“As you grow older, you'll find the only things you regret are the things you didn't do.”
~~ Zachary Scott
I have a relatively short list of regrets in life. I probably should regret more of the things I've done but ... meh, why dwell on the past?
However, one regret I do hold on to is that my interest in cooking didn't develop until after my grandmother had passed away. I missed an opportunity to learn some amazing, old-school Southern cooking techniques from her.
Mama, as she was known in my family, was pretty much a stereotypical Southern grandmother who, along with my grandfather and their big brood of kids, moved from the hills of western North Carolina to Delaware back when my mother was still a young girl.
My grandfather and she grew all their own produce. Not only did they have huge garden tracts that grew an amazing array of vegetables but also an apple orchard, pear trees, peach trees, grape arbors, strawberry patches, three colors of raspberries, blueberries, a chestnut tree, two kinds of cherry trees.... I could keep going.
Much of childhood was spent at my grandparent's home. My many cousins and I were granted plenty of play time and going there was always a treat, but we were still expected to do our share of chores and those gardens provided plenty of that. There was hoeing, weeding, picking and hauling. Planting was mostly grown-up or “older kid” work; it was too important to get right to allow younger children to do.
Then there was the time spent “under the trees”. This referred to a cluster of shade maples in their yard that was the official gathering space for socializing, outdoor dining, or just enjoying the breeze with a glass of iced tea in your hand. Of course, this was also the space for the seated chores. During the “picking time”, that glass of iced tea and socializing came with bushel baskets full of produce to work on. There were green beans to snap, limas to hull, corn to shuck, cherries to pit, apples to peel & slice and so on.
Much of that produce was canned. They had a fire pit out behind the “freezer house” that held a large metal wash tub that Papa would pack full over and over again with produce-laden mason jars, boiling away before they were taken to fill the shelves of their cellar. Not only did they store enough vegetables and fruits to feed themselves through the winter, but they had plenty to give away to our considerably large extended family.
Of course, going to Mama & Papa's meant you got to, nay, had to, let her feed you. When I think back, it seems like my grandmother's wood-fired stove/oven was constantly going, turning out amazing food. Pies made from fruits that were picked that morning, biscuits and cornbread (and no Jenifer, there was no sugar in that cornbread). There were roasts and casseroles, fried chicken, fresh veggies with butter, and she made sure that the pot of water was boiling before she sent us kids to go pick the corn for fresh corn on the cob.
If you can think of a classic Southern dish, it was undoubtedly in Mama's repertoire. And never once do I recall seeing a recipe book. She cooked from memory and good old-fashioned know how.
I can still faintly remember some of the smells that came from her kitchen, and to this day, it sets my mouth to watering. I know I was just a kid, but I could kick myself for not taking the time to learn some of what she had to teach.
There a a bunch of different dishes of hers that I dearly loved, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would have to be her chicken & dumplings. It was rich and silky with big chunks of pulled chicken and pillowy yet hearty drop style dumplings. Talk about a happy childhood memory...
Even though I never learned Mama's recipe, chicken & dumplings is still one of my favorite comfort foods. It's one of those foods that sends the winter chill running scared from your body.
The cool thing is that for the most part, chicken & dumplings is a relatively healthy dish. It's basically a light chicken stew. The biggest problem is the dumplings. They are essentially little lumps of white flour, delicious lumps of white flour but still not the best form of carbohydrates to eat in quantity. The tweak here is simple, up the complex carbs, back off on, if not eliminate the white flour and keep the deliciousness. Can do.
First of all, we want to go heavy on the vegetables. That's a good way to lighten up and “healthify” ( I just coined that word. If you use it, you have to send me a check.) many dishes. In fact, it's a very, VERY good idea to increase the amount of vegetables in your life.
Next up are those pesky (if delicious ) dumplings. Clearly we need to replace most, if not all, of that white flour with a more complex carbohydrate. Using a healthier flour like whole wheat, oat, garbanzo or brown rice flour is one option, but you are going to sacrifice some flavor and texture and only gain a small margin of health benefit.
The better option would be to base the dumplings on something other than flour. I chose one of my favorite sources of healthy, complex carbs, sweet potatoes.
Yes, this does create a rather dramatic shift in the flavor profile of the dish, but it's a shift in a very tasty direction.
Chicken & Sweet Potato Dumplings
1 large roasting chicken
6 cups good quality chicken stock or broth
2 bay leaves
1 jumbo yam
3 large carrots peeled & diced
1 medium onion peeled & diced
4 ribs celery diced
2 parsnips peeled & diced
1 cup chopped mushrooms, I used porcini
1 Tbs canola oil
1 cup peas
1 Tbs chopped fresh thyme
2 tsp chopped fresh marjoram
4 Tbs whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
salt & pepper to taste
After thoroughly rinsing the chicken with cold water, place it in a sauce pot with the stock & bay leaves. Bring it to a simmer & cook until the chicken is done, approximately 15 minutes.
Remove the pot & place in a colander that is set inside a mixing bowl so the chicken can drain but you catch all that delicious liquid. Skim the fat off the top of the broth.
Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, pick off the meat in large chunks. Save the meat, but discard the skin & bones.
Cook the sweet potato. You can peel it and boil it but, I advise against it; you lose flavor & vitamins and add excess moisture to the dumplings, which will require adding more flour. I recommend baking it or doing what I do, put it on a plate, wrap tightly with plastic wrap and microwave it for 8-10 minutes.
Scoop the flesh of the sweet potato into a mixing bowl and smash it up with a fork.
Place a large pot over medium heat, add in the canola oil (you can also use 1 Tbs of the chicken fat you skimmed from the top of the broth) and the chopped vegetables. Don't add the peas yet.
Season with a pinch of salt & pepper and saute, stirring frequently until the veggies begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Stir in the herbs and 1 Tbs of wheat flour and continue to stir & cook for another 90 seconds.
Add in the stock a bit at a time, stirring well to make sure no lumps of flour form. Bring the mixture to a low simmer and cook for about 15 minutes. Check seasoning and adjust if needed.
Add the egg to the sweet potato & mix well. Add in the spices, a small pinch of salt & pepper, then the baking soda. Stir in the remaining flour, but be careful. All yams aren't created equal you have to judge how much flour to use. You want the dumpling mixture to be a thick but workable paste, slightly sticky to the touch.
With the liquid still simmering, drop the dumpling mix in round spoonfuls into the stew. Keep adding until all the dumpling mix is used. Stir the pot very gently from time to time, separating the dumplings but not breaking them up.
Once all the dumplings are added & floating, carefully add in the pulled chicken and the peas. Cook for another two minutes.