Thursday, April 2, 2009

Chicken & Dumplings, Spring Greens w/Blood Orange Vinaigrette

We want spring! But the past few days have been rainy, sleety and generally nasty. This calls for serious comfort food. One of my wife's favorite dishes I make is chicken and dumplings. Wednesday night I made it along with a light salad of spring greens, just because we're anxious for spring in any form.

This isn't fast takes several hours to cook. But most of the time you are free to do other things. This makes it great for a Saturday or Sunday when you are working on other projects around the house.

Menu Chicken & Dumplings
Spring Greens Salad w/Blood Orange Vinaigrette

Chicken & Dumplings (serves 4-6)
1 whole chicken, cut into parts (reserve and freeze the back and neck for stock)
1 extra chicken breast, bone-in, skin on
1/4 c. vegetable oil
1/2 c. flour
1 large onion, peeled and diced
3 stalks celery, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely chopped
1 8-oz. can of button mushrooms, finely chopped
4 scallions, trimmed and minced
1/2 c. minced fresh parsley
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
freshly ground black pepper

2 c. flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
2/3 c. milk

I've adapted this recipe from the Saveur Cooks Authentic American cookbook. Saveur is by far my favorite cooking magazine. Their core concept: authentic cuisines from around the world. This recipe is from the filling for Mrs. Garrett's Chicken Pies, wonderfully southern-style and intoxicatingly savory. The dumplings are a simple baking powder biscuit recipe.

Begin by placing the oil and flour in an 8-qt. stockpot over medium heat. Stir continuously to form a chestnut brown roux. Add the onions and cook another 15 minutes until they are golden-colored, stirring frequently. Add the chicken, turn up the heat to medium-high, and brown on all sides. The onions and roux will begin to get very dark - don't worry, this adds to the flavor. Just don't let it burn - keep loosening the onions and roux from the bottom of the pan as you turn the chicken pieces. When well-browned (the fat from the chicken will have begun to render), add about 1 T salt, plus the celery and green pepper, cover with cold water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 1 hour.

Remove pot from heat, and, using kitchen tongs, remove the chicken from the pot to a cutting board and allow to cool. Meanwhile add the scallions, parsley, mushrooms, cayenne pepper and black pepper to the pot and return to the burner over medium-low heat to simmer.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull all meat off the bones, discarding skin and connective tissue. Pull the chicken apart into various-sized pieces and return to the pot. Stir everything together and taste for seasoning. Add more salt or pepper if needed. Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes while mixing the dumplings.

Mix the dumpling batter, starting by beating the eggs in a medium-sized bowl with a whisk. Whisk in the milk. Whisk in the salt and baking powder. Whisk in half of the flour. With a large spoon, mix in the remaining flour, scraping the sides and bottom.

Using a medium-sized spoon (like a soup spoon), scoop the batter in dollops into the hot chicken broth. Begin by dipping the spoon into the broth to prevent the batter from sticking too much to the spoon. The broth must be very hot - near boiling. As you are dropping in the dumplings, spoon a little broth over each dumpling. They'll swell and float above the surface as they cook, but covering each with broth will help them separate after cooking. When all of the batter is used up, cover the pot, make sure the burner is on low, and cook for 20 minutes. Turn off the burner and allow to rest for an additional 10 minutes before serving.

Warm the plates or bowls you'll serve on. Serve with a ladle so the yummy chicken and vegetables, broth and dumplings can all be scooped out.

Spring Greens Salad with Blood-Orange Vinaigrette
(serves 4)
Spring Greens bag salad (or whatever salad greens you prefer)
1/4 of a small red onion, cut into thin slices and separated into ribbons
1/4 c. black walnut halves, lightly toasted in a saute pan over low heat for 10 minutes
2 ripe roma tomatoes (or tomatoes of your choice), cut into small wedges
2 fresh radishes, sliced

1 blood orange
~2 T champagne vinegar or red wine vinegar
~1 tsp sugar
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 small pinch dried oregano, ground finely in the palm of your hand
~1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil (I use Colavita as a high-quality, readily available brand)
freshly ground pepper

Make the vinaigrette. Squeeze the juice of the orange into a small plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. Add the vinegar, sugar, garlic, oregano, pepper and two generous pinches of salt. Stir together until all of the salt and sugar are dissolved. Taste. The sugar should be balanced with the acid in the vinegar (you will likely need more - it all depends on the specific vinegar use, and the sweetness of the orange), and it should also taste aggressively (but not bitterly) salty, as the oil will dilute the flavor. Adjust seasonings and taste again. When you have balance, add the olive oil, cover, and shake vigorously. Taste and adjust as necessary. Any salt or sugar added at this point will not dissolve as easily due to the presence of the oil.

