Food: A nostalgic dish

Warming dishes like dumplings evoke nostalgia wherever they are made.

By FAYE LEVY
January 26, 2012 11:07
CHICKEN IN THE POT WITH MATZA BALLS

CHICKEN IN THE POT WITH MATZA BALLS. (photo credit: Courtesy/MCT)

 
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When my neighbor and his wife were planning an important dinner party, they chose a family favorite as the main course – chicken with dumplings.

Warming dishes like dumplings evoke nostalgia wherever they are made. “So many of us have fond memories of dumplings,” writes Marcia Adams in Heartland, a book on the cooking of the American Midwest. “They were dropped on top of simmering stews, fricassees, and soups (as well as cooked fruits) to extend a simple meal.”

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After spending years away from her native Poland, Beata Zatorska, author of Rose Petal Jam, a new book of recipes from Poland, yearned for the potato dumplings of her youth and was eager to enjoy them when she visited her homeland. “One of the dishes I had missed most was Silesian dumplings (kluski slaskie) – a specialty of this part of Poland. Once my kind family knew I was craving these giant gnocchi-like potato dumplings again, everybody started making them.”

Silesians were among the Pennsylvania Dutch who came from central Europe to settle in the US. (Since most of this group came from Germany, they were called the Pennsylvania Deutsch, meaning Germans, but eventually the spelling changed to Dutch.) According to William Woys Weaver, author of Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, their cooking has German, French and Swiss influences but “our ‘classic’ cookery is most like that of Alsace” (a province in eastern France, bordering Germany).

Dumplings are loved internationally and many varieties are prepared by the Pennsylvania Dutch who, writes Weaver, “quickly honed their European experience to American conditions.” That might explain how American corn came to be used in such entrees as chicken soup with cornmeal dumplings.

Tracing the history of dumplings, Weaver notes that soups and stews are especially important to the Pennsylvania Dutch due to their technique of raised hearth cookery, and all sorts of preparations made from flour were developed to make the broth more substantial.

There were rivels or riwwele, “little dumplings (or large crumbs) produced by rubbing or grating dough against the small holes of a colander, wire screen or vegetable grater. The dough for both riwwele and a larger dumpling called spaetzle originated [in Europe] as refined substitutes for whole-grain dishes.”

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“Spaetzle are created by chopping dough into little dumplings rather than by grating or rubbing. Spaetzle are common in Pennsylvania Dutch cookery, but we call them ‘little egg dumplings.’” Weaver gives an old recipe for cottage cheese spaetzle, which are served with fried bread crumbs. In France I learned the Alsatian way of making these delicious dumplings by pressing the thick batter through a spaetzle machine or through the large holes of a colander.

For special occasions, Pennsylvania Dutch cooks saute mashed potato dumplings in walnut oil and serve them with toasted hickory nuts (pecan-like nuts native to the American Midwest). Larger dumplings that somewhat resemble French quenelles are made almost exclusively for holidays, weddings and family reunions, writes Weaver.

Chicken with dumplings is an old-fashioned, hearty dish that remains an American staple. My mother’s chicken soup with kneidlach (matza balls) is similar, but I wasn’t familiar with other “dumplings” until I was an adult.

Dumplings can be flavored with poppy seeds or with nutmeg, celery seed and parsley. Dumplings can also be simmered in a meat stew cooked with dried apples, dried pears and prunes.

Weaver attributes the continuing popularity of these comfort-food dishes to creativity. “Happily, many of the old peasant dishes from the past, especially the vegetarian ones and those we share with Pennsylvania-German Jews, have opened a whole new area of dietary possibilities, pushing tradition over the edge into the twenty-first century.”

Spaetzle with nutmeg and butter

A specialty of Germany, Austria and the Alsace region of France, spaetzle are made from a thick batter. To form the little dumplings, the batter is pushed through the large holes of a flat grater, a slotted spoon or a colander, or pressed through a spaetzle machine (which resembles a potato ricer) into boiling water. It cooks into little curls, which look like something halfway between noodles and dumplings.

Spaetzle can be kept warm or reheated without losing their texture. Serve them as a side dish.

Makes 4 servings as a side dish

11⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1⁄2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste if needed
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
2 large eggs
1⁄4 cup milk
1⁄4 cup water
4 to 6 Tbsp. melted butter
Freshly ground pepper to taste
Grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese, if desired

Batter: Mix flour, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl and make a well in center. Add eggs, milk and water into well and whisk to combine.

Draw flour into center of the bowl with a wooden spoon and beat just until smooth; batter will be quite thick. Let rest 15 minutes.

Pour melted butter into a medium-sized baking dish or ovenproof serving dish.

Bring a medium saucepan of salted water to a simmer.

Use a colander or flat grater to make spaetzle; if using a grater, set it on the pan so it is easier to handle. Using a rubber spatula, push 2 to 3 tablespoons dough through holes of colander or large holes of grater so that dough falls in small pieces into water; move spatula back and forth to push dough through holes. Move colander or grater so all of dough does not fall in the same place.

Continue make spaetzle until about 1⁄4 of dough is used.

After spaetzle float to top of pan, cook them over medium heat about 2 minutes or until they are no longer doughy; taste to check. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain well and transfer to the dish of melted butter.

Keep warm in low oven (95ºC or 200ºF) while cooking remaining spaetzle, in batches.

Season spaetzle with salt, if needed, pepper and nutmeg.

Serve with cheese if desired.

Stewing hen with cornmeal parsley dumplings

The dumplings in this entree, which are made with corn kernels in addition to cornmeal, are served in a rich broth with the meat of a whole chicken. The recipe is from Heartland.

Author Marcia Adams notes: “Some cooks prefer to thicken the boiling broth slightly with a cornstarch and water mixture before adding the dumplings; that is entirely up to you and how thick you want the broth.

Start with 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and 1⁄2 cup water and go from there.” If you are using the thickener, stir the mixture into the simmering broth and return it to a simmer, stirring, before adding the dumplings.

Adams prefers the succulent flavor of a mature stewing hen for making the broth but you can use an ordinary chicken.

Adams gives this tip for cooking dumplings: They should be cooked without peeking. In another dumpling recipe she advises: “Do not lift the cover during the cooking period or the dumplings will fall.”

Makes 4 servings

a 1.3 to 1.8-kg (3- to 4-pound) chicken or stewing hen, cut into serving pieces
1 celery stalk with leaves, cut into thirds
1 carrot, peeled and quartered
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
1 bay leaf
1⁄2 cup parsley sprigs
6 peppercorns

Dumplings:
1 cup water
1⁄2 cup yellow cornmeal
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
1⁄2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup canned corn, drained (about 200-225 gr. or 7-8 ounces)
2 Tbsp. finely minced fresh parsley

Place chicken in a large stewing pot. Add celery, carrot, onion, bay leaf, parsley, peppercorns and water to cover; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until chicken is tender, about 1 to 11⁄2 hours. Strain broth and discard vegetables, then return broth and chicken to pot and bring back to a boil while you prepare the dumplings.

Dumplings: In a medium saucepan, combine the water, cornmeal, salt and pepper and bring to a boil.

Cook and stir until thickened; remove from heat. Stir some of the hot mixture into the beaten egg, then stir the egg mixture back into the hot cornmeal. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add the cornmeal mixture and beat well, then stir in the corn and parsley.

Drop the dumpling batter by tablespoons into the boiling broth. Cover the pan tightly and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes without peeking.

Serve the chicken and dumplings on a deep platter or in a shallow tureen with some of the broth spooned over them.

Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta and of the Fresh from France cookbook series.

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