Don’t Be a Chicken, Dumpling

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Cover of the Round Top Register Summer 2105 edition

Cover of the Round Top Register Summer 2105 editionIt’s possible to rent chickens in Austin. I know this because my aunt who lives in the now-tony hills west of Austin told me. She and her husband once built a glider in their garage so they could fly to Oshkosh, Wis. She keeps up with the trends.

Do the Math

For a mere $149 per month, Chicken Renters will provide two hens, a mobile coop and certified GMO-free chicken feed. I pass myself off as a writer. I loathe math, especially word problems, but this prompts me to do the arithmetic.

I just bought 36 eggs at Sam’s Club for $5; therefore, I should be able to acquire 72 eggs for $10. Assuming each hen lays an egg daily, my trip to Sam’s puts me a dozen eggs ahead for $139 less, and I don’t have chicken poop in my yard. Also, the website doesn’t specify the penalty accrued when your dog, as dogs are wont to do, eats the egg layers. The penalty should be steep because dogs love to play fetch using a chicken. The chickens don’t like it nearly as much.

Questionable economics aside, the idea is to let the chickens free range in the backyard. I’m not sure an elegantly landscaped backyard with an eight-foot privacy fence and a swimming pool is really free range. It’s more like a country club. Of course, while the chickens may enjoy the big screen TV in the outdoor living room, I suspect the rotisserie in the outdoor fireplace makes them a tad nervous.

Authenticity

We grew up with authentic free-range chickens. My middle brother was a chicken whisperer of sorts. After Roots came out, all the old-timers dubbed him Chicken George. He once trained an orphan chick to ride on a toy car. The chicken’s name was Neugene, just like a startup biotech firm, but not really, because as Chicken George explained, “It’s just plain Eugene only with an N.”

Neugene drove his Thunderbird until the fateful day he had a head-on collision with a chicken snake. The chicken snake’s eyes were bigger than his stomach, which in the case of a snake is just about his entire body. He managed to swallow Neugene’s head but not the rest of him. Neugene’s heart stopped either from a lack of oxygen or sheer panic and terror.

If I were a chicken, it would be the latter.

My middle brother had no forensic training, but he didn’t need any. When a chicken wears a snake hat, the cause of death is pretty self-explanatory. Without thought of life or limb, at least his own, Chicken George sprang into action creating one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.

A commotion, the source of which was not immediately evident, prompted me to poke my head out of the saddle room just in time to see him running up the hill as fast as his spindly fifth grade legs would carry him. Chicken George was blowing snot like a Bramer bull, his version of the international distress signal. His bottle cap glasses were sideways, and his eyes were real bad, so his trajectory wasn’t straight. One arm sported what could’ve been mistaken for a big snake tattoo except that it was writhing, flailing, squeezing, wrapping and unwrapping itself in a futile attempt to get away.

With every step, Chicken George stuck the knife in the snake and wailed the death sentence, “You son-of-a-bitch, you killed Neugene.”

[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”] “You son-of-a-bitch, you killed Neugene.”[/pullquote]

Chicken-eating Methodism

I never loved a chicken like that unless it was battered and deep fried. I was the fat kid in the family. Plus, one time Chicken George convinced me to help him break up a setting hen. She clucked and cooed at him when he lifted her off the nest. Then he handed her to me. She went for my jugular, but fortunately my nose got in the way. She peeled it. The nickname “Pecker Nose” introduced me to adolescent angst in the seventh grade.

Free-range chickens are more athletic than their couch potato pen-raised cousins. More action equals more muscles. My Granny Wilma understood this. She cooked those yard birds slow and low for her signature chicken and dumplings.

You may think your grandmother’s chicken and dumplings are the best in the world, but you are wrong. Poached chicken, butter-enriched homemade stock, and slick dumplings, not those fluffy biscuit impostors, combined are the elixir of the gods or at least the nectar of the Methodists

Chicken George had a red rooster the size of a small turkey. I don’t remember the rooster’s name, but I remember his attitude. He was the literal cock of the walk. One day he bowed up at my Granny Wilma as she tried to make her way up the sidewalk to our back door. He made an enemy of a woman with a long memory and a stock pot.

