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Let’s Cook Some Chicken And Dumplings

A bowl of chicken and dumplings
Photo by Albert Burneko/Illustration by Chris Thompson

My brain is bad; I have the attention span and organizational acumen of an infant; I'm bad at planning things. This makes me a mess in a imminent-snowstorm type of situation. I can make the responsible trip to the store the day before, spend an hour wandering the aisles, spend $200 on an entire huge grocery cart of stuff, and then still somehow have failed to prepare myself for making any type of coherent planned dinner at any point within the ensuing 72 hours.

Here is an example of that not directly related to food. I live in the woods; the driveway is long; it's not the sort of thing you can manage without a snowblower, or even with a snowblower of normal proportions. I have a very absurdly large one. It did us no good in this winter's first snowstorm, however, because I'd forgotten to use up all the fuel in its tank the last time I deployed it, two fucking years prior, and all that gasoline had turned into sludge and clogged the carburetor in the interim. We had to dig our way out—we had to have family over to help us dig our way out!—with shovels, over the course of nearly all the sunlit hours of a whole friggin' day, because of this. Then I had to spend a bunch of money getting the snowblower repaired.

We had another snowstorm this past week. This time I was ready. The snowblower kicked insane amounts of snow ass over that first pass down the upper part of the very sloped driveway, man. I felt like the Lord of Winter! Right up until it inhaled a hard chunk of wood hidden under the snow, snapped the shear pin connecting the augur to the drive shaft, and turned into, for all intents and purposes, a large self-propelled brick, with approximately 94 percent of the driveway uncleared. Did I have any spare shear pins left, from the half-dozen or so that came packaged with the snowblower when I bought it? Reader, I did not. Had I even remembered that there was such a thing as a "shear pin" until the moment that one broke? Reader, I had not.

Reading back over this, I understand that I had it planned—"planned"—as an endorsement of chicken and dumplings as the sort of thing you cook when you're snowbound: Very probably you have most or all of its ingredients in the normal kitchen, none of which are expensive or hard to find, and it's easy to make, and it's hearty and delicious at the end. God knows how I detoured into an examination of my disgraceful brain and related snow-removal failures. I can't remember the person I was when I started typing this blog. In any event, I made chicken and dumplings this week. It was good! I recommend that you also make chicken and dumplings. Let's discuss how you'd do that, if you wanted to do it the way that I did it.

Here are some things you will need.

Clearly you will need some chicken. Like many stewy foods of its ilk—like many of the very most delicious comfort foods, for that matter!—chicken and dumplings resulted from the effort, on the part of people of limited means, to turn a small amount of fat- and protein-rich stuff (chicken) into a large amount of fortifying sustenance. You don't need a ton of chicken here, is what I'm saying—the idea is that it will be padded out by the dumplings and the rich, slightly thickened broth—and it might be slightly contrary to the whole enterprise if you used a lot of the stuff. The meat you could pluck off a small (three-pound, say) whole chicken ought to be able to make enough chicken and dumplings to absolutely stuff six or eight or even 10 people. If you want to cut up a whole chicken and use its parts for this, that will be great.

On the other hand, when I made chicken and dumplings the other day, it was because I looked in my refrigerator, bearing in mind that I had no option but to produce dinner out of whatever I found there, and found one of those two-pound Family Packs (or whatever they're called) of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. I pretty much always have one of these in my refrigerator, because the thigh is the superior chicken part and it's just very easy to turn a couple pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thigh into, like, soft-taco filling or green chili or, well, chicken and dumplings. If you're going grocery shopping for this operation, a couple pounds of chicken thighs are my recommendation, and we'll proceed as though that's what you're using.

The very most traditional way of making chicken and dumplings would have you simmer or braise the chicken in water and use the resulting liquid as your broth. That's fine! If what you have is water, use water, and your chicken and dumplings will be hearty and satisfying. However, I recommend that you use a couple quarts of chicken stock for your simmering liquid, if you can, for the simple reason that this will make the resulting broth taste all the more densely of chicken and aromatics and all the other good things that go into chicken stock. Homemade chicken stock is great; store-bought is fine, too. Go easy on yourself!

