The Tao of Slippery Dumplings
It’s rare to meet a native Delawarean who doesn’t appreciate a good plate of chicken and dumplings. Oh, they might not admit it at first, but probe a bit and even the most sophisticated of ‘em will lick their lips just thinking about them. Slick, slippery, or puffy, it doesn’t matter. Delawareans love dem dumplings.
Personally, I’ve never understood the gastronomic appeal of bland squares of eggless pasta (which is what they are) swimming in yellow gelatinous gravy with pieces of white chicken, peas, and carrot cubes. I’ve crisscrossed Sussex County in my pursuit of the best. Just like you can’t be a real Russian without loving vodka, so it seems to me I can’t become a genuine Delawarean until I develop a taste for chicken and dumplings.
To find the way, I turned to my official downstate mentor and arranged a private cooking lesson. If anyone could help me come to appreciate chicken and dumplings it was he.
While there are many types of dumplings in the world, downstate cooks prefer flat ones, which are called “slippery dumplings” because the flat surface absorbs the chicken fat. That’s what makes them slippery.
“Slippery” dumplings are made with flour, butter or lard, and salt—the holy trinity—and water. You roll them out to about an eighth of an inch thick and then cut out a bunch of three inch squares. “Slick” dumplings refer to those just made with flour and water.
“Puffy” dumplings, on the other hand, are a tad more upscale because the recipe for them includes some baking soda. Instead of rolling them out, you drop large rounded tablespoonfuls of dumpling dough into the hot stock. They also go by the name “drop dumplings.”
Once upon a time when making chicken and dumplings a downstate cook would simply grab a hatchet and head out to the chicken coop. Young chickens were used for a succulent roast, so the cook would go after an older hen whose egg production had declined. Though the older bird was not tender enough for roasting, the meat was perfectly delicious for the stew pot. Quite naturally, these chickens were called “stew hens” and they’re almost impossible to find today in the Safeway, Giant, or Superfresh.
On a lark, I drove up to the Gigante in Milford, one of the most unique international supermarkets in southern Delaware, just to see if they might have a “stew hen.” After all, Gigante sells beef tongues, cow heads, and pig’s feet. If you haven’t been you should, especially if you like Latin cuisine.
Though unable to procure a “stew hen,” I did stumble upon and purchase some chicken feet. Yes, chicken feet! At $2.49 per pound, compared to $1.79 per pound for a regular cooking chicken, it seems they’re a hot commodity. The butcher at Gigante explained that feet are important to making a good chicken stock. You don’t have to cut off the toe nails.
Emboldened, I brought my feet and an ordinary cooking chicken and added them to a big aluminum pot full of water. Never mind aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer’s so long as it conducts heat well….
Next we added one whole onion (skin on), a common carrot, and a wilted stalk of celery—a downstate bouquet garni. I was told I could toss in a few peppercorns and give a couple shakes of salt, but not to get carried away or else it might lead to my putting in turmeric or some other spice. Once loaded up, bring the pot to a lazy simmer and let it be for at least three hours.
After three hours, pour yourself a tumbler of bourbon and remove garni and chicken. Reduce the stock while you pick the chicken, setting aside a plate of white meat (or dark meat if you prefer that).
Making the dumplings is fairly simple. Pour flour and water in a blender and pulse it a bit until it looks mealy. Add in cold slices of butter and continue pulsing, adding a bit of water too until all of a sudden the blender convulses and the mixture magically transforms into a ball of dough. Remove dough ball and begin flattening it out, using a traditional wooden rolling pin. Take a cold sharp knife and cut the dough into perfect squares. Add to the hot broth and voila, slippery dumplings. They only need about fifteen minutes in the pot.
In all honesty, these chicken and slippery dumplings were better than any I’d eaten in a restaurant. As I fanned the chicken aroma into my nasal passages and swirled the chicken broth around my mouth as if it were an expensive wine, I still couldn’t help but find the dish bland and uninspiring. Even the feet hadn’t helped all that much.
Flummoxed, I asked my mentor why people loved chicken and dumplings. “Because it’s cheap, easy to make, and it fills your belly,” was his reply. Here I’d been searching for some deeper philosophical meaning; some recognition of the value of preserving traditional foods and cooking techniques in today’s fast food world or something like that and all I’m hearing is that it’s starchy and comforting.
My mentor wagged his finger at me, slippery dumplings hanging out of his mouth. “Rich Barnett,” he finally said, “you should know you can’t talk about downstate and philosophy in the same breath.”
Finally, I got it. But I still don’t get it.