Twenty-five years married to my Southern Belle and I’ve never once made her chicken and dumplings. I hang my head.
In the rural South, chicken and dumplings is a signature meal. While it may not win a prize for the prettiest, it’s a defining dish of the family table. Though nowadays cheat’s versions are as common as a burger at the drive-thru, it was traditionally a meal made ‘from scratch’ for special days … like the Sunday when the preacher came for lunch!
The story goes that mama would send the kids out to catch the oldest hen, the one past laying. This slow-simmer recipe was the best way of making the old bird palatable. What’s more, the big pot of stock filled to the brim with tender biscuit dumplings made one scrawny chook stretch to a hearty meal for the entire clan.
Well, shame no more. I’ve done it. Chicken and dumplings for dinner tonight. And it was pretty good too, though the tummy’s a bit bloated. Those biscuit dumplings pack a punch!
Apparently there are two methods for this dish, and both have their devotees: one with rolled dumplings, little spoonful nuggets of biscuit dough dropped into the stew; and the second, sworn to be the more authentic by all Texan grandmas, where the dough is rolled out and cut into strips akin to thick noodles. Having profound respect for all Southern matriarchs (that’s you Mamie), I decided on the second.
Here’s what you need:
For the stock
1 whole chicken
I brown onion, peeled and quartered
2 carrots cut into large pieces
3 sticks of celery roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
For the dumplings
120 grams of butter
2 ½ cups of plain flour
½ teaspoon of baking powder
salt and pepper
½ teaspoon of Cajun seasoning
1 cup of milk
For the sauce
150 grams of butter
½ cup of flour
1 cup milk
6 cups of stock
½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon of chicken stock powder
And here’s what you do:
For the stock: throw into a large stockpot the whole chicken, carrots, onion, celery, bay leaves and peppercorns and cover generously with water. Bring to a simmer and let it cook away for an hour. Once done, set the stock aside, removing the chicken to a plate to let it cool a little. Once the stock has sat for a while, remove as much fat from the surface as you can with a spoon and discard.
For the dumplings: Into a large mixing bowl sift the flour, baking powder and seasoning. Cut the cold butter up into small pieces and add to the flour then rub the butter into the flour with your fingers until it’s a nice crumb consistency. Add the milk and mix together until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl. Don’t over mix. Tip the dough out on the benchtop dusted liberally with flour and kneed together a little more until you have the feel of a scone dough. Roll the dough out to a ½ centimeter thickness. Then cut into strips around 4 cm long and 2 wide. Leave to sit until you need them.
At this point, you’ll want to pull the chicken apart, discarding the skin and bones and breaking the meat into large mouth-sized pieces.
For the sauce: In a large heavy-based cooking pot, melt the butter over a moderate heat then add the flour to make a roux (a paste) and cook for a few minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the roux is cooked to a blondie brown, add the milk and stir to a thick sauce. Add the stock and bring the sauce to a gentle simmer. Add the seasonings. Once the sauce is seasoned to your liking, add in the dumplings and allow to cook at a low simmer for around 10 minutes or until the dumplings are tender. You then add in the chicken pieces and cook for a few minutes more, stirring gently as you do.
I suspect the purists would insist on serving the dish with freshly baked cornbread and a side of green beans or something of the like. Afraid my chicken and dumplings were lonely tonight with not a side in sight. Still, they were good. My beloved said so: ‘Just like mama used to make!’
Oh, and we did add a generous sprinkling of ‘Slap Ya Mama’ Cajun seasoning before eating. Even better.