Seasonal Cooking 06 Feb 2007 10:50 pm
Home by myself on a Sunday with my death of cold. Coughing, snuffling, feeling very sorry for myself, I could think of only one thing: chicken stew. Peppery, floury, spiked with herbs and topped with – yes – dumplings. How does such a creation come about? I consulted a stack of my most reliable cookbooks for an old fashioned recipe. I combed Google and Epicurious and found many variations on the theme, but none matched the food in my mind: no tomato, no cilantro, no garbanzos in this stew, just silky, buttery white gravy and puffy dumplings.
Finally, that most reliable of old friends, the Joy of Cooking (’97 edition if you want to know) came through for me with the strange word: “fricassee.” Joy doesn’t explain much about this word, but the sparse description was enough: “chicken braised in liquid that becomes a flavorful sauce or gravy, which can be thickened with flour.” I was already convinced, but then my eye moved down the page to the next recipe, a brief extension of the fricassee, and I knew I’d found what I was looking for: chicken and dumplings.
The dish starts with heresy to the diet-conscious: browning the salted and peppered chicken pieces in butter. I did it in two batches, in a cast-iron Dutch oven, until they’d all gotten a golden tan on their skins and the fat in the pan smelled like love. Into the love went chopped onion, carrot and celery, and after this had sautéed, some sliced mushrooms. This was all coated with some all-purpose flour, (in my only variation from the recipe, I sautéed all the veggies before adding the flour), and topped with hot water and stock, salt and lots of pepper (on the advice of the proprietor of Two for the Pot, I used Malabar black pepper, which he claimed is best for soups and stews). The chicken pieces went back into the liquid, the cover went on, and the glorious dish was left to simmer for half an hour.
The dumplings were simply butter cut into a mixture of corn meal, flour, baking powder and salt (which I embellished with chopped parseley), moistened with milk and egg. They were spooned into the fricassee liquid (after its half-hour simmer was done and the surface was de-greased) and left to steam with the lid on for another 20 minutes. They puffed up like pillows.
It would be hard to hyperbolize about this dish, but the way the chicken fell from the bones into the floury gravy was a happy site to see. Yes, it was full of butter and starched with white flour, but I defy anyone to tell me something this delicious can really be bad for me. In this age of hydrogenated, processed plasti-food, this seemed pretty damn healthy to me. In fact when I make it next time I’ll look into making the dumplings with lard.