Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Barrel Full of Crackers.

If you're from the South, chances are you've been to Cracker Barrel.  Part old-timey candy store, part country cookin' restaurant.  I used to go nuts when my folks would take the family out to some far away, middle of nowhere Cracker Barrel.  They always seemed to be nestled right next to an outlet mall or a seedy truck stop.  The second you walk in the door you're transported to a tchotchke filled wonderland of jars and tubs filled with old school sugary concoctions.  My favorite was the rock candy on a stick with edges so sharp that you were bound to have an open sore or two in your mouth before you were seated for your meal.

For breakfast I would always get the country ham steaks, sausage, bacon, two fried eggs, hash browns, and grits with cream gravy.  A nice light breakfast to start my day.  I don't know how I managed to stay thin all those years.  My mother insisted that I had a tapeworm.  If I do have a worm it must be about 60 feet long by now.  Ick, I just seriously grossed myself out.  Perhaps I'll sleep with a piece of raw beef on my pillow tonight and see if my wormy friend comes crawling out my mouth.  I think I'll name her Slippy.  Anywho, lunchtime at Crackertown (that's what I called it when I was a lil' girl) was my favorite.  I remember walking past a bright red window filled with gory slabs of meat gettin' smoked right before my eyes.  I always knew what I was getting before I even sat down.  "Yes ma'am, I'll have the chicken n' dumplings.  Can I also get a side of hushpuppies and maybe some red beans and rice.  Oh and a side of your famous smoked ham n' biscuits too.  Yeah don't forget the ham."  I don't know how my mother afforded to keep me around.  I ate more than my whole family put together and then when I was finished with my ridiculous amount of food I would continue to eat all of the other unfinished plates on the table.  Hell, I bet I would've roamed the restaurant eating off of other people's plates if I knew I could get away with it. 

Back to the Chicken n' Dumplings.  Although I didn't quite replicate the recipe from Cracker Haven my version comes pretty damn close if not better.  I'm pretty sure mine uses better ingredients.  The first batch I made came out a little more soupy than I like but it was tasty none the less.  I think I didn't stir enough as I was dropping in the dumplings to make that thick creamy gravy.  I also added a few vegetables to brighten it up a bit.  Here in Seattle, it's hard to get an authentic taste of the South so once in a while I'll give myself a rock candy tooth ache and make some chicken n' dumplings to feel right at home. 

Southern Chicken N' Dumplings

3 quarts water
1 3-4 pound chicken cut into pieces
1 teaspoons salt
1 small onion sliced
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered
1 bay leaf
4-6 whole parsley leaves
fresh cracked black pepper and kosher salt tt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

for the dumplings
2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 ¼ teaspoons of salt
2 tsp old bay
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk

1. Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. Add the chicken, 1 teaspoon of salt, onion, 2 celery stalks, garlic, bay leaf, and parsley to the pot. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook the chicken, uncovered, for 1 1/2 hours. Skim the foam off the top while it's cooking.  The liquid will reduce by about one third.
2. When the chicken has cooked, remove it from the pot and set it aside. Strain the stock and set aside. Throw away the aromatics.
3. Pour 6 cups of the stock back into a pot  Add fresh cracked black pepper, one teaspoon of salt, and the lemon juice, then reheat the stock over medium heat while you prepare the dumplings.
4. For dumplings, combine the flour, baking powder, 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, and milk in a medium bowl. Stir well until smooth, then let the dough rest for 5-10 minutes. Roll the dough out onto a floured surface to about a 1/2 inch thickness.
5. Cut the dough into 1/2 inch squares and drop each square into the simmering stock. The dumplings will first swell and then slowly shrink as they partially dissolve to thicken the stock into a white gravy. Add one sliced celery stick and carrots.  Simmer for 30 minutes or until thick. Stir often.
6. While the dumplings are cooking tear the chicken meat from the bones and discard the skin. Shred the chicken meat into large bite-size pieces and drop them into the pot. Simmer the chicken and dumplings for another 5-10 minutes.
7. When the gravy has reached the desired consistency, ladle into bowls and serve hot.

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