As I have written elsewhere, our chickens were free range birds. Their feathers were clean, their eggs had golden yolks and their meat was firm and flavorful. A friend recently gave us a big six pound free range chicken that brought back memories for both Jerri and me of what real chicken tastes like.
I roasted it, but though it was young and tender it would have added a lot of flavor to a pot of chicken and dumplings. The best bird for that wonderful stew is a mature hen or rooster at least a year old that has had free run of the yard. Sometimes supermarkets will have “stewing hens,” which are a good second choice, but fryers are always available and do the job if you compensate for their relative lack of flavor by adding some bouillon cubes.
Mom made chicken and dumplings mostly in the fall and winter. That was when she culled older hens that were not laying regularly. “Dad,” she would say, “would you chop the head off that big Rhode Island hen with the frostbitten comb before you go to work. We’ll have chicken and dumplings tonight.”
So my father would do his best to get the right hen for Mom to pluck, dress and cook for supper. Mom’s chicken and dumplings are something that I think all of us kids still remember fondly. This is not my mother’s recipe, which she probably never wrote down, but it produces a delicious meal that needs only a few slices of good bread to help sop up the gravy to make it almost perfect. If you want it to be perfect, add a salad.
For the stew:
1 chicken or the equivalent in thighs, wings and breast pieces, about 3 to 4 lbs.
2 chicken bouillon cubes
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. white pepper
1/2 tsp. tarragon
Dash or two of hot sauce
Water to cover the meat
3 medium sized potatoes
1 small onion
3 medium carrots
1 1/2 cups green peas, fresh or frozen
2 T parsley
3 T cornstarch
1/4 cup water
For the dumplings:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
1 T baking powder
1 large egg
2-5 T milk
If using a whole chicken, cut it into pieces, put it into a Dutch oven or large soup pot along with the bouillon cubes and cover it with water a half inch above the pieces of chicken. Bring the Dutch oven to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the meat is tender but not falling off the bones, about an hour.
Prepare the vegetables while the chicken is cooking. Peel and chop the potatoes into a half inch dice. Clean and chop the onion into a quarter to eighth-inch dice. Scrape or peel the carrots and chop them into half inch rounds. Clean and finely chop the parsley.
Remove the chicken from the Dutch oven and set the pieces aside. Put the vegetables and spices into the Dutch oven over moderate heat. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer the vegetables and parsley, except the green peas. Debone the chicken, cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and add them to the vegetables.
Continue simmering the meat and vegetables while you make the dumplings. Start by sifting the dry ingredients together into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Beat the egg until lemon colored, then whip in two tablespoons of whole milk. Stir the egg and milk into the dry ingredients, adding more milk until you have a dough that you can drop by spoonfuls into the boiling broth.
Dissolve the cornstarch into the quarter cup of water and stir it into the broth. Cook for about three minutes, then taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. You may want to add a teaspoon of instant chicken bouillon or another bouillon cube. Stir in the peas and raise the heat under the Dutch oven. When the broth is boiling, use two teaspoons to drop dumplings onto the broth. Scrape a heaping teaspoon of dough from one spoon with the other.
Cover and cook the dumplings for twelve minutes without removing the cover. When you take off the cover this is what you will see.
After twelve minutes have passed, remove one of the larger dumplings to check for doneness by cutting it in half. If it is not done, return the dumpling to the Dutch oven, replace the cover and cook another two or three minutes.
Serve with bread and salad.