Southern dumplings get a modern makeover with mushrooms and caramelized onion.

My grandmother, like every grandmother, makes the best comfort food. And what she makes best of all is chicken and dumplings. It’s a simple but warming dish of chicken, broth, and flour based dumplings. There are two styles of dumpling, biscuit-like dropped dumplings common in the north and midwest, and flat, rolled dumplings typically seen in the southern states. My grandmother makes rolled dumplings. Her dish reminds me of growing up in Virginia because it was a sure hit for nearly every woman in my family who made it. Even though it will always be one of my favorites, it doesn’t fit with my now vegetarian lifestyle. I’ve modernized this southern tradition with my updated recipe, “Thyme Dumplings in Mushroom Gravy.” I can turn to this meatless option whenever I need a comforting reminder of home.

Contrary to what you may think about chicken ad dumplings, it was originally a dish of luxury according to Serious Eats. There have been various recipes for dumplings dating back to the 1800s appearing in The Virginia Housewife, The Kentucky Housewife, and many other staple cooking references from the period. And far from being recipes using meager ingredients, these books called for quality meats, spices, and even fruits for dessert versions. Chicken and dumplings itself was a dish usually served to guests, and even appeared on restaurant menus (Moss). Only when chicken became a cheap meat did chicken and dumplings become a dish for the poor. I want to go back to the golden age of dumplings and make my recipe good enough for company.

My family doesn’t have a written recipe for dumplings. It’s just one of those dishes you learn as soon you’re old enough to help in the kitchen. I know how to make chicken and dumplings with my eyes closed. But I don’t necessarily know the importance of every step or ingredient. So I called up the expert, my grandmother. “I’ve been making dumplings for, oh 40 years about,” she told me. She explained that rolling your dough over and over again helps them stand up to heavy soups; and too much fat will make your dumpling fall apart. I used her wealth of knowledge as the building blocks for my new recipe.

I want to keep this dish simple and comforting, but make it more flavorful and, because of my diet, vegetarian. John and Treva Chadwell, owners of NYC southern style restaurant BeeHive Oven have some ideas on how to do this. BeeHive serves “updated Texan” dishes that include fresh ideas on classics that don’t compromise the origin of the food. They don’t serve a version of chicken and dumplings; the dish is hard to come by outside of small town diners and Cracker Barrel. But their style, modern southern cuisine, is what I am attempting in my recipe. Treva suggested that my food should just “take people to a feeling of home.” Even though my dumplings might not be what grandma made, they give me the same warm and fuzzy feeling.

The challenge for this recipe was making it have the same hearty quality while being vegetarian. Mushrooms are rich and juicy, offering the same comfort and satisfaction as chicken in my grandmother’s original dish. The dumplings are sturdy enough to withstand the mushroom sauce while still being able to soak up the flavors they’re cooked in When you add the dumpling dough to the mushroom and onion simmer, the stock mixes with the flour on the outside of the dough and turns into a velvety gravy. Adding fresh thyme to the dough and caramelized onion to the gravy adds depth to the dish. They aren’t the same dish as my grandmother makes, but both taste like home.

References:
Moss, Robert. “Don’t Call Chicken and Dumplings Depression-Era Cheap Eats.” Serious Eats.Web.
Bonniville, Judy E. Telephone interview. 9 Oct. 2017.
Chadwell, John, and Treva Chadwell. Online interview. 5 Oct. 2017.

Thyme Dumplings in Mushroom Gravy Serves 4–6

This updated version of southern dumplings trades chicken soup for mushroom gravy, upping the heartiness and making the dish vegetarian or even vegan with a few substitutes. The thyme in the dumplings adds flavor to the otherwise bland dough.

