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A fling in the spring

In 1967, Helmut Winter made international headlines for flinging some serious dumplings.

Outraged at the low-flying military aircraft over his home in Pasing, near Munich, Germany, Winter began firing bread dumplings from a massive homemade catapult. While he never grounded any planes (though he may have dented a helicopter), the self-styled Robin Hood of Munich ultimately forced both West German and U.S. aircraft to higher altitudes in what has been called the Great Bavarian Dumpling War.

I don’t know that I’ve ever eaten a weapons-grade dumpling, but I’ve certainly had -- and made -- my share of creations that have been, shall we say, “less than delicate.”

Found the world over, dumplings come in all shapes and sizes, prepared and cooked in countless ways. Many dumplings are light and tender, but others -- whether by mistake or design -- are not. Whatever the style, at their core, dumplings are a comfort food. They’re typically rustic and inexpensive to make and, for many, the handmade creations hark back to childhood and a grounding sense of home.

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Though they are often considered winter fare, best served with a robust stew or hearty roast, dumplings can work equally well with light, fresh spring meals. If anything, this is the best time to show off what dumplings have to offer.

In terms of sheer lightness of texture, nothing beats the ethereal quenelle. It’s the quintessential French dumpling, classically made with ground fish or meat bound together with eggs, fat and a flour-based paste ( panada or panade). Quenelles are molded into a small oval or cylinder and poached just until they puff to a delicate firmness. It’s a self-contained souffle of sorts, and tasting one is like biting into a seductively flavored cloud.

Instead of meat or fish, form the base around something intense and earthy, like mushrooms. Saute finely diced mushrooms with a little shallot and white wine until they’ve surrendered every last bit of moisture and turn a rich, deep brown; this concentrates their flavor and makes them easier to bind into the dumplings. Form and poach the quenelles, then chill; do this a couple of days in advance if you like (perfect if you’re planning for company).

Pair the quenelles with a light stew of tender spring vegetables: favas, asparagus tips, richly colored baby artichokes -- whatever inspires you. Blanch and chill the vegetables ahead of time to keep things easy. Just before you’re ready to serve, quickly warm the vegetables and quenelles in a rich bath of wine and vegetable broth, then add a little butter to thicken the broth to a sauce.

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The dish makes for a dramatic presentation: the bright crunch of vividly colored vegetables against the pillowy quenelles, married with a drizzle of velvety sauce.

If quenelles seem a bit fancy, try something a little more rustic but equally magical. If there’s one dish that’s comforting at any time of the year, it’s chicken and dumplings.

The key to the dish is a broth that is rich and flavorful. Cut up a whole chicken, then season and brown the pieces in a large pot. Add an ample amount of finely chopped vegetables (cut them small, as the broth won’t cook too long and you want them to release maximum flavor). Gently simmer everything until the chicken is tender and the broth is intensely flavored. Shred the chicken and strain the broth; because it’s so rich, there’s no need to thicken it.

For the dumplings, use a tender batter made with just enough baking powder to lighten the texture. For a twist, add a little cornmeal. Start by moistening the cornmeal with a little boiling water. It’s an old trick that softens the cornmeal and eliminates the bitter notes from the ground corn. Then make the batter, folding in lemon juice (the acidity will brighten the flavors) and a handful of chopped fresh herbs at the end.

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Poach the dumplings in the rich broth just before serving by dropping small spoonfuls into gently simmering broth. Cover the pot and keep the broth at a gentle heat; anything higher will toughen the center of the dumplings while causing them to break apart at the edges.

Serve the dumplings in large bowls with the broth and shredded chicken. Simple, yes, but deep with layered flavors and color. And to top it off, it’s even better the next day.

As I mentioned earlier, there’s a wide world of dumplings out there, and though poaching or steaming might be the most popular methods, they are by no means the only ones. There are baked and even fried varieties, methods that can add extra flavor and texture to the dumplings.

No meal is complete without dessert, and nothing heralds spring quite like the lush, vibrant red of sweet strawberries. They’re the perfect complement to spring dessert dumplings.

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Start by combining a few pounds of strawberries with just a little sugar, some vanilla and a touch of amaretto (the almond flavor provides a nice foil for the sweet-bright notes of the strawberries). Smooth the mixture in a large baking dish, then make the dumplings using a slightly soft buttermilk biscuit-type dough. Fold in some sliced almonds at the end for crunch, then spoon the dollops over the strawberries, one for each serving, and bake.

The dessert is ready when the dumplings are puffed and golden brown at the edges, and the strawberries are bubbling and have perfumed the kitchen with a wonderful aroma. You might say cobbler, but I say strawberry dumplings. Either way, serve the dessert warm, with a simple dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream.

The dumplings are tender and slightly tart from the buttermilk and speckled with bits of sliced almonds. And while the strawberries are moist and syrupy, the large pieces are not entirely broken down, and keep some of their shape and texture. It’s an almost heavenly combination.

I don’t think they’d work as improvised flinging devices.

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After shooting more than 120 dumplings at military aircraft, Winter was invited to the military base to discuss the “unconditional surrender” of the U.S. Air Force (the Germans had already come to a similar agreement). Afterward, he was invited to a “peace meal” of Southern fried chicken and dumplings.

“Too soggy,” Winter reportedly commented, unimpressed with the dumplings. “Much too soggy for shooting at airplanes -- only good for smearing windshields.”

