Monday, May 10, 2010

Apron Strings

Chicken & Dumplings. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
My mom is cleaning out. She says that she's doing my brothers and me a favor by doing a big clean before, heaven forbid, something happens to her and Dad. Mom remembers too well cleaning out her father's basement when he passed away at age 89. That basement could have been a time capsule - suitcases with Aunt Eloise's x-rays, discarded wheelchairs and crutches from various family hospital stays through the years, cancelled checks from 1910. I wish I could say I was making this up, but I was along for the emptying of the basement and I remember it well.

My mom's big clean means that my brother got the telephone lamp - you hang up the receiver to dim the light, something we could do for hours as children - and I got Mom’s collection of aprons. Does anyone outside of a restaurant kitchen wear aprons anymore? I don't always remember to wear them, but my mom always did when preparing dinner. She kept them in the bottom drawer next to the Harvest Gold side-by-side refrigerator, separate from the kitchen towels. That’s right, she had a drawer just for aprons. She made them herself, cotton gingham with rickrack trim and a single pocket. When I helped in the kitchen, I’d pull one out, asking first for the organza hostess aprons that weren’t practical (they were dressy aprons meant for tea and bridge parties), but settling for the gingham and rickrack version with the gathers at the waist. The aprons would circle my waist, fully covering me and the ties would wrap twice or sometimes three times around. Those days are gone.

On some of those apron-wearing days, Mom would let me choose a recipe and we would cook together. She didn’t have a lot of cookbooks, but she did have an old-fashioned recipe folder stuffed with yellowed newspaper clippings. There were more than recipes in the binder - vintage Erma Bombeck columns, clipped because they made Mom laugh out loud; a real estate listing of a log home by a river, complete with a working mill; these were Mom’s life and dreams. And there were recipes, tried and true gems from the newspapers where we lived when my family was young - the Nashville Banner, the Tennesseean, the Spartanburg Herald and Charlotte Observer (we lived in Gaffney, South Carolina, and subscribed to the Gaffney Ledger, and occasionally the Spartanburg paper, but Mom insisted that the Observer had the best food section).

Mom’s chicken and dumplings recipe came from one of these clippings, in a story from the Charlotte paper about a woman who raised a dozen kids in the darkest days of the Depression. She lived on a farm and learned to make great quantities of food for her family. Her recipe produced tender chicken and fluffy dumplings and was finished off with the odd choice of a ½ stick of margarine melted on top. Over the years, Mom and I have each changed the recipe to suit our cooking styles. She makes hers with boneless chicken breasts and canned broth. I prefer meat on the bone and the broth from a gentle poach. Neither of us adds the margarine at the end.
Making broth. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I think of my inspiration in the kitchen, I know that it most surely comes from my mom, but I can’t think of a single recipe that is all hers, that I make just the way Mom taught me. My mom is an excellent cook, but I have to say the greatest cooking lesson she ever gave me was to be open-minded and to learn where I can - from other cooks, from books, from TV. I absorb it all and the results are my own.

I make chicken and dumplings about once a month, especially during the winter. When I make this recipe, it makes so much more than my family can eat, so I will pull out a couple of servings and give them to her. She says my chicken and dumplings are better than hers. Can you believe that?

Dumplings ready for the stew-pot. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

My latest variation is in response to some folks who claim a metallic taste in baking powder. I understand this, especially with these dumplings which require three teaspoons baking powder to 3 cups flour - that’s a lot of baking powder. I borrowed a technique from "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis. Miss Lewis made her own baking powder of ¼ cup cream of tartar to 2 tablespoons baking soda. I mixed this up and used it in the dumplings with great success.

dumplings in pot
Dumplings in broth. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I make this recipe, I don't always use a whole chicken - it's quite good made with just chicken breasts or chicken thighs, but if using the latter, I always brown the skin first and remove it, scraping up the tasty bits in the bottom of the pan to enhance the broth. I will also use chicken broth, homemade or canned, instead of the water. But the dumplings are never altered. They are different from most dumplings - they puff like biscuits in the stew. After reheating, they absorb the broth, swelling into yummy pillows.

Chicken & Dumplings. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Chicken and Dumplings

1 (3 lb.) chicken
1 onion, peeled and cut into wedges
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
1 onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, diced medium
3 carrots, peeled and diced medium

3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
About 1 1/2 cups milk, more or less, for the dumplings
Additional milk for the stew

1. Wash chicken and place in pot with water to cover. Add onion and bay leaf, salt and pepper. Bring to boil and simmer until meat is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove chicken from pot, let cool and remove meat from bones. Throw away carcass, chop meat. Reserve broth.

2. To make dumplings, mix together flour, baking powder and salt. Cut in shortening by your preferred method (I’ve given up on pastry blenders; hands are my favored tool for this), until mixture is mealy and the particles are small. Add enough cold milk to make a workable dough, up to a cup and a half. Knead the dough and lightly press out 1/2 inch thick with floured hands onto a floured counter. Cut into 1 - inch strips.

3. Bring broth to a gentle boil, using a fine mesh skimmer to scoop up the fat and gray crud from the surface. In a separate pan, cook celery, onions and carrots in a small amount of water until soft, about 10 minutes. Add cooked vegetables to broth, then chicken pieces, then gently drop dumplings into pot, allowing each to puff up and rise to the surface. When all dumplings are in, add milk to the stew to achieve proper consistency, about a cup or two. Taste for seasoning. Let simmer about 15 minutes. Feed to your hungry family.

© 2010, Lucy Mercer.

1 comment:

Maggie Hewes Adams said...

I have all my grandmother's aprons too. I am so sad that somewhere along the way (when I was young and stupid) I lost her recipe box. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you!