Thursday, May 8, 2008

Chicken and dumplings

This is really Loving Whole Chickens, part two. The other new problem that a whole chicken user encounters, besides cutting them up, is what to do with all the parts that one doesn't eat -- parts we never see when buying chicken pieces at the grocery store.

The traditional solution is to make chicken stock. For me, that's the easy part. We went through a chicken and dumplings (the biscuit kind) phase several years ago and I learned to make stock then. At that time, I used the fancy recipe in Jane Brody's cookbook, a method that, as I recall, includes studding an onion with cloves. But, more in the green spirit, I now make scrap stock.

It takes two chickens to get enough chicken parts for stock. The back, neck, wings, and any bones (cooked or uncooked) that I manage to remember to rescue go into a bag in the freezer. Usually, I make about half an effort to remove the skin before freezing, but I don't go crazy about it. During the week and a half or two weeks that it takes us to go through two chickens, I save vegetable scraps, also in the freezer in a container -- this week it was onion skins, carrot ends, asparagus ends, tops of peppers (bell and jalapeno), zucchini ends, and probably a few things I've forgotten. About the only thing I don't put in the scrap box are cruciferous vegetable bits (cabbage and broccoli) because they can overpower everything else.

To make the stock, I put the chicken parts directly from the freezer into a large pot and cover with 8 to 10 cups of water depending on how much chicken there is. I bring that to a boil, skimming the scum that rises just before it boils. Then I lower the heat and let it simmer, uncovered, occasionally pushing the bones down with a potato masher to break things up a bit. After two or three hours, I add the vegetables, again directly from the freezer, bring it back to simmer and let it go another 30 minutes to an hour. When it's cool enough to handle, I remove most of the stuff with tongs to a bowl. Then I ladle the stock out, pouring it through a strainer into a fat separator. I pour the stock from the fat separator into a large container that goes into the refrigerator. Later, I sometimes put some of the cooled stock into ice cube trays to freeze the small portions that Asian recipes often require. The stock cubes can be stored in the freezer in plastic bags or other containers once they are frozen.

That's all well and good. But now, what to do with all this stock? I'm not much of a soup eater, and especially not when there's no snow on the ground. I had hoped that risotto would be the answer, but after cooking enough risotto to get good at it, we decided that it's too rich and too white-grained to be a normal part of our repertoire -- strictly a special occasion and company dish.

Ever since the Greentree Festival last fall when he had a couple of bowls at one of the Folk Life booths, R has been wanting to try chicken and dumplings with noodle-style dumplings. So, that was our first attempt at using stock. I used this recipe from Emeril, with a few changes. Instead of four thighs, I used two drumsticks and two thighs ('cuz, ya know, that's how chickens come) and I skinned them before I started. I skipped all the vegetables that went in the first step and later get discarded since I was using good homemade chicken stock that was made with vegetables. Next time, I'll make the dumplings a little earlier -- he only allows ten minutes while the vegetables are cooking to both make the dumplings and remove the meat from the bones. It took me longer and my carrots were overcooked as a result. Otherwise, this was quite tasty and even satisfied me, the non-soup eater, for supper.

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