"Someday" James said quietly. " Can we have chicken and dumplings? With corn and sauce and not those big dumplings . . . "
Now I usually have some carrot or celery in my sauce but I've never seen corn in chicken and dumplings. And I always make fluffy herb scented "big" dumplings. But still, James rarely makes requests -- and honestly I thought he didn't even like chicken and dumplings (and those old Southern standards are some of my favorite things to cook) so I figured I'd give it a try.
Like many traditional foods, there is no one recipe for Chicken and dumplings. Some are chock full of tasty vegetables, some (the way I used to make it) leave meat on the bone, some use a milk-based gravy. But the most controversial element is the dumplings themselves. Some, like me, use fluffy drop biscuit style dumplings that steam over the savory stew and some -- apparently like James' grandmother -- use flat rolled dough, like thick squares of pasta.
I started the way I usually do by making a quick stock. I covered 1 whole chicken, 2 carrots, 2 stalks of celery, 2 bay leaves, 1 onion (cut in half), 1 bulb garlic (cut in half but not peeled), fresh thyme and fresh parsley with water. I brought the pot up to a boil and let it simmer for about an hour. I drained the stock and while the chicken cooled I started on the sauce.
After a couple TB of butter and a splash of oil heated together in a dutch over I added in about 1 cup each (maybe 3/4 cup) diced carrots and celery, minced garlic (4 cloves), a bay leaf, and some dried thyme. I seasoned the vegetables with salt and pepper and let them cook until softened, about 5 minutes, then added not quite 1/4 cup of flour to start making a roux. Once the floury taste had cooked out -- about 2 minutes, I slowly added the drained chicken stock (about 8 cups total), added both frozen peas and frozen corn (somehow I just couldn't do the corn alone) and let the sauce simmer for about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile I started to tackle the dumplings. I had never made these rolled flat style dumplings before. But I was not going to be bested by flour and milk so I turned to every cooks best friend -- the internet and started to read how other people make them. Most of the recipes I found imitated Cracker Barrel's recipe and used a hefty amount of crisco. Now I suppose vegetable shortening has been around so long some cooks even consider it a traditional ingredient but I don't like it. I'd rather spend my fats with real butter and lard and bacon grease instead of chemical stabilizers. So for my dumpling recipe I fork mixed 1/3 cup of bacon grease (yes I save it in the fridge) into 2 cups of flour, 1/2 tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt and plenty of black pepper. While the bacon grease was still in big pieces -- like making pie dough -- I poured in 1 cup of buttermilk and mixed the ingredients together into a loose dough. I turned the dough out on a well floured board and kneaded it just a few times to bring it together to a smooth ball. I rolled out half the ball of dough to 1/4 inch thickness (on a well floured board) and cut the dumplings into smooth squares and rectangles with a pizza cutter. I'm sure that's not the way James' grandmother did it. None the less I let the dumplings rest sprinkled with flour and let the other half of the dough rest until I was ready to roll more.
Back to the pot. When the sauce had thickened to my liking (just barely coating the back of a spoon but not too thick as the dumpling flour would add body to the sauce) I stirred in a 1/2 cup or so of whole milk for a creamy texture, checked the seasoning and brought the liquid to a gentle boil. In went the first batch of dumplings. I covered the pot and let it simmer over very low heat for 10 minutes. These first dumplings -- from what I read -- thicken the sauce. I rolled out the rest of the dough and turned back to the now cooled cooked chicken -- remember the stock we started with -- and pulled meat off the bones in large pieces to add to the bubbling sauce.
After the first batch of dumplings had cooked for 10 minutes I added in the second batch and some chopped parsley along with the chicken, covered the pot and let it simmer for 10 minutes more. Then uncovered I let the stew simmer with very little stirring to not break up the dumplings for about 5 minutes more until the dough was cooked through.
Sprinkling chopped parsley over bowls of creamy stew I wondered if my maiden effort would live up to James' expectations. The rosy memory of a childhood taste.
James didn't say much as he ate, but "Mmmm so good." When he asked for seconds I silently declared that a victory and figured we might just have a new traditional dish for our little family.