Since my children have been under the weather, and never one to discount the impact of an appetizing meal on an ailing child, I asked the resident urchins yesterday what they would like to eat for dinner. The response was resounding, in unison and enthusiastic: chicken and dumplings. I'm not even sure they drew a breath before they answered. Of course it makes sense: it is a kind of ultimate chicken soup, and few these days would discount the curative benefits of this elixir of health. At the very least the wonderful, rich broth and the comfort of the delicious dumpling offers a comfort virtually unmatched. Nearly every American I know has some fond recollection of eating chicken and dumplings as a child, as if the dish itself could recall the safe harbour of grandma's house, even the memory of which is enough to cause someone to wax lyrical about what is essentially a very simple food. But you would be disappointed if I did not say that even the simplest of dishes is worth doing well. The dish can absolutely sing if done with care. My son came to the table after his first day back at school, weary and worn, not yet fully recovered. The candles were blazing, the beautiful Finzi suite, Love's Labour's Lost was playing in the background, and as we sat down to say grace, he commented that he felt better already. His eyes were dancing. That is the magic of dinner.
Sometimes to offer comfort is the best way to heal the body and the soul. I wonder that to "love our neighbor" is often far simpler than we imagine, and may be best charaterized by a bowl of soup or the offer of a comforting dinner. My father, who was tall, athetic, a hiker and mountaineer of some renown and even greater drive, had the habit of bringing stray Pacific Crest Trail hikers he met on the trail home for dinner to give them a break from the relentless pounding of miles gained from Canada to the Mexican border. My mother would cook them a feast, and I still remember the absolute delight on their faces, having eaten little more than oatmeal for the past few weeks. In our efforts to assure our children fit into our cultural values of self reliance, independence and strength, we often overlook how important are the simple comforts, the memory of which can last a lifetime and bring a different kind of strength to the challenges of life: the knowledge that we are loved and cared for, which opens the heart to the acceptance of love from God himself. I think a child who has been well loved and comforted has a greater not lesser ability to embrace all of what life asks and offers, and can more fully appreciate that God loves us with a passionate devotion that would overwhelm our experience if we could but embrace it. By comfort, I do not mean coddled, but we often confuse the two and lose a great gift we might offer them. My spiritual director often tells me, independent sort that I am, that self reliance is not a value to laud, because it is our dependence upon each other which allows love to flow. I bridled at this at first, and thought him naive. The more I learn, the more I realise that he is correct in this, as he has been in most things spiritual. But it took me time to come to realise just how much this is true. In a simple bowl of chicken and dumplings, is a whole world of love to a child, a deep recognition that to accept love is to let it flow. And that is grace, amazing grace.
As for the dumpling, it has set me thinking about its place in both cuisine de bonne femme and haute cuisine. When I lived in that magical, gilded city of Vienna for a time, I was constantly fascinated by the absolute devotion throughout Austria for the dumpling. Even climbing in the Austrian Alps, and reaching a high alpine hut after more than a 10,000 feet climb, I was dumbfounded to find that the hut offered as one of its specialties the Salzburger Nockerl, that delicious confection so beloved in Austria, more souffle than dumpling, but classed as one even so. Of course I indulged, having just conquered the summit hut. It was a sweet, lemony delight, with a curious history. Created in the 17th century by Salome Alt, the beautiful mistress (and discerning hostess) of the archbishop of Salzburg (eek), this soufflé is formed to look like the three hills that surround the city (Mönchsberg, Kapuzinerberg and Gaisberg). It is nearly impossible to resist, which I assume was its intent, schooled as she no doubt was in the art of pleasing a man. I will admit to having found this story somewhat entrancing, and if you see the photo at the top of this page, you will not fail to note the sensuous quality of the dessert. I first enjoyed it at a Gasthouse (guesthouse), seated at a long communal table, after having eaten the most delicious Wienerschnitzel, and sated as I was, it was still enormously appealing. Yes, and it did bring to mind what other desserts the lady had in mind for the evening it was served, and which was clearly suggested. Food has great potential for this, artfully orchestrated.
My grandmother used to make the tiny dumplings called Spaetzle, or Knöpfle as she called them, which literally translate as "little sparrows" and are tiny noodles dropped into boiling water and delicious with braises so as to soak up all that delicious sauce. My children love these, and the translation, and I like to serve them when I make a braise of lamb shanks, or even with a braised pot roast. The Italian dumpling, or Gnocci, is a favorite at my house, too, and I make them from both potatoes and from ricotta, and even sometimes from polenta. If you learn to make them well, so they are light, like little pillows, rolled against the back of a fork or a little wooden board with tiny grooves, you will fall in love with them, and the making of them, which is great fun. My children are very adept at making these now, and rolling them, and we often have them in production on the marble table in the kitchen, delighted as they are to help. There is a wealth of lore about them, and I am often told by this person or that that there is only one way to make them and to do otherwise is not to be a member of the cognoscenti. But I have followed the way of the Italian Nonni in various places in Italy until I could make them rapidly and so that they were tender and light, and while it is true that the baked potato is probably the best way to make them, I often make them when I have leftover mashed potatoes, and they are wonderful this way, too, if you use a light hand with the flour and don't overwork the dough. Nothing is wasted, and the "restes" from last night's feast can make an altogether new feast tonight. A little nutmeg in the ricotta gnocci is delicious, too, and there are cold, rainy nights when a big platter of gnocci with a sage and brown butter sauce is as comforting and delicious a dish as one could imagine. I have lots of herb plants on my window sill, and if I am ever without sage in the autumn, my children will quickly query how we are to have gnocci with sage butter sauce? It is as if I have spurned a sacred tradition. The liturgy of family ritual has been desecrated. Every good home cook has the ability to make of a meal a love affair, and blow a kiss to those he or she adores, and maybe even some not so adored, but who might become so at table.
