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Southern Comfort Once working-class, chicken and dumplings are now just classy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Scarlett O'Hara doubtless ate her share of chicken and dumplings.

The classic dish, which could stretch one precious chicken to two meals, saw many Southerners though harsh economic times.

From the big house of antebellum plantations to the sharecropper's cabin, the dish was especially valued after calamities such as the Civil War and the Depression. Those events leveled lofty and low.

"Nobody had money during those times," says John Egerton, author of "Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History" (Knopf, 1987). "They had to make do with what they had."

The soothing flavor and texture of the stewed chicken dish with biscuit- or noodle-like dumplings in thickened broth captured Southern hearts the way Scarlett would like to have captured Rhett in "Gone With the Wind."

"It's one of those foods that triggers a lot of very comforting thoughts and feelings for people," Mr. Egerton says, explaining, "It has a very high nostalgia quotient."

Civil War dinner tables are a long way from the kitchens of today, but chicken and dumplings have survived the journey intact. Some would say they have flourished -- although at least one dumpling dish has nearly vanished.

One thing is certain:

Dumplings are as Southern as grits and true grit.

"There is no doubt that Southerners took a special liking to both flour and cornmeal dumplings a long time ago," says Mr. Egerton, who believes dumplings, and perhaps a forerunner to chicken and dumplings, found their way south from the Pennsylvania Dutch region.

A popular early version of dumplings without chicken -- cornmeal dumplings cooked with turnip greens -- has been all but eclipsed by the familiar flour dumplings and chicken.

Flour dumplings come two ways: Drop dumplings are like fluffy biscuits;rolled dumplings, which are flattened and cut like pastry, resemble thick, dense pasta. Either way the chicken (or carcass or leftovers) is stewed and removed before the dumplings are plunged into the broth.

Modern cooks, such as Jane Ludlum, sometimes embellish the basics. She adds canned cream of chicken soup to make her broth creamier and richer.

A retired teacher, Ms. Ludlum says her mother learned to make dumplings in Louisiana from the family's black cook. The family wasn't rich, she explains. Her grandmother was an invalid, "so they always had a cook in the kitchen," she says.

This doesn't surprise Mr. Egerton.

"If it hadn't been for black Southerners," he says, "there wouldn't be a Southern food to be remembered."

They are the cooks who excelled at making something out of nothing, he says, because they had to. When the South was down, the skills of black cooks were doubly valued, Mr. Egerton added.

Paradoxically, in more prosperous times, chicken and dumplings signaled wealth. Along with fried and roasted chicken, it was a familiar Sunday dinner dish in the 19th century.

"It was a big-deal dish, served at the big house," says John Mariani, author of "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink" (Ticknor & Fields, 1983). "Chicken was an expensive item. Dumplings added to the richness of the meal."

After chicken was served in the big house, the slaves or the help were given the leftovers or lesser parts, he says. When they made chicken and dumplings from these, it was a cheap dish -- lots of dumplings (without eggs or butter) and a little meat in broth.

"This is working-class food," says Mr. Egerton. "This food did not originate as a classy dish. It originated as an inventive way to extend limited resources.

"People who were given practically no latitude to be creative . . . made something of it," he says.

Classic chicken and dumplings is labor intensive, no matter how you stew it, taking a good 2 1/2 hours from the time the chicken goes in the pot to the moment the finished dish is set on the table.

Ms. Ludlum divides the work by making her chicken and broth ahead of time.

"Then all I have to do is make the dumplings," she says.

Sarah Belk, author of "Around the Southern Table" (Simon & Schuster, $24.95), suggests cutting dumplings in pretty shapes

with cookie cutters. Her recipe cuts the fat and calories of the traditional dish.

Chicken and dumplings Makes 8 to 10 servings.

5 pounds chicken pieces

1 onion, quartered

1 bay leaf

12 to 15 whole peppercorns

2 1/2 teaspoons salt (divided use)

1 teaspoon baking powder

3 1/4 cups flour (divided use)

1 tablespoon shortening

1 cup milk (divided use)

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1 (10-ounce) can cream of chicken soup

Put chicken, onion, bay leaf and peppercorns in a large stockpot with water to cover. Bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until chicken is tender, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove chicken. Allow broth to continue simmering. Discard skin. Remove meat from bones. Set aside; keep warm.

