil you will want to add the chicken to the pot. I say 4-6 pounds for your chicken because any bigger and you know it is a chicken raised on hormones and other stuff to make it so darn big. I want a regular sized chicken free of most of that because I am more looking for taste and not how big the actual chicken is (only you, the cook, will see the chicken in its “whole” form). Are you now thinking you need a bigger chicken in terms of pounds because you are going to be feeding a lot of people? Stop thinking! It does not matter how many people you are feeding, this chicken will provide! The chicken’s value to this meal is 5% pieces of chicken and 95% the chicken broth that will soon instantly spring forth in your pot.
You will find these smaller chickens not at the big-box stores we all feel we can not live without, but at the smaller regional grocery stores (think “superette” not supermarket). I bought this chicken in our town’s Piggly-Wiggly grocery store, which I refer to as an ethnic foods store (the ethnicity being not Asian or Italian or Polish, but “Southern American”).
Unwrap the chicken and wash it under cold water. If you are not used to cooking whole chickens you are going to be surprised to find “parts” in the inside cavity, gizzards and organs, which you should also rinse, adding them and the chicken to the pot of your boiling water. Add in salt and pepper and thyme. Then start moving the heat down on the burner, seeing how low you can go while keeping that slow boil (bubbling water). Allow this to cook for 40-45 minutes.
After the 40-45 minutes of cooking many worry if the chicken is cooked through. It really doesn’t matter yet, as you will be cooking it some more. But, a quick sign is that the chicken seems to sort of float in the pot (where before it sunk like a lead balloon).
Gather pyrex containers or bowls, and put in your sink. Pour off the liquid in the pot, which is now the best chicken broth in the world (100 times better than the stuff in cans at the grocery store). Try to keep as much as you can. I use a small strainer when pouring, just to gather up some of the smaller bits of herbs or chicken pieces. Set this chicken broth aside.
After pouring off the chicken broth put your pot in the sink and let cold water run over the chicken. Pour off the water, and repeat the process. You are trying to cool the chicken down so it does not burn you. Once the chicken has cooled place a clean bowl beside you and start picking off all the meat on the bird, white and dark, in chunks no larger than your thumb. Be patient here, and do not waste that chicken’s meat! Once complete, set the chicken aside. You will want to bag up the remaining bones and parts and seal it off with a twisty tie before throwing away.
Dice up a rather large onion (I use sweet onions), and also slice up a container of mushrooms (I spend the extra 50 cents for the baby bellas, worth it here). If you have them around and want to use them up dice up a few carrots and celery ribs. But be sure to dice them up. Carrots and celery add flavor to the broth, but I don’t want to see them swimming around in your chicken and dumplings if I am invited over to your house to sup.
With all of these ingredients ready put your cooking pot back on the stove and set on medium heat. Throw in a bit of butter to get the bottom of the pot slick. Dump in the onions, and also the carrots and celery if you chose to add them. Mix in with the butter and cook until the pieces start to become translucent. Add in salt at this step. Again, sea salt, not table salt. Note: Do you fancy yourself a real fancy cook with a PhD in cookbooks and blogs, where every pot or skillet recipe begins with minced garlic? Resist that urge here.
Next, add in your mushrooms. Mix in with the vegetables and liquid currently in the pot. Allow to cook down a bit, a minute or two. You may wonder why mushrooms should be in chicken and dumplings? Because their taste reminds you of the Earthly, low-down, pungent smells that make all the best stews! By the end of the cooking process you will barely notice their presence visually. But your taste buds will not be so remiss.
Once the mushrooms have cooked down a bit pour a slurry of the chicken broth in the pot, maybe a cup. Use this broth, and your wooden spoon (you are using a wooden spoon, right?) to get up all the little tasty bits that have stuck to the bottom of the pot, and move around everything. Then, add in the chicken broth you have been setting aside. Pour in more than you ever think you will need, as it is hard to fathom how much liquid dumplings can absorb. Don’t fill up the side of the pot any more than 3/4 the way up the side, to be sure to have room for the ingredients you will soon dump in. Bring this all to a languid, bubbly boil.