Arrange the greens on cool salad plates, place tomatoes, onions and radishes attractively on and around the greens. Shake the dressing one more time, and then dress each salad with a couple tablespoons of the vinaigrette. Sprinkle 4-5 walnut halves on each salad and serve.

It takes about an hour for the first stage of the chicken dish. It then cooks for an hour. The next stage takes about 1/2 hour, but there's some down time while the chicken is cooling. It takes 10 minutes to mix and drop the dumplings, and 30 minutes for them to cook and rest before serving. I did everything for the salad during that final 30 minutes.

Almost any amount of time can pass between each of the first two stages of the chicken dish. For example, you could prep, brown and cook the chicken on a weekend, pull the meat off the bones and break it up, then put the whole pot in the fridge for a couple days until completing the final stages. Also, the pot can sit, covered, on the stove with the heat off for fairly long spells. E.g., I did the first stage (which concludes with covering the chicken with water and cooking for an hour), shut off the burner after 45 minutes (instead of the full hour), and left the house for 2 hours to run errands before returning to pull the meat off the bones and finish the cooking.

There are a couple interesting things going on in this dish. First, nearly all of the really rich savoriness of the chicken dish comes from maillard reactions, the browning of sugars and starches combining with amino acids in proteins. This starts with the browning of flour in the roux, then the further browning of the onions, then the browning of the chicken. Maillard reactions only occur at temperatures well-above the boiling point of water. For that reason, fat is required, and the presence of too much water-based liquid will prevent them. This is why onions don't brown right away - some of their moisture has to cook off. Executing maillard reactions properly requires patience. If you use heat that's too high, you'll burn some of the food while other parts have not yet browned. If you add liquid prematurely, you stop all maillard reactions. Similarly, don't cover pans in which you are browning meats - the steam being released from the ingredients will condense back into the pan and slow the process.

A second key technique is the formation of an emulsion when making the vinaigrette. Using a shaker is not the textbook way to make a vinaigrette, but it works. The key is sudden and very vigorous shaking. An emulsion is the suspension of tiny drops of one liquid inside of another liquid. In this case, the oil is pulverised into droplets surrounded by the orange-vinegar mixture - this requires a little violence!

Stable emulsions are greatly facilitated by the presence of emulsifiers, chemicals which help stabilize emulsions at the molecular level. There are trace amounts of natural emulsifiers in most vegetables and fruits, so the minced garlic and blood-orange juice actually assist the process. The greatest natural emulsifier in your kitchen is egg yolk. For this reason, adding a bit of mayonnaise to a vinaigrette will greatly stabilize it, but also make it milky in color.

The book that most improved my cooking (and is one of the 10 books I'd keep if I could only keep 10) is Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. This 600+ page tome explains in great detail what's happening chemically during cooking, and elucidates many basic concepts of cooking technique, including emulsions and maillard reactions. It's not for everyone, but if you're seriously into the technical fundamentals of cookery, and have a penchant for a little science, it's fascinating and will greatly improve your consistency in the kitchen - because you'll know what you're doing, and why it works (or doesn't).


  1. Chuck,

    Great post...mailliard reactions rule!

    For a completely different take on Chicken and Dumplings, I use a recipe out of Edna Lewis' and Scott Peacock's book "The Gift of Southern Cooking" (recipe: It has no maillard reaction goodness in it all, rather it gets its flavor almost entirely from home-made chicken broth, which I concentrate down a bit to give it a thicker, more flavorful texture.

    It's kind of on the opposite end of the chicken and dumplings end being your browned chicken, brown roux approach, the other being all about white food. The "dumplings" in the Lewis/Peacock version are more like sheets of simple pasta, and it also features an unusual ingredient in hard-boiled eggs, as well as being finished with cream.

    Two chicken and dumpling recipes, and that spectrum is simply a rainbow of goodness between them!

  2. Thanks for sharing this recipe - it looks delicious (and visually beautiful), and, as you say, a spiritual opposite of the one I published. In an upcoming post, I'll be talking about broths and stocks...there are equally varied camps on that topic as well. Thank you for commenting!