Chicken And Dumplings For The Single and Unemployed

I grew up in Central California, near Fresno, in what I like to call the Nebraska of California.  It's flat and hot and farmy.  Though it borrows from rural midwestern culture in its proclivity for confidently heaven-bound gun-toting republican anger, it sadly doesn't import much of the traditional food.  Instead it is entirely Californian when it comes to what's on the plate, and thus severely lacking in any sort of rich heritage.  Central California food culture is mostly just tri-tip, burritos, pretending that no one else adds avocados to things, and failing to either recognize or at least acknowledge that grilling and barbecuing are two entirely separate things.  Suffice it to say that unlike most of the rest of America, chicken and dumplings did not make an appearance on the dining room tables of my childhood and beyond.  In fact, it wasn't until my late twenties when I was most of my way through a very instructive and enjoyable seven year stay in Virginia that my interest was first piqued in this American Sunday dinner staple.  Mostly because I kept hearing people mention that their grandmother made the best dumplings, and frankly I was tired of having no idea what they were talking about.  Eventually I got around to eating a plate of chicken and dumplings.  It was good.  And then I kinda forgot about it.

Fast forward to a few months ago and—despite the fact that I have no childhood association with the dish and I completely blew my opportunity to indulge in it when I lived in the South—I'm suddenly obsessed with the idea of making chicken and dumplings.  I don't know why.  I have bad timing about these sorts of things.  Nevertheless, I did what I normally do when I'm interested in a certain dish, I scoured the internet and cookbooks I own for information, then I cooked a meal.  Scoured some more.  Cooked again.

Here's what I learned:

Chicken and dumplings describes a genre of meal more than it does one particular dish, because—as is to be expected with regional, traditional cuisine—there are some major variations in the world of "authentic" chicken and dumplings, and the devotees to each particular method tend to view each other with the affinity a Montague might reserve for a Capulet.  Along the path to chicken and dumplings two major forks diverge, first at the broth and then again at the dumplings themselves.  

Most all chicken and dumpling recipes begin with a whole chicken, some water, and aromatics (the usual suspects).  The first and latter ingredients are simmered in the penultimate one for like 45 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the water becomes a nice flavorful broth.  The bird is then allowed to cool, at which point the meat is pulled into nice bite-sized bits.  The broth is strained and then the cook has some decisions to make.

Regarding the broth, some people leave it alone, treating the final dish like a soup, while others thicken it with a roux, making a sort of thin gravy type sauce.  

As for dumplings, those can either be of the drop variety, which turn out thick and gnocchi-like, or they can be rolled, which basically ends up like what I imagine an Italian would refer to as a "shitty noodle" (though in defense of rolled dumplings, I'm sure Italians would refer to drop dumplings as shitty gnocchi).  

Regardless of what the Italians or obstinate Americans may think, it turns out that pretty much every incarnation of chicken and dumplings is straight up delicious in its own right.  So pick any variation and run with it, your dinner will be great.

But here's my particular problem with classic chicken and dumplings.  Every recipe calls for cooking the dumplings in the broth.  This in and of itself is totally fine, but the issue arrises when you don't finish all of the dumplings, because the remaining dumplings that were just cooked in hot broth/gravy are left sitting in that same hot liquid, effectively overcooking.  It is a well known fact that any and all overdone water cooked flour products (i.e. noodles, dumplings, other) are: The. Worst.  They get soggy and mushy and entirely unappetizing.  In other words, classic chicken and dumplings does not make for the best leftovers.  This isn't a big deal if you're the matriarch of a large southern family feeding all sorts of hungry people, but I live alone, and often I'm feeding just me, meaning, I'm going to have to contend with leftovers.  

Beyond issues of quality, I frankly don't like that much repetition in my meals, so whenever possible I try to make sure my leftovers can provide me with an entirely different meal than the one they were originally intended for.  It's an approach that makes cooking for one much less monotonous and much more enjoyable.  It also just happens to be how most professional restaurant kitchens happen to function (most everything on the brunch/special menu is a reformatted version of what didn't sell that week).

