I grew up in a culinary world of comfort. I come from Midwestern parents who are also from Midwestern parents (with a branch of the tree reaching a bit into the South). We ate, and still eat; pork roast, corn on the cob, meatloaf, mashed potatoes (from the box), and most importantly Chicken and Dumplings.
Chicken and Dumplings (rightfully pronounced Chicken 'n Dumplins) is my family’s food equivalent of a family heirloom. It is our go to dish for any out-of-town guests we want to impress, everyone’s favorite birthday dinner, and the menu every year on the last Sunday of the summer before we trudged back to school. It even has a legend that goes along with it, told over and over every time they are served, morphing each time to fit the teller’s fancy.
Sometime, round about 1956, my father, as a boy of 7 sat in his family’s living room gazing at the black and white, wood encased T.V. set. His mother was busy in the kitchen readying the evening meal. Suddenly a howl came from the living room.
“Mom, mom, hurry, come here. . .” As she rushed to the living room, carrot and peeler still in hand, fearing the worst, little Gary continued, “. . . and bring something to write on!!”
On the screen a TV chef (well, they weren’t exactly called that then) was putting chicken in a pot, cutting celery, and rolling dough into thin dumplings. My pop sat enthralled and drooling (newest embellishment to the story by my sister, a nice visual touch, possibly added to embarrass my father). And so the famed Chicken and Dumplings came into my family, changing us and making us all fuller and happier people.
Currently in culinary school, I am in the level in which we cover aspects of catering, and generally cooking for large groups. So, each night, we prepare a meal for the entire staff of the school and the restaurant. In addition, once a week, we prepare a formal buffet for the staff. As scheduling would have it, with the holiday season, those of us in the group of students in charge of the formal buffet were left with an extra day. We had just presented our buffet the class before and weren’t scheduled to move on to our next area until the class to follow. Our very French chef suggested we each think of a dish, something that can be made with fairly readily available ingredients, make it and add it to the “family meal” for the day.
Well, of course what else could I possibly choose, but “The One” the fabled and famous Chicken and Dumplings.
Chef was skeptical. He kept looking at my pot containing only chicken, stock, and celery, "You want to put some carrot, onion. . .bouquet garni inside, yes?" he proposed. My response a solid "No."
As it bubbled away, he passed by and said, slightly baffled, "hmmmm, smells good.” While at my cauldron sized pot with my huge sheet pan of cut dumplings, dropping and stirring, he pushed "So what you do with rest” After several back and forths trying to decipher his “Franglish”, I discovered he meant the dumplings. He doubted that such a large number should go into the amount of broth. My response, "Chef, it's Chicken and Dumplings, not soup, just wait, you'll see."
And see he certainly did. The moment of truth, my vast hotel pan (a large rectangle pan often used on a steam table) of Chicken and Dumplings went down, no parsley sprigs, no pretty piles towering, nothing but the chicken and the dumplings swimming in their thick and lusciously simple gravy. My chef was the first in line to taste it. After the first bite, he exclaimed, "Wow this isss goood! Iss very goood for a nice cold day by the fire. Very nice. Grandmas always know the best way, yes?!" I laughed secretly, while my grandmother does magically make them the best, she would never be so bold as to claim they were anyone but my father’s and the T.V. chef’s invention.
Chef proceeded to eat three plates himself, badger every chef and most of the students who came through the line to try it, "Issss good!", and package up a quart container of the extra to take home.
So, last week in culinary school we made seckel pears poached in Poire Williams, stuffed with bleu cheese with a spiced red wine reduction sauce. The week before that I butchered an entire leg of veal. Yesterday, I showed an exalted, experienced French chef the simple ecstasy of Chicken and Dumplings. Culinary school is really a kick. . .