In & Out of the Kitchen: Freestyle chicken and dumplings proves a hit for bigger audience

A food dish with meat and vegetables

The finished dish with browned dumplings. Inset: Preparing meat and vegetables for the meal.

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Many times I’ll cook dinner for husband Eric and myself without using a recipe. I’ll poke around in the refrigerator or freezer or pantry and just freestyle. It usually works fine, and I feel virtuous using only what I have.

Chicken and biscuits is a good example of this kind of meal. When I roast a chicken, I take the rest of the meat off the carcass and freeze it. One day I’ll make a sauce using canned chicken broth, add whatever vegetables are around (frozen, if I’m in a hurry), then stir in the cooked chicken at the end. Pour over biscuits. Done.

Recently I made chicken with dumplings for the two of us in the freestyle manner. I liked it, but not as much as Eric, who not only insisted I make it again for a crowd but bought a big baking dish to cook it in.

Of course I didn’t write it down. And I’d just dug around the internet and in my cookbooks, and made up a recipe for the dumplings.

So I tried to recreate it — for eight. I took out a big pot and added three boxes of reduced-sodium chicken broth and one giant half chicken breast on the bone. In went a quarter onion, two bay leaves, a small celery stalk with lots of leaves, a few shakes of dried thyme, some pieces of parsley and three black peppercorns. I added enough water to cover the chicken.

Covered tightly, it took about an hour for the frozen hunk of chicken to cook through. I poured the broth through a sieve and tore the meat into bigger pieces than I’d use for soup. More stew-like, I thought. I added it to about two cups of cooked chicken from the freezer.

Then I returned the strained broth to the pot and cooked it down until I had about two cups. Meantime, I’d sliced carrot, celery and onion, and sautéed them in butter and a little salt in another pot. I put the vegetables on a plate on the counter next to a small bowl with the end of last summer’s frozen corn and some frozen green peas that were thawing out.

Thickening sauces has always been a challenge for me. Once they hit the oven they thin out. Frustratingly, they’re always solid after they’ve been in the refrigerator. Usually I make a roux, but the night I’d made the chicken and dumplings for me and Eric I gave beurre manié a shot. It worked like a charm.

Beurre manié means “kneaded butter” in French, and is made by mixing together equal parts of softened butter and flour. Then you drop bits of it into a hot liquid near the end of cooking and whisk it around, and it thickens the sauce. I wanted a sauce that was a bit thicker than gravy.

The thing about chicken and dumplings is the dumplings cook on top of the finished dish. Since there’s more cooking in the oven, I don’t want to overcook the chicken and vegetables. I make the sauce separately.

Keep in mind this was a quick weeknight dish, so I used canned broth to cook the chicken. For eight, I used it again. The chicken and onion and seasonings, and lots of reducing, gave the broth an assertive chicken flavor. A little Gravy Master added color, and a dash of Worcestershire added another note and more color.

When the broth was seasoned the way I wanted it, I brought it to a boil and dropped in little grape-sized bits of the beurre mainié I’d prepared with about a half-stick of butter. The beurre mainié isn’t sticky; it’s like shortbread cookie dough.

I whisked all the butter mixture into the broth. It was exactly as thick as I wanted. Violá — sauce.

Now I stirred the chicken and all the vegetables into the sauce and poured it in the new baking dish. It went in the oven at 350 degrees until it started to simmer.

The rule is, the liquid has to be simmering when you add the dumplings. Then you cover the container and bake it or cook it on top of the stove. That’s what I did the first time, and the dumplings steamed in about 10 minutes.

But now I had to cook them in a 10-by-15-inch baking pan. I decided to cook them uncovered.

Back to making the dumplings: I got the 1-cup-flour-to-1-tsp.-baking-soda ratio from reading many recipes. To this, I added salt, a little sugar and lots of fresh chopped parsley, and some fresh rosemary, the last from the garden. Then I cut in about 2 tsp. cold butter.

I’m still freestyling, remember. So I added half-and-half to the flour mixture until it made a loose dough I could drop from a spoon.

For eight, I doubled the formula, and when the chicken mixture was hot and simmering in the oven I pulled it out and dropped dumpling mixture all over the top. Then I put it back into the oven.

The dumplings weren’t soft all the way through, but biscuit-like and browned on top, which I liked. So did everyone else. It was a hit.

It got back to me that some guests thought it was the best dinner they’d ever eaten at my house. Really? I’ve served some very fancy meals, but this humble no-recipe chicken and dumplings was their favorite.

I’ve made it three times and it’s never come out exactly the same way. Close enough, though. Eric is always after me to write these things down. Oh wait, I just did.

I hope this inspires you to try freestyling in your kitchen. Take the ingredients you have, make a simple sauce and throw everything together. You might be surprised, as I was, at how good it is.

In & Out of the Kitchen appears occasionally in The Daily Gazette.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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