You will need a big yellow onion, which you should go ahead and dice. I am going to recommend that you peel some big carrots and cut them into large hunks, because I like big hunks of carrot in my chicken and dumplings, but you can leave these out if you want. (If you are particularly into the idea of making your chicken and dumplings a balanced one-pot meal, you could also plan on putting some celery or other greenery into it, or potatoes or whatever, but you will have to figure out that part for your dang self.)

You will need some herbs. When I imagine a hypothetical reader of these blogs, I imagine that reader having a moment where they go, "What is this guy's deal with thyme, is he taking money from The Thyme Council or what." The thing is, it's winter, and thyme is just an extremely good pairing with the kinds of foods—stews, soups, braises, etc.—that help make winter bearable. I promise I am not taking money from The Thyme Council. In fact I doubt that there even is a Thyme Council. Anyway I recommend that you plan on using a nice thick handful of thyme sprigs in your chicken and dumplings. A bay leaf or two would be nice as well. Another wintery herb that could work here would be a small amount of rosemary. Parsley probably would be delicious. On the other hand I regard parsley as a spring and summer herb, so using it in February would only make me sad. Whichever herbs you're using, tie them together into a bouquet with some twine.

You'll need black pepper and of course salt, and maybe a tablespoon of some kind of sturdy cooking oil. You will need a small amount of flour, maybe a quarter cup or so. This is all before we get to the dumplings.

OK, so, let's talk about the dumplings. In my kitchen there is way too much flour. There is always enough for me to decide to make something with dumplings in it. If you have a bag of flour and you want to make your dumplings from scratch, great. In fact this blog will proceed as though that's your plan: Making the dumplings from scratch gives you some freedom to decide, for example, that you want to put some more of those herbs in the dough, or that you want to use some other type of flour rather than the all-purpose variety. It will give you the freedom to discover and hone your dumpling preferences. I am a fan of that kind of flexibility.

In that case, you will need a couple of cups of flour, plus two teaspoons of baking powder, plus a cup or so of some fatty milk, plus, oh, let's say two tablespoons of melted butter. Salted butter is fine, and maybe even preferable. Typically anything involving flour and baking powder demands exact measurements, but these are just balls of rough dough that you're going to drop into broth; the whole idea is that this is not the sort of food preparation requiring a lot of fussiness.

On the other hand, maybe you do not want to have to deal with that minimal amount of fussiness; maybe the idea of working with flour and baking powder makes you want to scream. Buddy, I sympathize! In that case it is also 100-percent completely fine for you to just buy a frickin' cardboard tube of pre-made biscuit dough at the supermarket. When the time comes you'll rip this into, like, heaping tablespoon-sized wads with your bare hands and drop the wads into the pot of chicken and liquid and it'll be great. Different from the homemade kind, but spectacularly delicious. I suppose I do not have to tell you that if you are going this route, you can skip the parts about making biscuits below.

Are you ready to cook this (figurative) shit? I am! Let's cook it.

Heat up a big ol' stockpot or Dutch oven on the stovetop. While that's happening, pat the chicken pieces dry with a paper towel and salt them generously on however many sides they have; if you're using boneless, skinless thighs like I freaking told you to and therefore am assuming for the purposes of this blog, they have two sides. Please salt both of them.

Pot hot? Pot probably hot. Pour your tablespoon or so of cooking oil in there, and brown your chicken in it. Work in batches small enough to give each piece of chicken space from the others, so that you can achieve meaningful browning in less time than it would take to walk across North America. That means a solid three minutes of uninterrupted browning time per side, over medium-high or high heat. As the batches of thighs [stares daggers] come out of there, set them aside on a plate.

Once the chicken's all browned, you should have a decent-sized pool of liquefied chicken fat and stuck-on browned bits down there at the bottom of your still very hot pot. Chuck your onion in there, salt it, and move it around with your trusted cooking implement (wooden spoon, silicone spatula, men's size-11 Birkenstock sandal) to get it all coated with fat and sizzling. Lower the heat to medium. You should be able to scrape up all the browned stuff off the bottom of the pot as it cools from being hit with the room-temperature onion; do it. The onion is going to sauté in there for a good 10 or 15 minutes, with the occasional stir to keep any of it from burning. You're not looking for caramelization, but you do want these onions fully translucent and softened.

