Friday, January 6, 2012

Weekend Cooking - Chicken & Dumplings

Weekend Cooking is hosted by Candace at Beth Fish Reads 

My great-grandmother Grand Liddie was known for her chicken & dumplings.  I vividly remember a bubbling pot on top of the stove and the smell throughout the house of the chicken and broth that cooked for hours.  I also remember her in her apron standing over a table with flour spread on the surface, flattening out the homemade dumplings, cutting them and dropping them  into the boiling broth.  Any time we went anywhere, Grand Liddie took chicken & dumplings; she was expected to.

To my knowledge Grand Liddie never wrote her recipe down; she just made it.  When she died, her recipe died with her.  Because Grand Liddie's chicken & dumplings are the ones I first tasted and ate all through my childhood, they are what I think chicken & dumplings are supposed to taste like.  Imagine my horror to find out through the years that everyone doesn't make their chicken & dumplings like Grand Liddie.  Biscuit dumplings?  Dropped dumplings?  veggies added?  Even cream of chicken soup??  WHAT?

The chicken & dumplings served at Cracker Barrel are probably the closest to my Grand Liddie's (except their dumplings are too mushy sometimes...and from time to time the broth suspiciously tastes like it was made from a boullion cube)  Simple, chicken, flour dumplings, broth, seasoned with salt and pepper.  How hard could that be?

Every time I see a new recipe for chicken & dumplings, I read it and think it through...if it has any of the above alternate ingredients, I just turn the page.  I had begun to think maybe I remembered the experience of watching and eating chicken & dumplings wrong...why were there so many recipes/variations of what I remembered so simply?

Then, something happened.
I've been reading Kitchen Counter Cooking School over the last couple of days, and I can't put it down.  Each chapter gets me more and more excited about returning to the foundations of you know that I don't even know how to cut up a chicken??  Do you also know that only in the last couple of years since I've been growing my own tomatoes have I realized how simple it is to make a tomato sauce from tomatoes instead of a jar??

After reading the chapter on chicken, I thought to myself...maybe Grand Liddie's chicken & dumplings IS as easy as I remember it...easy in the sense of traditional, back to basics, foundational cooking.

So, I went to my fridge, found some chicken breasts and decided I was gonna give it a try.  (I still don't know how to cut up a chicken...I'll save that lesson for another day.)
I put 6-7 breasts in a pot of water...the water just covering the top of the breasts, brought the water to a boil and then turned it down to a simmer and placed a clear lid over the top of the pot.  I left the pot on the stove for a couple of hours so the breasts would get tender and the broth would have time to make.  I wasn't really sure how great the broth would be with just chicken breasts, but I was determined to give it a shot.    I also added some salt and pepper for flavor; taste, taste, taste is another lesson I'm learning from The Kitchen Counter Cooking School.
I checked on the breasts frequently through the clear lid and was encouraged by the yellowy tint the broth began to make.
I'm sure I let my broth/chicken cook longer than necessary, but I wanted those breasts to be tender.  I removed them from the pot when I could easily chop them up with a spatula and of course after a taste test.
I tasted the broth, seasoned as I felt needed, and then returned the pot of broth to a boil.

I decided that homemade dumplings would be a lesson for another day as well, so one by one, I dropped Mary B's Open Kettle dumplings (3 ingredients, flour, water and palm oil) into the boiling broth, making sure to stir around and space out the dumplings so they wouldn't stick together.  Once I had as many dumplings as I wanted, I again, turned down the heat, covered the pot and cooked for 30 minutes.
When the timer went off, I examined the dumplings and tasted (yet again) a small snippet from one to see if the consistency was close.  It was...I was looking for "close" consistency because I'm also learning from Kitchen Counter Cooking School that if you wait for the pasta to be completely done, it will be overcooked by the time you add the rest of the ingredients and it simmers even more or simply continues to cook from its own heat.

I shredded the chicken breasts with my hands, adjusted the heat for a slow simmer, covered the pot again and set the timer for 15 minutes.

When the timer went off, I was nervous.  I'm learning from Kitchen Counter Cooking School that cooking takes practice, trial and error, knowing your own tastes and thick skin sometimes when things don't turn out exactly as you imagine they will.  More importantly, cooking is more than following a recipe exactly as it is written; cooking is about making a recipe your own.  Just because I don't like all those other chicken & dumpling recipes doesn't mean they're wrong and my Grand Liddie was right (even though I think she was ;).

I took the lid off, and my chicken and dumplings actually smelled like chicken and dumplings.
Holy Smokes.
I ladled up a bowl for the youngest and the firstborn (they were the only ones home at the time) and waited for their reactions.  The firstborn gave me a thumbs up almost immediately, so I decided to fix myself a bowl as well.

If you think I'm silly for gushing so much about chicken and dumplings already, you're going to really think I'm a goober when I tell you that with that first spoonful, I've never been so proud of myself.  Albeit, my chicken and dumplings are not Grand Liddie style yet, but they were pretty dang close.
The broth tasted like chicken, real chicken, was seasoned to perfection (salt and pepper), the chicken was tender enough, and the dumplings were a perfect (to me) softness but not at all mushy...they still had pull to them and didn't become globs of mush.

The youngest ate 2 bowls.
2 bowls!!!!!!

One of the best parts of this experience is that for the last two days I've thought intensely about my Grand Liddie..about her small home where we welcomed, warmed and fed.  The smells, the sights, the sounds have been in my brain and have made me feel at home.  The kind of home where family matters, the cook is as happy as those eating his/her food, and unconditional love is felt deeply.

Yes, I'm a goober...I don't even care.

