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Perfecting a ‘signature’ home-cooked meal

Now that winter is rearing its icy head, I am not one of those people who wax nostalgic about fireplaces and heating their homes with open fireplaces or wood/coal burning stoves or furnaces.

I have loved chicken and dumplings for as long as I can remember. My mom and over half a dozen of my aunts each had what I would call “signature” chicken and dumplings recipes, meaning no two tasted exactly alike. If I went to a family gathering on Blair Branch and they had “dinner on the ground” and all the women decided to bring a kettle of chicken and dumplings, I could usually tell you who made which kettle by taking a single bite of one dumpling.

Neither one was better than any of the others even though they ranged from light as air and fluffy to semi-tough and chewy, from round, like golf balls, to small, flat rectangles similar to ravioli without the crinkles and numerous other shapes and sizes in between those two extremes. They were all delicious. It’s actually pretty hard to go wrong when it comes to fixing chicken and dumplings unless you forget to add some salt and plenty pepper.

That is, unless you’re yours truly and try to make dumplings from scratch. I’ve stood right beside the late Molly Helton and her daughter, Thelma Helton Broughton, both of whom made the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted that were not made on Blair Branch or by my Aunt Alpha Adams who brought hers from Whitesburg to Blair Branch. Anyway, I talked Molly and Thelma into showing me exactly how they went about it. More than once Molly let me help her make the dough and actually drop it into the kettle of boiling chicken. I took copious notes.

Then, a week or so later, Loretta and I would be grocery shopping and I’d start craving chicken and dumplings. I’d buy a cut up chicken, rush home, pull out my notes and visualize Molly or Thelma in the kitchen as if one or both were standing right there beside me giving instructions. I would cook the chicken for nearly an hour, mix up my dough exactly the way they did, or at least the way I remembered them doing it, drop the dumplings into the pot, making sure I raked the ones already in it aside so the subsequent ones didn’t stick to them and then let the pot simmer for at least 20 minutes just like Molly always did.

Then, just less than half an hour later, I’d check the pot only to discover that I had chicken and very lumpy gravy that neither looked nor tasted anywhere close to Molly’s or Thelma’s. To this day I am convinced that they sneaked something into their dumpling dough when I wasn’t watching.

So years had gone by since I’d last tried my hand at making chicken and dumplings before Lo and I found ourselves at the new Aldi’s in Richmond a couple of weeks ago where chicken legs and thighs were on sale at a price too low to turn down. I wound up getting a “family pack” for less than 3 bucks while my wife just rolled her eyes in resignation. I also grabbed a can of raw, Jumbo, buttermilk biscuits that told her I was going to use for dumpling dough and that earned me yet another eye roll. I forget the brand name but it was the only canned biscuits they had in the store.

The first batch I tried, I flattened the raw biscuits out to about ¼ inch thick and sliced them similarly to the aforementioned ravioli shapes. I had already cooked 8 or 10 pieces of chicken in a 6 qt. pot with water, salt and a heavy dose of black pepper. I drained off some of the water and added a can of evaporated milk only because I can remember my Mom doing that as her signature touch to the dish.

I wound up making three meals out of the first batch. Maybe it had been too long since I’d had chicken and dumplings, but they sure tasted as well as anything I remember. Then, last Friday, we made another trip to Aldi’s and I purchased a pack of skinned and boneless thighs and another can of the same biscuits. No wifely eye rolls this time around because she knew that I’d eat them even if nobody else would touch them.

This time I quartered the raw biscuits and rolled each piece into tight little balls between the palms of my hands before dropping them into the kettle. Thelma Broughton may be rolling her eyes and her Mama may be rolling over in her grave but, as far as I’m concerned, I have finally learned to cook chicken and dumplings.^

Reach longtime Enterprise columnist Ike Adams at ikeadams@aol.com or on Facebook or 249 Charlie Brown Road, Paint Lick, KY 40461.