Dumplings shape shift according to culture and recipe — from the tiny striped barrel shape of Italian gnocchi to the large roundness of Chinese bao, with pot loads of stuffed and unstuffed variations in between. Southern-style chicken and dumplings tend to be either flat, pastalike strips or roundish doughy blobs dropped in boiling stock.
Home cook Amy Martin’s dumplings begin flat, evolving into something culinarily beyond pasta with a soft, delectable bite delicately flavored with sage. I recently tasted this transformation as Martin guided me through a recipe that has been in her family for four generations.
Martin spent her youth surrounded by grandparents and great-grandparents in Calhoun, Arkansas — where the bird for the pot came from one of several chicken houses her grandfather operated as a farmer for Tyson’s Foods. Martin recalled when her great-grandmother Frankie Gunnels Young made chicken and dumplings, “She would kill the chicken herself and boil it whole then pick all the meat off the bones.”
Living in Lafayette, Martin is no longer surrounded by chicken houses, but she keeps her great-grandmother’s handwritten recipe card on file, using chicken thighs and premade stock in lieu of boiling a chicken. If she wants to cut down on prep time or heat in the kitchen, she will use a store-cooked rotisserie chicken.
Having honed the family recipe for 28 years, Martin’s movements in the kitchen were effortless — a graceful dance of massaging spices into chicken, rolling dough, stirring stock — interspersed with hand-washing and sliding bites my way.
While the stock simmered, Martin, an avid baker, served a brownie. I nibbled on its rich chocolateness as if it were an amuse-bouche, putting aside the rest for dessert as I was handed a sampling of the simmering dumplings.
With that first taste, the dumpling reminded me of an egg noodle enveloped with the simple flavors of the stock. Several steps into the recipe, with a cornbread baking in her grandmother’s well-seasoned cast iron skillet, Martin handed me another taste — this was when the “Wow!” occurred. The dumpling had plumped up ever so slightly with the goodness of the stock, creating a deliciously tender, flavorful bite — not pastalike anymore.
“In Calhoun, we’d serve this with cornbread, butter beans, sliced tomatoes and green onions,” Martin said. “We had a big garden growing up. We’d pull fresh green onions, slice the roots off, give them a rinse and eat them fresh.”
As I made a mental note to replant my sad, little green onion patch at home, Martin served a wide bowl of chicken and dumplings and a hot slab of cornbread stuffed with a pat of melting butter. The unassuming cornbread had a surprising crunch to its exterior — owing to Martin dusting the greased preheated skillet with cornmeal before adding the batter — a nice juxtaposition to the tender chicken and dumplings which filled my belly and comforted my soul.
Back home, I cooked up a pot of Martin’s chicken and dumplings for my family, recalling how easy she made it look as I wondered how she achieved such uniformity in her strips of dough.
“Practice and luck,” she said.
With luck and a solid, time-tested recipe as my guide, my family loved it.
Chicken and dumplings
6-8 servings; Recipe is by Amy Martin
FOR THE CHICKEN:
8-10 Boneless skinless chicken thighs
Salt and black pepper to taste
Rubbed sage to taste — optional
Olive or vegetable oil — enough to lightly coat chicken thighs
FOR THE DUMPLINGS:
1½ cup all-purpose flour plus extra for rolling out dough
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
½ teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons water
FOR THE STOCK:
2 32-ounce cartons chicken stock (substitute with homemade stock if you have it)
10.5-ounce can cream of chicken soup
¾ cup milk
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour or more if necessary to thicken stock
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Place uncooked chicken thighs in a cast iron skillet (large enough to fit all thighs in a single layer).
3. Sprinkle thighs with salt, pepper, and rubbed sage.
4. Drizzle oil over thighs and massage chicken to evenly distribute seasonings and oil.
5. Arrange the thighs in a single layer in the skillet then bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes — until the thickest part of thigh registers 165 degrees on a meat thermometer.
6. When the thighs are done, use a fork to pull them apart and let them rest. Skim off excess fat.
7. While the chicken is baking make the dumpling dough. Mix 1½ cup flour, egg, shortening, salt and water together to form a soft dough. Use your hands to form the dough into a ball.
8. Divide dough into three parts.
9. On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into three thin sheets, each approximately ⅛-inch thick.
10. Let sheets of dough dry for about 20 minutes.
11. While dough is resting, pour chicken stock into a stock pot and bring to a boil.
12. Once stock reaches a boil, season to taste with salt, pepper, and rubbed sage.
13. While the stock is simmering, cut the dumpling dough into thin strips (approximately half an inch by 2 inches) with a knife or pizza cutter.
14. Carefully drop the dumpling strips one at a time into the boiling stock. The dumplings will sink to the bottom then float to the top as they cook. Continue dropping the dough into the stock one by one until all the dough is in the pot. Cook dumplings until tender when cut.
15. Reduce the heat to medium low. Stir occasionally so the dumplings do not stick together.
16. Place chicken thighs in the stock with the dumplings, reserving the pan juices in the skillet.
17. Add cream of chicken soup and milk to the skillet with the pan juices.
18. Whisk to combine, making sure to incorporate any bits left over from cooking the thighs.
19. Pour the cream of chicken soup and milk mixture into the stock pot with the dumplings and chicken.
20. Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes stirring occasionally so dumplings do not stick.
21. If a thicker stock is desired, create a slurry in a small bowl by mixing one tablespoon all-purpose flour with approximately three tablespoons stock taken from the simmering pot. Return slurry to simmering stock and incorporate thoroughly. Allow to simmer several more minutes.
22. Serve in a bowl or a deep plate with cornbread. Recommended sides: sliced tomatoes, whole fresh green onions and butterbeans.