In the meantime, make dumplings: Whisk the flour and baking powder together in a bowl, dump in the melted butter and the milk and a pinch of salt, and fold and turn this stuff with a rubber spatula until the dry stuff is fully moistened and there aren't any big pockets of powder in there. You don't need or want a stretchy, extremely kneaded, glutinous pizza dough, here, but it's also not super important for you to avoid any and all working of the dough, either, like if you were baking banana bread. If it seems too dry—if it's just crumbly wads of flour, rather than something you feel fits the descriptor "sticky dough," you can add another splash of milk, then fold and turn some more until it seems more like dough. There.

(If you are the sort of deeply insane person who can pluck the tiny leaves off thyme sprigs and chopping them even more tinily without going absolutely fucking insane—I mostly am not—your dumplings would not be mad at you if you folded some of those minced thyme leaves into the dough. You can also absolutely not do that.)

Now, pinch off, oh, heaping tablespoon-sized wads of dough, one by one, and drop them onto a sheet of parchment paper or wax paper, and set them aside. There. Dumplings.

How are those onions looking? Probably pretty cooked by now! I hope you remembered to give them a toss every few minutes or so. In any event, drop that quarter-cup of flour into the pot and toss everything around with your implement, so that the flour can absorb the cooking fat and become a roux. If you lower your face down over the pot and give it some sniffs over the next, oh, 30 seconds or so, you should be able to detect the smell changing from a raw, floury one to something deeper and toastier and more cooked-smelling. You may also notice that you are moaning, quite involuntarily. It's quite disturbing. Please stop.

You'll probably want a whisk for the next part. Add the stock to your pot, like so: Pour maybe a quarter of it in there, and stir it with your whisk while it mingles with the roux and is thickened by it. (Be sure you're scraping the bottom of the pot as you do, so that no flour sticks down there and burns instead of enriching your broth.) Within a couple of minutes this stock should be hot, if not boiling. Now add another quarter of the stock, and stir and stir and stir while it heats back up. Now the third quarter of the stock. Now the last of it. Taste the broth, and season it with salt and pepper as you see fit.

Next, return the chicken to the pot. But it's still in big thigh-sized pieces, you are fretting, fretfully. It's fine! This stuff is going to braise for 90 minutes; after that, the chicken will come apart just from gently stirring it. Bring the liquid up juuust to a low boil, lower the heat as low as it'll go so it settles into a gentle simmer, clamp on a lid, and set a timer for 45 minutes. Go do something!

Eventually that timer will have gone off. Did you make fruitful use of your free time? Of course you did not. Oh well, now it's gone, sluiced into the past like your youth and good looks. Take the lid off your pot of simmering chicken, give it a few gentle stirs—it probably isn't ready to come apart yet, and that's fine—and drop your carrot hunks and bouquet of herbs down in there. The herbs may wish to float; submerge them with your implement. If there's a long tail of twine hanging off the bouquet, you can tie it to the handle of your pot to make it easier to retrieve later. Bump up the heat (the carrots cooled it down), bring the liquid back to a simmer, lower the heat to keep it there, clamp that lid back on, and set another timer for 20 minutes.

When that timer goes off, it's time to drop the dumplings in there. Plunk 'em right the heck in that sucker! Push them down into the broth with your implement. They'll bob back up, but that's fine: You just wanted to get them fully acquainted with the cooking liquid. Now put that lid back on there yet again, set yet another 20-minute timer, and go set the table.

At the end of this you can certainly test the dumplings with, like, a toothpick if you like, but they're done. Extract the bouquet of herbs and chuck it. Ladle the food into bowls, and serve.

It will become apparent to you upon your first bite that the dumplings are the stars here: rich and hearty, slightly sodden with broth, preposterously satisfying. I suppose I should tell you that, if there's still any broth left in the pot, you can just whip up some more dumpling dough and drop more dumplings into it and have more dumplings. You may feel some obligation, as a health-conscious adult, to pretend to prefer this meal's more nutritious components; I urge you to shirk it. More dumplings!

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