Thyme Dumpling Dough

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

¾ tsp salt

3 tbsp unsalted butter*, cut into 10–15 pieces

4 sprigs fresh thyme

¾ cup whole milk**

  1. Mix together flour, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl.
  2. Add butter to the mix and work it into the flour using your fingers until it is dispersed throughout in small pieces no bigger than the size of a pea.
  3. Remove thyme from the stem and stir it in.
  4. Add in the milk and mix it in by hand. You aren’t worried about over mixing because you want the dough to be a bit tough. If the dough won’t come together, add milk by ½ tsp increments until it does.
  5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30min to 2hours.
  6. While you wait, you can begin preparing the mushroom mixture. As the mushrooms cook, roll and cut the dumpling dough. (steps 7–9)
  7. You’ll need at least 6 ft2 of clean and floured surface area to roll out the dough. If your counter isn’t big enough, divide the dough in two. Flour the outside of the dough ball and flour a rolling pin (you can use a wine bottle in a pinch).
  8. Roll out dumplings. You want to roll for a few minutes to get the dough a bit tougher than you would a biscuit or cookie dough. Be sure to press both down and out (not just out) so the dough doesn’t shrink back. When you are done, your dough should be about 1 millimeter thick.
  9. Cut the dough into 1½ x 2 inch strips and sprinkle flour over them so they don’t stick together as they cook.

Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Gravy

½ tbsp Vegetable oil

½ tbsp butter*

¾ lb portobello mushrooms

1 medium size yellow onion

1 clove Garlic

3 cups low sodium vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Pinch of cayenne (optional)

  1. Slice mushrooms and onions, mince garlic.
  2. Heat oil and butter together in a frying pan over medium high heat.
  3. Add mushrooms and onions, salt and pepper to taste, and a pinch of cayenne if desired. Cook on medium high heat for 15–20 minutes. If necessary add more butter during this process. While mushroom mixture is cooking, you can roll and cut the dumpling dough.
  4. Add garlic and cook for 5 more minutes.
  5. Take mushroom mixture out of the pan and reserve in a bowl, keeping any leftover oil in the pan.
  6. Add in 2 ½–3 cups vegetable stock and salt to taste, keeping in mind the stock will reduce down to a gravy. Bring stock to a simmer over medium high heat.
  7. Add the dumplings and cook for 5 minutes, checking about halfway through to make sure dumplings aren’t sticking together.
  8. Add the mushroom mixture back in and cook for 1 more minute.
  9. Serve with parmesan sprinkled on top if desired.

*refined coconut oil (28 tbsp 5.99) can be substituted for a vegan option

**you can also use your favorite vegan milk substitute

Grandma’s Dumpling Soup Serves 6–8

No one can say this dish isn’t just as good! Chicken and dumplings is a classic that will still keep you warm and make you feel at home. There isn’t a written recipe for this dish, but I’ve done my best to translate what my grandmother told me. Ingredients change based on what’s available and what suits your taste. If money is short, the bean soup is a good replacement for the chicken soup. This recipe is less about a strict list of ingredients and steps and more about trial and error in the kitchen.

Chicken Soup

2–3 lbs chicken, bone in or out, white and/or dark meat

Salt and pepper to taste

Lima bean soup

16 oz dried lima beans

1 strip of fat back or strip-a-lean (substitute 4–6 strips of bacon if desired)

  1. If you use beans, season the water with fat back or strip-a-lean that you’ve rubbed all the salt off of under running water. Cut it in 2in x 3in pieces. If you’re cooking chicken, just season the water with salt and pepper.
  2. Cook the beans or chicken until they’re done before adding the dumplings. If you’re using whole chicken with the bones you can take it out and remove the bones, then throw the chicken back in. You can make the dumplings while this soup cooks. Make sure there’s still more then enough water in you pot to have soup plus some extra because the dumplings will thicken some of the liquid up. Cook the dumplings in this liquid, boiling for 5 or 10 minutes.

Dumpling Dough — (Canned biscuits can be substituted in a pinch)

2 cups flour

1 tsp baking powder

¾ tsp salt

3 tbsp Crisco or lard

¾ cup buttermilk

  1. Make dumpling dough. Mix together flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix in Crisco or lard by hand until pieces of fat are no bigger than the size of a pea. Mix in buttermilk by hand until dough is formed.
  2. Roll the biscuits out and keep rolling. You’re trying to make them tough. Then roll them out one last time really thin, about 1–2mm.