Sunday, October 26, 2008

Chicken with squash dumplings and root vegetables

This is a neo-chicken and dumplings that uses fall root vegetables and a very untraditional dumpling. I had made a batch of squash gnocchi and there was a ton of it, so I divided the dough in half and froze one lump of it. I thought about it and realized the gnocchi could be really similar to a soft, delicious dumpling if treated slightly differently—adding more fuel to my hypothesis that all cultures intersect in food, they just call things by different names. This is a good and slightly more sophisticated variation on the classic chicken n’ dumplins’ — the root vegetables and squash both bring a subtle sweetness that goes nicely with the clean, herbaceous chicken broth.

The step-by-step recipe for squash gnocchi is here, but I can recap the process easily by telling you to 1.) halve and roast a Kabocha squash, then put the flesh in a big bowl (I always run it through a food mill first to make it smooth but you can get away without doing that), 2.) mix in 1 or 2 beaten eggs, along with a pinch of nutmeg, tons of fresh ground black pepper and at least a teaspoon of salt, 3.) add flour until you have a stiff dough. Now, this is where you have options. If you want to make traditional gnocchi, roll your dough into snakes then slice the snakes into ½” long chunks, tine with a fork and toss into boiling water until they float to the top. Or, do what I did last week, which was to simply grab off little pieces of the dough instead of the sticky work of rolling them out. I call these “ugly gnocchi,” and they really are. But they are also a bit lighter and fluffier after boiling—I believe this is due to less overworking of the dough. Like I always say—you do not want to overwork quick doughs as they can become tough and turn to lives of crime. Anyway, you can also stick the dough in the fridge to make it easier to work with, or, as I did, freeze half of it, then pull out your frozen dough lump about 30 minutes early to make it sliceable, then chop it up into pretty little chunks that are ready to become the dumplings to your chicken. Well, now that your dumpling step is squared away, let’s move on to preparing the vegetables. I chose parsnip, carrot and fennel along with tiny little pearl onions to change up the roster of the usual vegetables in this dish. Slice the carrot and parsnip into matchsticks of equal size. I do this by cutting them in half, then lengthwise, then slice as evenly as possible. That’s hard to describe in words, so I will take a picture of it at some point, but they should look really even when you are done. It can be hard with parsnip because one end is usually so much bigger than the other, but you must persevere. Lop off the frondy green top of your fennel bulb and set aside for some other use. I don’t know what. Sometimes I put it into my soup stocks, but that’s about the best use I’ve thought of for it—anyone have any other ideas? Slice the bulb into wedges that are about the same width as your parsnip and carrot sticks. Now for your pearl onions—these are so annoying. Just buy the frozen, peeled ones. Otherwise, do as I did and dump the fresh ones you foolishly bought in boiling water for one minute. They will slip out of their skins, saving you a headache of peeling the little bastards, but not as much as if you’d just bought the frozen ones instead. Start by heating 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a big pan over medium-high heat. When hot, toss in your parsnip, fennel and carrot. Sprinkle the vegetables with 1 teaspoon sugar and sauté them for just a minute or so to get them fully coated with the butter-olive oil, then let them sit to get nicely browned on one side, about 5 minutes. Stir them up and let them go for another 3 minutes, then remove to a plate.Now chuck your peeled pearl onions into the big pan over the medium-high heat and sauté them until lightly browned—about 5-7 minutes—then remove and set aside. In a nice big dutch oven, get 1 tablespoon olive oil nice and hot over medium heat. Add in as many pieces of chicken as you want or will fit. I used 6 bone-in thighs. Cook them for about 10-15 minutes, until almost all the way done through with a nice, browned skin, then remove and set aside. I sort of crowded mine too much for optimal browning so maybe I should have used the bigger pan, the one I browned the veggies in. Learn from my foolishness! Now, chop up 2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts into small bite-size chunks and brown those quickly in the same pot, for about 4 minutes. Now add in 6 cups of chicken stock, and bring it to a simmer. Add in all the vegetables and let cook for 7 minutes, then add in your dumplings and a handful of minced parsley. They will swell up like delicious little squashy balloons. Add in your chicken thighs with the skin side up to keep them from sogging up if possible, and cook for another 2 minutes or so to heat them thorough in case they’ve cooled off while waiting for you. Taste to see if the broth needs salt or pepper, and check on the doneness of the chicken thighs. Serve in shallow bowls with lots of fresh pepper on top and good bread to dip in the broth.

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