Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Memory of Supper

I have a memory from my childhood, from Sparta, Tennessee, at my grandparents house. I have no idea how old I was, not sure who was sitting around the huge dining room table—at least 10 people—and can only vaguely remember the dishes served. I honestly think that the picture in my mind may just be a collection of pieces of memories from many different meals, but they all come together into one great experience: the Sunday supper.

There were so many dishes on the table, I think...fried corn, sliced tomatoes, maybe black eyed peas, and a giant tureen of chicken and dumplings. Huge dumplings, like buttermilk biscuit size, and they were creamy and peppery and drowned in this amazing sauce. I remember chicken pieces, like thighs, perfectly cooked and so tender. I could never forget it, and I don't think I've had chicken and dumplings since then. No way I could ever recreate such a thing; reality can never live up to those kind of memories. But I was happy to see the recipe card in my mom's collection just so I could give it a try. She thinks it was from a southern cooking magazine but I have to believe it was similar to the one that was cooked that day in Sparta.

I did end up referring to a recipe in a Southern Living cookbook since the instructions for making the dumplings in my mom's recipe were not too explicit and I didn't want to screw up the most important part of the dish. But the Southern Living recipe didn't even mention the gravy, so I switched back to the recipe card for the final touch. As usual, I improvised on the final preparation and how to assemble it all together. In the end, I'll say it was a success primarily because my husband liked it and he ate the leftovers the next day for lunch...a sign of a true winner. For me, though, it didn't even approach my Sparta memory of that dish. Some things just cannot be recreated.

Chicken and Dumplings

1 5-6 lb. whole chicken
2 sprigs parsley
4 celery ribs with leaves
1 carrot, sliced
1 small onion, diced
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 bay leaf

Put all of the above ingredients in a large pot. Add enough water to almost cover chicken. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 2 hours until chicken is tender. Let cool and remove the meat from the bones. Discard the carcass and the cooked vegetables, reserving the broth.

Dumplings: Combine 2 cups of flour, 2 tsp baking powder, and 3/4 tsp salt. Cut in 1/3 cup of shortening with a fork until mixture is crumbly. Add reserved 2/3 cup of broth, stir with a form just until dry ingredients are moistened. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead lightly for 30 seconds. Roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness; cut dough into 2 inch squares (I used a round cookie cutter about 3 inches in diameter). Bring remaining broth to a boil and drop dumplings in one at a time. Cover and reduce heat; simmer 10 minutes.

Remove dumplings from the pan and set aside with the chicken.

Gravy: Strain chicken broth. Measure 4 cups into saucepan. Heat to boiling. Combine 1/2 cup flour and 1 cup cold water and then gradually add it to the broth mixture. Mix well. Cook and stir until thickened. Add generous amounts of salt and pepper to taste. Return the chicken and dumplings to the pan and serve.

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