Once the bubbly boil begins it is time to add dumplings. Here’s where some purists are going to call “fowl” (get it!). Most of the time I use store bought dumplings! I do make them from scratch sometimes, especially if I want to make black pepper pastry (super thin pastry strips loaded with black pepper mixed in the flour) or green herb dumplings (ravioli-sized dumplings full of cut up green herbs, such as parsley and basil). But this is one step where the dumplings these companies make and package for us taste just as good as what you can make at home, and this pre-packaged step can save an hour of time (not having to make your own) in an already long process.
I use Mary Hill Dumplings, almost exclusively. They are as good as any I have found, but Mrs. Hill lured me in with her expert packaging. The stripes get my attention to start. The very plain “Olan Mills church directory” photo of her makes me feel as though she is very down to Earth, and her dual slogans are some of the best I have ever seen. The first is “Made especially for you with love.” (Can’t you hear your mom or grandmother saying that?) And the follow up, almost as an aside, proclaims “Yes to Dumplings, No to Drugs.” There is a lot of simple wisdom in that statement (you will figure that out once you calm down from laughing!). If the stripes, photo and logos are not enough, Mary Hill also adds in a Bible verse on the back of the package. I used to roll my eyes at that kind of thing, utilizing Scripture as a sales aid. But in this hateful, secular world we currently live in it seems more a badge of courage in the face of the liberal mobs who perpetuate the culture wars. I like that kind of grit.
Begin to drop in the dumplings, one at a time. There’s a trick here, you can’t let the dumplings touch when they first hit the liquid, or they will stick to each other. I leave the wooden spoon in the pot, then drop two or three dumplings on top of the stew (kind of like laying out bacon in a skillet). I let the dumplings sit there for 20-30 seconds, then dunk them with the spoon. I then repeat that process, over and over, until all dumplings are in the pot.
Allow this all to cook on a bubbly, low boil, for 20-30 minutes.
At this point you can see that the dumplings have started really soaking up the juice, and they appear to have doubled in thickness. Also, little bits of flour have fallen away and thickened up the liquid in the pot. You have a stew on your hands! Add in the chicken pieces now, and mix in, then allow to simmer for 10-15 more minutes.
Grab a spoon out of your drawer, the type you eat food with. Taste the chicken and dumplings and evaluate what is needed, as they are about ready to eat. More salt needed? Or no? You decide, based on what you like. Also add in black pepper to taste. You are trying to get the stew to being just about being done, in cooking and in seasoning.
Now, time for the secret weapon, a mix of a few items that make all non-tomato based soups and stews ascend to the next level. Add in four ingredients that for some reason know how to make magic together; milk (or half and half, or heavy cream, whatever you have, I had vitamin D milk this day), an orange of some sort, nutmeg, and hot sauce (Tabasco brand, here).
Pour in 1/4 cup to a full cup of milk, enough to turn the liquid from translucent to milky white. Add in nutmeg, a teaspoon would be good. Zest an orange (or tangerine or clementine) and dump the zest in. Finally, dash in hot sauce, the amount being a couple of shakes up to a dozen of the bottle. Once all of these are present, mix the magic four ingredients in to the stew, and immediately turn off the heat (remember, this mixture is piping hot, internally, and will continue to cook as it cools to eating temperature).
It is hard to explain why these four ingredients added to stew or soups at the last minute are such a taste bud game-changer, so I will not try. All I can tell you is I learned it from studying the way Bill Neal (of Crook’s Corner fame) cooked and thought about food in his cookbooks, and if you know anything about Bill Neal you know that if that is the way he did it, that is really all the explanation you need.
As they cool and sit, these dumplings are ready to serve and eat. You cannot eat just one bowl, so encourage trips to the pot for seconds and thirds, and make it easy for people to help themselves (this is why you made such a big pot!).
A confession here, I am the world’s worst at eating leftovers. I am always reaching over the leftovers in my refrigerator to look for something new to eat. But there is an exception to every rule, and the ever dynamic chicken and dumplings is that leftover dish! In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that chicken and dumplings taste better as leftovers, left in a cold area overnight for the dumplings to soak up more of the liquid and spices.
If you have never made chicken and dumplings before it is time to end that curse and make a pot! Chicken and dumplings are cheap, easy to make, and always please, despite the humble ingredients and lack of presentation. A perfect dish for Sunday Dinner! Let me know if you have questions, or want to invite me over when you serve chicken and dumplings the next time.