When I have bits of white fish, and want to serve an elegant entree course to begin a meal, I make a French dumpling called a quenelle. These are especially delicious, delicately poached, and can be sauced with all manner of deliciousness: buerre blanc, a nage, a tomato reduction, as a beautiful garnish to soup, or my favorite, sauce Nantua, which is a bisque-like seafood sauce made from the shells of lobster. shrimp, or classically crayfish, which my son likes to catch for me in the river which flows through our Big Sur property. I once made hundreds of these for a benefit dinner for 24 I hosted. and for which I was chef, at my house. That was a logistical challenge, which my husband, ever the clever expeditor, managed to solve. These dumplings are made from pate a choux, or cream puff pastry, mixed with the fish, flavored, shaped into quenelles with two spoons, and then lightly poached. They are worth learning to make if you want to have an impressive and light start for a grand occasion, but more often than not, I serve them to my family to use up bits of fish. Or sometimes, if a friend gives me a good whitefish he has caught, or I buy some flash frozen wild, line-caught fish at Trader Joe's in the freezer section, I make these for dinner, and serve them atop soup with some grilled levain toasts for a light supper. Learning to shape a quenelle is worthwhile, too, and can make for an elegant presentation of other foods, such as ice cream, potato puree, or a finely chopped ratatouille as garnish.
If you care to make Chicken and Dumplings for dinner for your family, you might like to try my approach. It is a little more work than the traditional boiled chicken method, but the result is superior, in my view, and worth the added effort. I am a big fan of Southern cooking, especially for Sunday dinners, and have huge stacks of Southern cookbooks, which I adore as much for the traditions as the food, and will talk about in this blog in the weeks to come. If you want to read some delightful books about a southern cook and grande dame of Charleston, get hold of the books by Emily Whaley, which are tremendously fun. She describes her childhood on a plantation owned by her amazing grandmother, and the food and adventures she enjoyed there as a child. Even more fun to read about is her coming of age and how she learned to cook herself, married as she was eventually to a Charleston attorney of some renown, who enjoyed eating well. She is witty and great fun, and reading her books I felt I was seated in her Charleston drawing room and she and I were chatting over a glass of sherry.
To make the chicken and dumplings, buy some chicken backs and necks, which are very inexpensive, and bring them to a simmer in a big stock pot, beginning with cold water, some fresh thyme, parseley and a couple of bay leaves, a few peppercorns, some coarse seasalt or kosher salt (but not too much), a carrot, broken in half, a stock of celery, an onion, a garlic clove if you like, and the tops of any leeks you may have, which I save for the stock I make every week. Once it is boiling, turn it down to a bare simmer and let it go, covered, for about an hour and a half, skimming off the top any impurities which rise to the surface. Meanwhile, get some chicken breasts (3 or 4, ideally about 1 per person) with the skin on and bone in, and roast them in a pan, brushed with a little olive oil and salt and pepper in a 400 degree oven until just slightly underdone. Let cool, take off the skin (my kids fight over it), and shred the chicken into good sized chunks. Scrape the chicken fat and drippings (especially the fond) into a dutch oven and in this saute some finely chopped onions and carrots and celery (a mirepoix, as the French call it, or soffrito, to use the Italian term). When soft, add some fresh thyme and a little sage, finely chopped, and a handful of lightly chopped parseley. Add the strained stock to your dutch oven and simmer very lightly.
Meanwhile, make the dumpling mix. Don't overmix this, and use care just to fold the ingredients lightly until the wet dough comes together. This recipe will feed 4, but I usually double it at my house, as my son is now quite tall and nearly 13, and he is beginning to eat more than his share! Take 1 cup cake flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon coursely ground pepper and whisk together. Add a large egg, lightly beaten and 1/4 cup whole milk. Fold lightly and add in some chopped fresh thyme and chives. I like to add some frozen or fresh green peas to the simmering broth at this point, as well as the shredded chicken, and then drop in the dumplings, a spoonful at a time, to cover the broth. Cover the pan and simmer very lightly for 5-8 minutes, and then uncover it for a few more until the dumplings are floating at the top of the pan and cooked through. Serve with a big green salad for a comfort food dinner your family isn't likely to forget any time soon.
Here's to a weekend of comforts for each of you and for your families. Happy Cooking mes amis! A Bientot!