January 16, 2010
Regarding the pain of others, I am ever at a loss.
I haven’t gotten any better at figuring out what to do with these masses of grim humanity that get hurled our way, without warning, without reason, without pattern. How are we to negotiate a world in which I can sit here, typing away on an expensive computer in a comfortable home stocked with food and supplies, while a few hundred miles south and east of me survival is far from certain and bodies are piling up in the street?
At the gym this week I found myself standing on the elliptical machine, my usual routine interrupted by this footage of the rawest, gnarliest grief and despair in a place that really isn’t that far away from me at all and I thought to myself AND WE ARE WORRIED ABOUT BURNING SOME CALORIES?
Paradox is the sea we all swim in. I think perhaps the trick is to be aware of our contradictory selves, to fleece out any illusions about this wild and willful world. To delight in what there is to delight in, to mourn what there is to mourn. To give our best shot to holding it all in somehow. To look at the screen, because we must.
My old neighborhood in Tucson was very close to the University and its Medical Center; a whole crew of dogs lived on our particular block, lording over dusty yards behind battered fences. Whenever an ambulance would go by, the dogs would howl. Pure, unadulterated noise. It always seemed to me an appropriate herald: here, you see, pay attention, someone’s life is changing forever.
Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world are right now in the hardest possible places: waiting for news about mother and sister, respectively. The former in a hospital ICU, the latter in Haiti. I love these human beings so much, more than I can rightly say and yet I cannot make their pain go away, I cannot fix this, I cannot do anything that will make a damn difference.
This is me, howling.
CHICKEN & DUMPLINGS
Sometimes all you can do is dish up a big pot of comfort, stand over the stove with a whisk in hand, scrape dumplings with all your heart and trust that it all adds up to something.
I’m from Memphis, so it’s practically a genetic obligation to be able to make this stuff. Started adding leeks a few years back when I saw the idea in Cook’s Country magazine—I like the flavor they add, but it’s especially nice to have a dimension of color in the stew which is traditionally all-white. While I don’t like to clutter my chicken & dumpling up with other veggies, you could easily add diced carrots to the leeks & onions and/or toss in frozen peas at the end.
Also, I’ve at times made a modified version of this recipe which is a little bit less high-maintenance and ostensibly healthier, given that it doesn’t involve rendered chicken fat. If you have chicken stock & leftover roasted chicken, you can skip steps involving browning the thighs & just add your chicken meat to the stew when you pour in the milk. Since you won’t have schmaltz for the dumplings, substitute butter.
for the broth:
4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
3 leeks, white & light green parts only, cut into thick rings & then in half
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 T flour
3 T dry sherry or cooking sherry
4 ½ – 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
¼ cup whole or 2 % milk
2 T fresh or 2 tsp. dried tarragon
1 T fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
salt & pepper
for the dumplings:
1 ½ cups flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp. salt
½ cup buttermilk
2-3 T chicken fat or butter
equipment: If you have a Dutch oven or enameled soup pot, this is the occasion to use it. If not, use something tall with a heavy bottom.
Get your chicken nice and dry with the aid of some paper towels—this step is essential or it won’t cook up properly. Season the chicken generously with salt and pepper, then heat up a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in the bottom of your pot over medium-high heat.
Brace yourself for some splattering–cook the chicken until the skin is brown & crisp on both sides, about 4-6 minutes on each side. Move the chicken to a plate to cool a bit. Pour off and reserve the delicious! chicken! fat! that has gathered at the bottom of the pot. (You’ll use some of it for the dumplings, but I urge you to save whatever’s leftover for adding flavor to soups, roasts, even pie dough).
Return the pot to medium heat & melt a big ole knob (2-3 T) of butter in the bottom. Add the leeks and onions to cook until soft, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle flour on top of the vegetables, then whisk in the sherry, thickening the broth base. Scrape the bottom of the pot to get all of the juicy bits, then stir in the chicken stock, milk, & herbs.
Remove the skin from the chicken thighs, then return them to the pot, cover it all, and let them simmer in the goodness to cook fully, 30-45 minutes.
When the chicken has cooked fully, turn off the heat and remove the thighs & the bay leaves from the pot. Using forks, carefully shred the chicken meat off of the bone & return it to the pot. Check and adjust the salt & pepper in the stew, then bring it back up to a simmer for dumpling-dropping purposes.
For the dumpling dough, combine all ingredients in a small bowl and stir until it looks like unappetizing paste. Fret not! They are going to taste de-li-ci-ous. Using two big spoons, gather up a tablespoon’s worth of dough into one spoon then scrape it into the stew with the other. You’ll get the hang of it.
Fill the top of the pot with dumplings, leaving a bit of room because they will grow. Reduce the heat on the stove to low and let the dumplings cook, turning them once, after about 10 minutes. Cook the other side of the dumplings for another 10 minutes and then serve.