51: Chicken and Dumplings

51: Chicken and Dumplings

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Chicken and Dumplings

Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.

~Norman Kolpas

When I came home from school on a crisp fall day, I knew that if the aroma of chicken and dumplings filled the air, little stood between culinary heaven and me. Even through adulthood, the mere thought of Mom fixing my favorite comfort food set my taste buds to salivating. So when I called her as I was on my way over to visit and she said we’d be having chicken and dumplings for dinner, I could hardly wait to get there.

Mom was finally settled into her new apartment. All the boxes were unpacked and new custom made drapes, an extravagance she still couldn’t believe she owned, hung on the windows. Dad had been gone just over a year and she was moving on as best she could.

When I arrived, Mom was walking down the hallway on her way to the mailbox. I noticed she was a bit out of breath, but Mom’s emphysema had been a part of our lives for so many years her labored breathing didn’t faze me much.

“There you are!” she said, as I came through the lobby door. “I can hardly wait to get started.”

“Get started? You mean supper isn’t ready yet?”

“No. You’re making supper tonight.”

“Me? You said we were having chicken and dumplings.”

“We are, and you’re making it!”

“But Mom. I don’t have a clue.”

“Well it’s high time you learned, darlin’.”

I accompanied her to the mailbox and then we turned around and headed back to her apartment. As we walked down the hall I noticed her labored breathing yet again. As soon as we arrived, she plopped down in a kitchen chair panting just a bit and declared with a slight giggle, “It’s official Annie, I’m... old.”

“You’ve been saying that for the last ten years, Mom.”

“Yes I know,” she said. “But this time I said it’s official.” I looked over and caught her winking at me and we laughed.

Together we chopped the carrots, onion and celery, then added them along with a few bay leaves to the pot of chicken already simmering in a rich broth.

“What’s next, Mom?”

“Oh now we just wait about an hour and then the fun starts!”

While we waited Mom and I shared a pot of tea and gabbed, catching up on family news and reminiscing about the past. She seemed so content and happy with her new surroundings, but I couldn’t ignore the weary look in her eyes. My mom, always neat as a pin, looked run down and unkempt as she sat across from me. I thought getting used to her new life must have been taking its toll on her, but she’d fall into a comfortable routine soon enough.

When we’d finished our tea, Mom eyed the clock. She peeked into the stew pot and declared, with the confidence of a master chef, “It’s time!”

In my opinion, Mom’s dumplings belonged in the dumpling hall of fame. Her dumplings started out as drop biscuit dough. Then by the time they bobbed to the surface of the bubbling stew, some kind of “mom magic” transformed them into perfect puffy little tender pillows swimming in oodles of scrumptious chicken gravy.

Mom was right. I couldn’t live another day of my life without learning how to do this. I watched intently as she thickened the broth with a bit of cornstarch mixed with cold water.

“Now pay attention here Annie. This isn’t hard. The important thing is to mind the pot. If you undercook them you might as well play ping-pong with them. And if you overcook them, well there’s really no way to explain a sin that grave.” So I paid strict attention.

First, she whisked together the flour, baking powder, cream of tartar and a pinch each of salt and dried rosemary. Then she added melted butter and milk until the flower mixture was just moistened. The batter looked lumpy to me but Mom assured me that over-mixing only put you on the fast track to failure.

“Lumps in the batter spell success.”

“If you say so, Mom. You’re the expert.”

Now that the batter was ready, Mom plucked two serving spoons from the dish rack and lifted a slightly heaping spoonful of dough out of the bowl. Then she used the other spoon to gently slide the dollop of dough into the bubbling gravy.

“Now you try it, Annie.”

I scooped a spoonful of dough and hovered over the pot preparing to launch it, with Mom watching my every move.

“Gently Annie! Gently! You’re not shooting pool you know. If that gravy splashes up on you, you won’t soon forget it.”

So I set about the task with a little more ease and a little less firing power until the dough bowl was empty.

Mom set the kitchen timer for fifteen minutes. Then just as we finished setting the table and tossing the salad, the kitchen timer chimed. With Mom by my side I lifted the heavy cast iron lid off the Dutch oven and peeked inside. There they were, those puffy little pillow masterpieces bobbing to and fro in a sea of piping hot chicken and gravy.

“Look at that, Annie. You’re a pro already.”

“Well, I can’t take all the credit.” I said. “I had a good teacher.”

Mom looked at me with her soulful brown eyes and I noticed they were brimming with tears.

“Annie, that’s the nicest thing you ever said to me.”

“Wow, Mom! I’ve never come up with anything better than that in forty-four years?”

She wiped the tears from her cheeks with a laugh and admonished me. “Don’t make fun of me. I’m your mother.”

We dined in style that evening with lit candles and the new Glen Miller Orchestra CD I’d just surprised her with playing in the background.

As I was leaving the next day, Mom mentioned she’d scheduled a doctor’s appointment for some time in the coming week. She said she didn’t know if there was a remedy for getting old but though it might be a good idea to see if the doctor had anything on hand. I smiled and kissed her goodbye.

Three days after my cooking lesson Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and lived only ninety-nine days from the date we found out.

Though she never let on, I know in my heart Mom planned that cooking lesson because she suspected her days were numbered. She wanted me to have a lasting memory that would forever bring a smile to my heart. I learned many lessons about grace and dignity as I walked the path of those last ninety-nine days with her. But then again, I had a good teacher.

Chicken and Dumplings

Stew Ingredients:

2 1/2 pounds chicken thighs or legs without skin

5 cups chicken broth

3 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

3 carrots, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 celery ribs, sliced

1 medium onion, cut into eighths

1 (10 oz.) package frozen peas

2 tablespoons of cornstarch

1/2 cup of cold water

Dumpling Ingredients:

2 cups all purpose flour

1 tbsp baking powder

1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1/4 tsp salt

1/2 cup butter

2/3 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

Place chicken, broth and bay leaves in a 5-qt. Dutch oven. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until chicken is tender.

Remove chicken from broth; allow chicken to cool enough to be able to handle.

Remove chicken from the bones and cut into chunks. Then return it to the broth.

Add next eight ingredients. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Meanwhile, combine flour, baking powder, cream of tartar and salt in a bowl. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in milk, dried rosemary, and parsley.

Thoroughly mix cornstarch with cold water and add it to the pot. Bring it to a boil until stew thickens just a bit (about 2 minutes) then turn heat back to simmer.

Drop dough by rounded tablespoonfuls into simmering stew. They will sink to the bottom. Cook covered for 15 minutes. As the dumplings cook they rise to the top. To make sure the dumplings are fully cooked, a toothpick inserted to the center should come out clean.

~Annmarie B. Tait

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