So my first issue with chicken and dumplings was that I had to make it in a way where the leftovers were delicious and also not just a reheated plate of chicken and dumplings.  My second issue was that, at the time of the development of this post, I had recently been let go from my job.  An event that was a surprise in its specific timing, but not in it's general occurrence.  I say this because at the time I worked as a bartender in a restaurant owned by the chef of said restaurant, who, like many chef/owners before him, suffered from a rather disproportionate allocation of talents between his title's two disciplines.  Meaning, the guy could cook.  Not so much the other stuff (i.e. basic management/people skills).  Also, booze and emotions.  I've worked in restaurants long enough to know that these types of people are as consistent with putting out incredible food as they are inconsistent at keeping staff around.  Come day two of my tenure there and I was already speculating I wouldn't last a year.  After all, someone had been randomly fired without warning to make way for me when I originally got hired.  I felt like I'd married an adulterer and couldn't trust it wouldn't happen to me too.  

It happened to me too.

To summarize: my chicken and dumplings needed to be leftover friendly and take as much goddamn time as possible to cook because frankly, I had nothing better to do.  

This was a task I was basically born to succeed at.  So here's my recipe for chicken and dumplings for the single and unemployed.

Step 1: Make chicken roulade.

First off, buy some meat glue.  Then do some reading on the subject.  Don't watch this, it's a bunch of dumb.

Did all that?  Great.  

While there are a ton of great uses for meat glue, the most basic and immediately useful is as an aid in making roulades, i.e. rolled up logs of meat.  Aside from being aesthetically appealing, round logs of meat or fish are actually much easier to cook well.  Think about how a chicken breast tapers from a thick end to a very thin one.  If you cook that by any traditional method there is absolutely no way to cook the thick part through without overcooking the thin part.  But if you roll the meat into a log and then slice it into rounds, now all of the meat is the exact same thickness and you can keep from overcooking part of your dinner.  But of course, you already know this, because you read the whole meat glue primer on the Cooking Issues blog that I linked to above.  Right?  Right!  

Like I mentioned above, classic chicken and dumpling recipes cook the chicken whole, shred the meat, and then add it back to the dish with delicious results.  But if you live alone and don't have a job, that sort of simple straightforward approach is a waste of all the time in the day that you could be wasting.  I mean, if you're rich you don't primarily shop at the dollar store right?  Similarly, if you're rich in free time, why would you spend so precious little of it on dinner?  Go big!  It just makes economic sense to add some extra steps. 

That said, just because the primary reason behind making a meat-glued roulade here is soak up precious hours of the day, that doesn't mean there aren't secondary and even tertiary benefits.  For example, this approach affords us the opportunity to deep fry the meat, and the first rule of cooking is never not deep fry when you could possibly deep fry.  It also keeps the chicken separate from the stock, allowing you, the unemployed single person, plenty of opportunity to turn that fried chicken into an entirely different meal tomorrow, when the chances of your terrible situation in life improving in the slightest are still incredibly low.  I made my fried chicken into a delicious sandwich that I ate in bed while spending an hour unsuccessfully trying to decide what to watch on Netflix.  It was perfect!

That said, how does one go about making a chicken roulade?  Easy.  

First, get a chicken naked.

Then make a wish.  (I strongly suggest making it employment themed.)

Cut the chicken into parts.  Season the meat with salt or brine the breasts for a bit.  Lay out the skin on a sheet of plastic wrap (you can overlap two sheets to make an extra wide surface) with the formerly feathered side facing down, cover it with a light dusting of meat glue (use a tea strainer to dust), add a chicken breast, dust with more glue, add the other breast facing the opposite direction (so the fat part is lined up with the skinny part on both sides), and dust with more glue.  

Wrap it up good.  

Let it either sit in the fridge for at least 4 hours or cook it (still wrapped up) in a water bath at a minimum of 60C and until the internal temp of the meat hits 60.  If you're dumbfounded as to how one figures that precise moment out, well, there's an app for that.  

Also, I've kept this whole explanation part relatively brief because, sadly I am no longer unemployed and thus have shit to do, AND because Chefsteps did a great job illustrating how to do this in a recent video.

I diverge from the technique in the video in that I slice the meat into disks before frying.  It allows for more crunchy, fried parts of meat.  Crunchy fried parts of meat are a beautiful salve to the unemployed.  I recommend a generous allotment.  

