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Southern dumplings are the fluffy clouds of comfort food

By: Sheri Castle The Washington Post
April 4, 2018 Updated: April 4, 2018 at 10:44 am
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Beef Stew With Sweet Potato Dumplings. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post.

A simmering pot of fragrant stew earns top honors as comfort food, but the comfort doubles when it's topped with fluffy dumplings. They are the bonus prize in each bowlful - the unexpected delight that makes the meal special enough to feel restorative. Such a dish sure hits the spot on a winter evening, just right for a cozy family supper, although it can be the sleeper hit of a casual dinner gathering as well.

Dumplings come in a host of shapes and sizes, but most are a type of simple bread or pastry that enhance or extend more expensive ingredients. The ones in the accompanying recipes are pillows of light yet substantial dough added to the pot shortly before the stew is served. They take their cues from drop biscuits rather than pastry, so there's no rolling, shaping or futzing. Just stir the dough, spoon it into the pot, cover and come back in about a half-hour.

Each dumpling in the accompanying recipes is essentially made the same way, but varied seasonings pair them perfectly with their stews. The good news is that if you can make one, you can make them all. Be sure to taste the stews and dumplings together as you make final seasoning adjustments, because they work as a team in the bowl.

Chicken with dumplings is the benchmark for Southern dumplings. Although the dumplings are the stars, the stew has to keep up its end of the bargain. Using a rotisserie chicken for the meat and broth not only saves time, but also adds flavor from the roasted skin and bones. The ready-to-use meat also eliminates the temptation to overcook the chicken. Old recipes often called for boiling the chicken for upward of an hour, which might have been good advice for tough old yard birds but can turn the meat into ropey strands. Rotisserie chickens are seasoned, so wait until the broth has reduced before adjusting the salt. The dumpling dough isn't heavily seasoned, so don't be alarmed if the stew seems a tad salty when tasted on its own. It will be balanced when the two come together in the bowl.

Dried and fresh basil are in my tomato stew with dumplings, for good reason. Dried basil holds its own while the stew simmers. Delicate fresh basil can't hold up to extended cooking, so it's just right for adding shortly before serving. The dish benefits from the best attributes of both.

Adding potatoes to beef stew is always a good idea, but no one says those potatoes have to be russets. In the third recipe here, the sweet potato in the dumplings calls the tune for the aromatic spices in the stew. The amount of spice might look a bit heavy handed, but it turns out balanced and fragrant when the dumplings join in. Between the spices and creative dumplings, classic family-friendly beef stew feels fresh and updated.

All these dumplings, which are about the size of a golf ball, float atop the stew as they cook, resulting in puffed tops, fluffy middles and tender bottoms - more like bread than noodles. When the pot lid is lifted, the aromas and experience are heady.

Sheri's Shortcut Chicken Stew With Fluffy Dumplings

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Yield: 6 to 8 servings

For the broth and stew: 2 small, plain rotisserie chickens 4 cups cold water 8 cups low-sodium chicken broth (store-bought or homemade) 3 large thyme sprigs 3 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1 small onion, chopped (about 3/4 cup) 2 medium ribs celery, thinly sliced (about 3/4 cup) 2 medium carrots, scrubbed well and cut into thin rounds (about 1½ cups) 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

For the dumplings: 2 cups flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes and chilled 2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening (may substitute leaf lard) 3/4 cup half-and-half Chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

Procedure:

For the broth and stew: Pull the meat from the chickens and tear it into largish bite-size pieces; cover and refrigerate until needed.

Place the carcasses and skin in a large saucepan or small pot. Add the cold water, broth, thyme sprigs and 1 teaspoon of the salt; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for about an hour, until the carcasses fall apart and the liquid reduces to about 8 cups and tastes like rich chicken soup. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer into a large saucepan; discard solids. Stir in the vinegar and keep the broth warm on the lowest heat setting.

Melt the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, carrots, thyme leaves and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat. Cook for 8 minutes, or until vegetables begin to soften, stirring often. Add the broth and cook for 10 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

Season with the remaining 2 teaspoons salt and the pepper. Stir in the reserved rotisserie chicken; reduce the heat to low.

For the dumplings: Whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and pepper in a medium bowl. Work in the butter and shortening with your fingertips until the mixture is crumbly. Add the half-and-half and stir only until combined to form a soft, sticky dough.

Bring the chicken stew to a boil over medium-high heat. Use a 1-ounce scoop or two soup spoons to drop golf-ball-size dumplings evenly over the surface of the stew. Reduce the heat to medium; cover and cook for 20 to 25 minutes or until the dumplings are firm, fluffy and somewhat dry on top.

Uncover and let stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley and serve warm.

Note: The recipe calls for small rotisserie chickens. If you buy larger rotisserie birds, like the ones at Costco, only use the white meat and reserve the dark meat for another use. Using all the meat from a large bird will thicken the stew to the point where the dumplings can't float.

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