Time passed. The red rooster got older and crankier. He made the mistake of making his presence known on a chicken-killing day. He crowed and flapped. Granny Wilma was at our house. She took his display as ill-mannered taunting and offered to make chicken and dumplings out of his ample carcass. Noting the rooster’s advancing age and decreasing vigor, Daddy agreed and prepared him for an eternal chicken stock bath.

In the process, it became apparent the rooster was past his prime. Even his white meat was dark. He smelled foul, not fowl, but Granny was not deterred. She seemed strangely invigorated by the chance to boil him into submission.

The following Sunday we gathered around Granny’s Formica-topped table for lunch. She placed the hallowed pot in our midst and ceremoniously lifted the lid with the pronouncement, “I cooked him all day yesterday.”

We looked down in anticipation.

Well, she had cooked the fight right out of him but not the darkness of his soul. His dark heart rendered the meat an unnatural black. Granny closed the lid without ceremony and asked, “Who wants some fried baloney?”

Granny Wilma Style Chicken and Dumplings

To my knowledge, Granny Wilma didn’t have a recipe for her chicken and dumplings. I was certain she’d be making me chicken and dumplings forever, so I never bothered to learn. It has taken me years to recreate her formula. They’re not as good as hers, but they’re a close approximation.

There are two secrets. The first is Bisquick because you don’t have to add any type of leavening. The second is half-and-half. It was the missing link for many years until I remembered that Granny never kept regular milk in her refrigerator. She drank her coffee extra hot, extra strong and all day long. Half-and-half and saccharine were her add-ins. Saccharine has no place in chicken and dumplings.

I generally break this into a two-day process.

DAY ONE

1) Make chicken stock. How you make it is less important than that you start from scratch. My chicken stock formula is the one espoused by Julia Child in How to Cook. Granny didn’t need Julia.

My tips: The longer and slower you cook it the better. Barely bubbling is superior to rapid boiling. Skim off the gray scum (it’s as ugly as it sounds) early in the cooking process, so your broth is clear.

2) Retrieve your chicken, remove skin and bones. Save the chicken for the dumplings. If it doesn’t seem like enough or you want big chunks, bake some additional chicken in the oven. White or dark meat, it’s your choice, unless you’re using an ancient red rooster, then it’s all dark.

3) Chill the broth overnight, so the fat is easy to skim off. Sometimes Granny didn’t skim the fat, and she added butter. Did I mention that I was a happy fat kid? Don’t serve this to your cardiologist.

DAY TWO

1) Reheat the broth to a slow boil while you make the dumplings.

2) Whisk together equal parts of all-purpose flour and Bisquick (regular, not low fat) in a big bowl. (The quantity depends on how much broth you have and how many dumplings you want.) Add enough half-and-half to make a stiff dough. If you add too much liquid, add some more flour and/or Bisquick. Try to find your balance relatively soon though, or you will have enough dumplings to feed Lee County and not enough broth to cook them all.

3) Roll out the dumplings to about 1/8” – 1/4” thickness between two sheets of wax paper. I err on the side of thin. It helps to flour the bottom sheet of wax paper and then to sprinkle the top of the dumplings with flour. Do a test roll. If it sticks, add more flour. You want to be able to roll them out and handle them easily.

4) Cut them to your preferred size. I like 1” x 1.5”. Some people use a pizza cutter for ease. I use a thin-bladed fillet knife. Repeat.

5) Drop dumplings into bubbling broth until the surface is full. Cover and cook for five minutes before adding the next batch. The time between the batches keeps the dough pillows from sticking together. Stir gently. Repeat until you’ve added them all.

6) Add chopped chicken, salt and pepper to taste. If you want to enrich the broth with butter, now is the time to add it.

To be truly like Granny Wilma make these early in the morning. Let them sit all day and gently reheat for supper. The sitting lets the flavors meld and the broth thicken into comfort food nirvana. Unbutton your pants before you begin to eat.

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by Lorie Woodward Cantu