Place the disks on a rack and then put that in the freezer for 30 minutes.  The goal isn't to freeze them but to chill the outside layer.  The next step for the chicken is a deep fryer, but since they're already cooked, a nice chilled outer layer will help to protect the interior meat from overcooking in the oil.  Another thing that prevents overcooking here is that we only cooked the meat to 60C (140F, a whole 25 degrees less than the recommended 165).  You can do this in a controlled temperature water bath because any pathogens that might be killed at the higher temp will also be killed at a lower temp as long as they're held at said temp for a certain amount of time.  Your app will tell you how long that time is.  The future is now, people.  

Note that I only used the white meat here.  You should have enough leftover skin to debone the thighs and make a whole other roulade with that meat.  I did.  But remember you live alone and seriously, how much chicken can you really eat?  Maybe a better option is to freeze it in a brine and deal with it later.  

Step 2: Eat your vegetables.

It's important to eat your vegetables.  I suggest really going for it and using two different kinds.  Chop them up, sauté in plenty of butter until you think they're delicious and reserve.  

Step 3: Make dumplings, sort of.

Remember that the main problem with both drop and rolled dumplings is that they're left in the broth to overcook.  I don't even like yesterday's spaghetti (it's way too soggy and so gross and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me), let alone soggy dumplings.  So that's just not going to happen on my watch.  

But what's a single unemployed person to do?  Easy, make southern flavored Parisian gnocchi.  

Most drop dumpling recipes are basically some version of a buttermilk biscuit recipe, but I found an exception in Alton Brown.  He suggests using a pate a choux dough for the dumplings.  This makes all sorts of sense because if there's one thing that pate a choux (sneezily pronounced: pat-uh-shoe) dough does well is stay light and airy on the inside (think eclairs...but don't think about Van Wilder).  Just what you want for a dropped dumpling.  The other beautiful part of pate a choux dumplings is that if you remove said dumplings from the poaching water after they're cooked and then sauté them, you'd have Parisian gnocchi.  You can make Parisian gnocchi into all sorts of delicious meals.  Meaning, as long as you keep the gnocchi separate from the broth, instead waiting until plating, leftover gnocchi won't be overcooked and you'll be able to use them for something that isn't just another plate of chicken and dumplings.  In fact, you can save the unused, uncooked gnocchi dough in the fridge for a couple days, and then cook it up when you need it for an entirely different meal later.  

The standard recipe for pate a choux is: 

  • 1 cup liquid
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 eggs
  • Salt, because always

In an effort to pay homage to the fact that many drop dumpling recipes are really just buttermilk biscuit recipes, I used buttermilk as the liquid for my pate a choux.  I could tell you exactly how to make pate a choux, but I'd rather just link again to that Alton Brown video where he does a splendid job explaining the process.  Do what he does.  

I stirred a generous portion of grated cheddar into the dough at the end.  It was a good idea.

Sauté the boiled gnocchi in all sorts of butter until brown and crispy on both sides.  Alternately, you can broil it, which might very well be the superior method.  My broiler sucks so I chose the stovetop route.  

Step 4: Gravy

Do you know how to make gravy?  You should.  It's really easy.  Basically, make a roux, then take add some warm liquid and stir until thickened.  Done.  This whole page about roux on the wonderful Stella Culinary site has a video on the subject as well as ratios to use to incorporate it into whatever liquid you're using to get the right final texture.  Speaking of liquid, in this instance you should be using chicken stock made from the bones of the chicken you got naked in Step 1.  Luckily, I already wrote an entire post on what to do with whole chickens, including how to make stock.  So read that. 

Let's say you made the general really basic, all-purpose chicken stock from that post and you want to make it flavored more specifically for dumplings.  Well great news, you can.  Watch the following video from the folks at Saveur for vegetarian gravy and simply replace the water in the recipe for stock.  Or don't.  It's actually an incredible tasty gravy without stock at all.  I recently put it on fries one night when accommodating a vegetarian friend.  It was fantastic.  