**My full review of Kitchen Counter Cooking School should be up in a couple of days...I'm still savoring...literally and figuratively :)
I did receive my copy of Kitchen Counter Cooking School from the publisher free of charge through Net Galley at my request.  All opinions are my own.
***I don't know the people at Mary B's and they don't know me...I wanted the simplest version of dumplings with no additives, and this is the brand I chose.


  1. I'm SO GLAD this worked out for you!!! My grandmother made perfect-to-me chicken and dumplings, too, so I know what you mean about being relieved to be on the road to figuring that recipe out.

    You're also really making me want to move Kitchen Counter Cooking School up on my wishlist. I've been debating, but you've won me over with this review.

    Thanks for sharing this, Patti!

  2. This post is perfectly timed for me--seriously! I was JUST thinking about facebook-ing a family member to get my great aunt Meme's chicken and dumplings recipe. Hers, too, was simple. Isn't that funny how timing works?

    Anyway, Kitchen Counter Cooking School is up next on my TBR, and your post makes me so excited to read it! Looking forward to your full review!

  3. Wonderful post Patti :)

    I have very strong food memories associated with my maternal grandmother as well. It's what drives me to make her immensely labor-intensive Christmas cookies every year...though she's been gone a long time, she's with me in the kitchen when I make them.

    I think it's great, and not at all "gooberish" that you were proud of yourself for pulling this off :) If I weren't a vegetarian, I'd invite myself for dinner to taste the chicken and dumplings, lol.

  4. Ah, looks delicious. I'm not very brave in the kitchen. I need recipes with measurements and times. Sounds like I might get a lot out of the Kitchen Counter Cooking School.

  5. Andi, move it's worth it :)

    JP, I read constantly yesterday until my eyes hurt :) I don't want it to end. I have an e-copy from Net Galley but I will have to buy should see how much highlighting and notes I've made. It's that good :)

    BookGirl, I think we forget sometimes how personal and even intimate food can's really an intriguing idea...our ideas of good food come from deep inside of us and become very much a part of who we are... :)

    Carol, you would really like the part of the book that covers taste...and how all traditional dishes really all start with similar ingredients...and certain spices really stay the same based on what kind of meal you're preparing...the book has really un-complicated food for that I can be brave enough to play with flavors in the kitchen :)

  6. Simple is often the best, right?

    I don't know all my cooking basics either, the books you recommend in this post sounds very good. I am OK at tasting as I go and I'm getting better at adapting recipes to make them fit me, but I've still got a long way to go. Congrats on making a meal that everyone loved :)

  7. I just finished reading The Kitchen Counter Cooking School last week and I loved it too. I had the same feelings you did, I have been trying to make more things from scratch and I have been loving the results. So glad to hear your chicken and dumplings came out so well!

  8. Oh I love making chicken and dumplings! And save yourself the hassle and just get a chicken that is already cut up at the grocery store. I really enjoy making broth too. It is an event. Now you have me hungry and it isn't even 7am!!

  9. Yay you! I love that you were able to recreate a childhood favorite and share it with your kids.

    I think I should re-assess my reaction to KCCS -- I thought it was pretty lame. But when I read this post, I see how helpful and inspiring the book can be.

  10. I have never made chicken and dumplings before, but that picture and your description of how wonderful they sound really inspire me! I have also been hearing wonderful things about this book, and need to add it to my list. It sounds so supremely helpful and I can imagine that I would learn a lot from it. Great post today!

  11. Sam, I ALWAYS forget to taste...I forgot to salt my pasta water just last night :(

    Anne, you should have seen me in the grocery store reading all the ingredients lists on the pasta packages...pasta should be at most 4 ingredients and most of them have about 26...many of which I couldn't pronounce. I settled on Ronco whole wheat and it's was pretty dang good :)

    Sandy, I probably will stick to the cut up version...chicken freaks me out anyway :(

    Candace, I can see where someone who already cooks this way would not find anything new in KCCS. I WANT to cook better but many times find myself falling into the old processed fast food rut...I really think that person is the person that will enjoy this book the most.

  12. Lovely tribute to Grand Liddie!

    Cutting up a chicken isn't too difficult. I learned using You Tube videos at the point that I became committed to buying local, small farm chickens. It took 5 chickens and about a month for me to feel proficient. Most of that time was spent learning to debone chicken breasts which is how we mostly eat them.

  13. I really really want to read this book! But besides that I love the idea of simple chicken and dumplings. The only recipe I've attempted is Rachael Ray's but she seems to really overcomplicate her cooking with too many ingredients!

    My very first experience with Chicken and Dumplings was when I was about 9. We were driving from Texas to Florida and we stopped at Cracker Barrel in Alabama for dinner. My mom made us three little girls get Chicken and Dumplings so we could experience the south. Bahhaha!! I hated it then but like it now. ;)

  14. I loved the story you shared in this post. It felt like I was sitting at your table and you were chatting about your grandmother's cooking. It even made my mouth water.

  15. Caite@ a lovely shore breezeJanuary 7, 2012 at 5:01 PM

    I use the Cooks Illustrated recipe and it is my favorite.

    but then I have never made one I really did not like....

  16. What a great story! I love sentimental cooking :) I started cooking so I could recreate my grandma's cooking for my kids, then I fell in love with it, cookbooks and all! Your chicken and dumplings sounds so good. Comfort food for sure!

  17. That makes total sense. It's awesome to see your success -- and to see how cooking is so much fun and so satisfying.

  18. I don't think I've ever had chicken and dumplings. My grandma was more into fried chicken. It looks like the best kind of comfort food, though! And good for you for being so determined.