Is there a cuter word in the English language than dumpling? Nope, I didn’t think so. And when you pair it with chicken to make chicken and dumplings, you have one of my favorite belly-filling, spirit-warming, cold-weather dishes.
As befits a homesick Texan, I spend chunks of time thinking of places I’d like to visit when I’m at home. My latest obsession is taking road trips on many of the state’s two-lane highways, motoring through some of the smaller towns that you wouldn’t normally see if you stayed on the interstates.
One of the best things about these towns is that they usually have a café that specializes in classic Texan cooking. You know the kind of joint I’m talking about—it’s a place where you can get a cheese enchilada to go with your chicken-fried steak, the lima beans are dripping with a bacon-rich broth, the iced tea is served in a bottomless glass and the toughest decision you’ll make that day is whether to order the pie or the cobbler for dessert.
Oh, and of course, these cafés always serve chicken and dumplings.
The first time I had chicken and dumplings was at my friend Laura’s house when I was in second grade. I know that seems kind of a late age to be introduced to the dish, but sadly, I don’t come from chicken and dumplings people—certain members of my family think they’re too mushy. I, however, disagree.
As Laura’s mother dropped the balls of dough into the bubbling broth, she allowed us to throw a couple into the pot as well. That was fun, but the real magic occurred when we returned a few minutes later. The dough had expanded to nearly four times its size and the soup and the dumplings had become one. And when I tucked into the thick, creamy concoction, I realized what I had been missing for so long: chicken and dumplings are like a security blanket in a bowl.
I’ve had lots of people ask me for my recipe, but since we didn’t make them at home, I took some liberties when coming up with a version of this classic dish. First, I decided to spice it up with some jalapenos and cilantro. To keep with the Tex-Mex theme, I considered making it the easy way—with strips of flour tortillas standing in for proper dumplings. But instead I came up with an even better idea: cornmeal dumplings.
The Tex-Mex trinity of jalapeno, cilantro and lime paired with the light corn dumplings reminded me of a soupy chicken-tamale pie. (And did you know that tamales are considered dumplings? I didn’t!). These are definitely not your grandmother’s chicken and dumplings. But don’t worry, these Tex-Mex chicken and dumplings still fulfill the original dish’s mandate, which is that after eating it you will feel cozy and satisfied. And sometimes, that’s just what you need.
For the chicken:
1 4-pound chicken
16 cups of water (1 gallon)
9 cloves of garlic, divided
2 carrots, peeled and cut into quarters
4 celery stalks, cut into quarters
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dried or 1 stalk fresh epazote (optional)
1 leafy stem of cilantro (optional) plus 1/4 cup of cilantro, chopped
Juice of one lime
1 can of Ro-Tel
2 jalapenos, sliced
1/4 cup cilantro
1/2 cup of cream
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
For the cornmeal dumplings:
1 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon melted butter
1 jalapeno, finely diced
2 tablespoons of minced cilantro
Clean and rinse your chicken and place in a large stock pot. Add water, onion, 8 cloves of garlic, carrots, celery, bay leaves, epazote and whole cilantro stem. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and then simmer for an hour and a half, occasionally skimming the foamy scum off the surface.
Remove chicken from pot and turn off the heat. After it’s cooled, remove fat and pick the meat off the bones and either shred or cut into bite-sized pieces. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper to taste.
Take cooled broth and strain and throw out the vegetables as they’ve done their duty. Now you need to remove the fat from the broth. If you don’t have a preferred way of getting rid of the fat or lack a gravy separator, you can try the plastic bag method. Take a quart-sized plastic storage bag, pour some broth into it. You will see the fat rise to the top. Snip a bottom corner of the bag and drain the broth, stopping when you get to the fat layer. (You will probably have to do this in batches).
Place the broth back into the pot and add the shredded chicken and lime juice. In a blender, add the can of Ro-Tel, sliced jalapenos, chopped cilantro and garlic and blend. Add puree to the pot. Now add the cream. Add the cumin, cayenne, then taste and add salt and black pepper. Bring to a boil. And while the soup is coming to a boil, make the cornmeal dumplings.
Sift together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Beat the eggs with the buttermilk and add to the dry ingredients. Stir in the melted butter, jalapenos and cilantro.
When soup is boiling, turn heat down to low and gently drop the dumpling batter into the pot, one tablespoon or so at a time. Do not stir. Place lid on top and steam dumplings for 20 minutes.
Ladle the chicken and dumplings into bowls and sprinkle cilantro on top.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Note: If you want a thicker broth, feel free to add some flour. I’d add it slowly, a quarter cup at a time.