Also, if you were being smart here, the stock/gravy making would probably be Step 2.  Seeing as how right after deboning/gluing the chicken you'd want to make stock and get all this stuff started.  In fact, the last thing you should do is saute the veggies.  Which I put as Step 2.  But this sort of inefficiency is actually crucial to your life as a single unemployed person.  This is a two hour recipe, may three tops, but with my help in jumbling steps around and teaching you how to do everything out of order, you can waste almost an entire day on this.  Which is great because your unemployment check hasn't arrived, you've watched like every video of the Pete Holmes show, and you're bored beyond belief.  

If for some reason you have a job and things to do, feel free to re-arrange all these steps in a more efficient way that does not use up all the time in your day.  Though I'm not sure why you'd want to do that.  What with all the great podcasts there are to listen to.  

Step 5: Deep Fry!!!!!!

Deep frying at home is the best.  Really, it's just the best.  Yeah, it's kinda a pain in the ass to deal with the oil, and yes, it is BY FAR the most dangerous thing you will regularly do in the kitchen, but good god, the payoff is FRIED FOOD!!! How awesome is that!!  So worth it.  

You're gonna want to fry in a neutral tasting oil with a high smoke point.  Corn, grape seed, and canola are great for this.  You'll need to know how hot the oil is so get a candy thermometer.  Now take a heavy pan, like a dutch oven or something made with cast iron—these sorts of pans retain a lot of heat and will help keep the temperature of the oil more stable when you add food—and fill it with two inches of oil.  Heat it to 400F.  While that is warming up, take the chicken out of the freezer (remember, it's only been in there 30 minutes, just chilling the outside layer), and put some all-purpose flour in a bowl and some buttermilk in another.  Add salt, pepper, cayenne and whatever else you think is delicious to the flour.  Take a piece of chicken and dip it in the flour, shaking off any extra, then dip it in the buttermilk, then dip it back in the flour.  Make sure it's thoroughly coated with flour.  As the flour accumulates little droplets of buttermilk it'll ball up in spots and those spots will stick to future pieces of chicken, eventually frying up into fantastically crunchy crags and crevices.  You want that.  So if the first few pieces of chicken look too smoothly covered in flour, feel free to give them another round of dips in the buttermilk and flour.  

Using tongs, gently place the chicken in the hot oil.  Now, this oil is about 75 degrees hotter than what is typically used for fried chicken, the reason for this is because this chicken is already cooked, and so we're trying get the outside wonderfully hot and crispy without overcooking the inside.  This needs to happen as fast as possible.  Hopefully, no longer than four or so minutes.  What will help immensely is if you don't try and fry too many pieces of chicken at once.  Granted, you're alone and unemployed, so you really don't need to fry more than two.  But if for some reason you are feeding more than one person, resist the temptation to add a lot of chicken to the fryer.  It will cause the temperature of the oil to plummet, increasing your cooking time, and ensuring that the chicken is dry and overcooked.  You don't want that.  Have some patience.  

When the chicken is browned and crispy, place it on a plate covered in paper towels and lightly blot the top with more paper towels.  Turns out that a lot of the oil fried food absorbs doesn't happen in the fryer itself, but in the moment right after the food comes out of the oil.  So if you can dab that fat off the food, it will likely taste less greasy and be crunchier.  After you've paper-toweled the chicken, let it rest on a wire rack so that it doesn't sit in its oil and get soggy.

You just fried chicken.  You're good at something.  Tell yourself that.  

Step 6: Finally, for once in you life, assemble just one thing correctly...just one!  

Ok, so the fried chicken should stay hot for about ten minutes.  (If you need more time, you can keep the chicken warm in a oven set at 200F.)  This will give you just enough time to warm up the gravy, sautéed vegetables, and gnocchi in three separate pans.  Will that cause a lot of dishes?  You bet your ass it will.  But again, and I can't stress this enough, you don't have a job, you have time to do the dishes.  

Put some gravy on the bottom of a plate, top that with the veggies and sautéed gnocchi, and then place the fried chicken atop that throne, to wisely reign over the delicious, delicious kingdom of food you just created.

Show no mercy.  Eat all of it.

And there you have it, a plate of really tasty chicken and dumplings that you can make even if you don't have any childhood associations with the dish, anyone on the other side of your dining room table, or a job to pay for all this stuff you bought on your credit card.  

Do the dishes.  Try and fail to find something interesting to watch on Netflix.  Fall asleep in the sweats you wore all day that you slept in last night.