Strain broth and return to pot. Skim fat from surface. Boil gently until reduced by about a third. Add up to 2 teaspoons salt to taste. Keep about 3 quarts of liquid in stockpot; reserve excess for another use. Continue simmering.

Meanwhile, make the dumplings. In a large bowl, mix baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3 cups flour. Cut in shortening. Add most of 3/4 cup milk and chicken broth (from pot) to form a biscuit-like dough. Add remaining liquid if needed. Divide dough in half. On floured board, roll out half of the dough to a 1/4 - to 1/8 -inch thickness. With a sharp knife, cut into large rectangles, about 2 by 3 inches. Repeat with second batch.

Add butter or margarine to broth. In a small bowl, mix canned soup with equal amount of broth. Add to broth. Bring to a slow boil. Add dumplings and allow to boil 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Add chicken. Adjust seasonings.

To thicken broth, mix remaining 1/4 cup flour with 1/4 cup milk. Add to pot and stir occasionally until thickened.

Per serving: calories: 530; fat: 20 grams; cholesterol: 129 milligrams; sodium: 1,625 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 34.

(Source: Jane Ludlum, Kim Pierce)

New chicken and dumplings Makes 4 to 6 servings.

1 (4- to 5-pound) stewing chicken

2 large carrots, peeled, cut in 1-inch chunks

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and quartered

4 slices bacon

1 herb bouquet (see note)

2 teaspoons ground cumin

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon plus pinch salt (divided use)

3/4 cup flour

1/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 rounded teaspoon baking powder

1 tablespoon cold butter

1/3 cup milk

To prepare chicken and broth, place chicken, carrots, onions and bacon in large Dutch oven or stockpot. Add herb bouquet, cumin, wine, 1 teaspoon salt and water to cover, about 8 or 9 cups. Cover and bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer about 2 hours or until meat is tender.

Remove from heat and allow mixture to cool, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Strain and reserve liquid; skim off surface fat. Discard vegetables and herb bouquet. Remove meat from bones and cut into 1-inch pieces. Discard skin and bones. Set chicken aside and keep warm.

To make dumplings, combine flour, cornmeal, pinch salt and baking powder. Cut in butter. Add milk until just blended. Do not overmix. Turn onto lightly floured surface and roll to 1/4 -inch thickness. Cut into 1-inch diamonds or other shapes.

In a large, deep skillet, bring 3 cups broth to a simmer. Drop in dumplings, cover tightly and simmer 20 minutes or until puffed. Return chicken to remaining broth; heat through. Ladle broth and chicken into bowls; top with dumplings.

Note: To make herb bouquet, tie in cheesecloth: 10 to 15 sprigs parsley, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano and 6 peppercorns.

Per serving: calories: 517; fat: 16 grams; cholesterol: 195 milligrams; sodium: 742 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 28.

5) (Source: "Around the Southern Table")

Cornmeal dumplings with turnip greens Makes 4 servings.

fresh turnip greens (recipe follows)

1 cup cornmeal

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon celery seed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon white mustard

1 grated onion

3 green onion tops, chopped

1 tablespoon melted shortening

While turnip greens are in their first hour of cooking, prepare the dumplings. Sift and measure cornmeal; combine with other dry ingredients. Sprinkle onions over this and add enough boiling water to make a moderately stiff dough. Add melted shortening. Cover and let stand 5 minutes. Shape into small, flat pones (oval loaves). Add chicken stock to simmering turnip greens at end of first hour, then lay dumplings on top of greens. Cover and cook 20 to 30 minutes longer.

Fresh turnip greens About 3 pounds of crisp, fresh turnip greens

4 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon white pepper

1/4 pound sliced salt pork (or 1 or 2 strips of bacon)

Wash and pick greens. Remove heavy stems. Wash until fre of sand. Set aside.

In a heavy pot, bring to boil water, salt, white pepper and pork. Add greens, stirring until they wilt. Cover and simmer briskly 1 hour.

Per serving: calories: 293; fat: 10 grams; cholesterol: 6 milligrams; sodium: 1,667 milligrams; percent calories from fat: 29.

(Source: Adapted from "Progressive Farmers' Southern Cookbook" (1961) and "Southern Cooking From Mary Mac's Tea Room.")

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