At which point, a jeep driver at the table reportedly blanched.

noelle.carter@latimes.com

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Strawberry dumplings

Total time: About 1 hour

Servings: 8 to 10

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3 pounds strawberries

1/2 cup sugar plus 3 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 vanilla bean, seeded

4 teaspoons Amaretto

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1 1/2cups (6.4 ounces) flour

1/2teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking

powder

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6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold butter, diced into 1/2-inch pieces

3/4cup cold buttermilk

1/3cup sliced almonds

Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream

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1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

2. Hull the strawberries. Cut the strawberries, keeping the pieces large (leave the small strawberries whole, halve the mediums, and quarter the large). Place the strawberries in a large bowl. Toss with 1/2 cup sugar, the vanilla seeds and Amaretto, making sure the vanilla and amaretto are evenly distributed.

3. Pour the strawberry mixture into a 9- by 13-inch baking dish.

4. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, salt and baking powder. Cut in the cold butter using a pastry cutter or fork until the butter is reduced to small, pea-sized pieces. Pour in the buttermilk, and stir until the mixture is combined to form a thick, sticky batter. Gently stir in the almonds to combine.

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5. Scoop the batter into 8 to 10 portions, using a large soup or small serving spoon. Space the dumplings evenly over the strawberries. Place the baking dish in the oven and bake until the dumplings have risen and are golden brown and the strawberries are softened and bubbly, 30 to 40 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the dumplings should come out clean.

6. Remove and cool slightly on a rack. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.

Each of 10 servings: 257 calories; 4 grams protein; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 9 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 19 mg. cholesterol; 22 grams sugar; 236 mg. sodium.

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Mushroom quenelles with

spring vegetables

Total time: 1 1/2 hours

Servings: 6

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Mushroom duxelles :

1 pound button

mushrooms, brushed free of any dirt or grit

1 tablespoon olive oil

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1 tablespoon butter

1/4teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon minced shallot

1/2 cup dry white wine

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1. Mince the mushrooms or process in a food processor until finely and evenly minced.

2. Heat a large skillet over high heat until hot. Add the olive oil and butter and melt quickly, then stir in the mushrooms and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the liquid released from the mushrooms evaporates. Stir in the shallot and continue to cook just until the mushrooms begin to darken, another minute or so.

3. Stir in the wine, careful of the steam as it is very hot and could burn. Stir occasionally until the wine evaporates, 2 to 3 minutes, then continue to cook until the mushrooms are very dry and richly colored, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove from heat and spread the mushrooms out on a rimmed baking sheet to cool completely. This makes a scant cup of duxelles.

Mushroom quenelles:

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1/4cup (1/2 stick) butter, cut into 1/2-inch dice, at room temperature

1/2teaspoon salt

1/2cup water

1/2cup (2.1 ounces) flour

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3 eggs

Cooled mushroom duxelle

1/4cup sour cream

1. In a large, wide, heavy-bottom saucepan, combine the butter, salt and water and bring to a simmer over high heat. Remove from heat and quickly stir in the flour (stir quickly or the flour lumps will cook). Return the pan to low heat and cook, stirring frequently, for about 3 minutes to cook the flour slightly and rid the mixture of any starchy, floury taste.

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2. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the eggs, 1 at a time, until thoroughly combined (stir in the eggs vigorously and quickly as the heat from the pan can scramble them).

3. Stir in the duxelles. Remove the mixture from the pan to a medium bowl set over a bowl of ice water (an ice bath).

4. When the mixture has chilled and thickened, fold in the sour cream, 1 tablespoon at a time. Continue to gently stir the quenelle base until well chilled.

5. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a gentle simmer. Gather 2 spoons (standard spoons, not soup spoons) and place 1 in each hand. Dunk the spoons into the simmering water until slightly warmed, then scoop a mounded spoonful of quenelle dough in 1 spoon. Using the other spoon, work the mixture, smoothing and shaping with each spoon, to form a quenelle.

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6. With the formed quenelle sticking to 1 spoon, lower that spoon gently into the simmering water and shake, gently, until the quenelle releases and drops to the bottom of the pot. Continue until all the dough is used; depending on the size of the spoons, you should have about 20 quenelles.

7. The quenelles will float to the surface and puff up as they cook. Continue to simmer gently until the quenelles are puffed and just firm to the touch, about 5 minutes depending on their size (cut one open and test it; it should be cooked through and set).

8. Gently remove the cooked quenelles with a slotted spoon and drain on a slanted baking sheet (angle the sheet so any liquid from the quenelles drains away). Continue until all of the quenelles are cooked, and set them aside until cooled. Place the cooled quenelles in a baking dish, cover and refrigerate until well chilled. The quenelles can be made ahead up to this point and refrigerated up to 3 days.

Final assembly:

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2 cups vegetable broth, more as needed

2 cups dry white wine

2 tablespoons thinly sliced shallot

1/2teaspoon minced garlic

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Mushroom quenelles, chilled

About 3 cups blanched and chilled spring vegetables, such as asparagus tips, fava beans and baby artichokes

Fleur de sel

Cracked black pepper

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1/4cup (1/2 stick) cold butter, diced into small pieces

1. In a large (12- to 14-inch) saute pan, combine the vegetable broth, wine, shallot and garlic. Bring the mixture to a simmer over high heat and cook until the mixture reduces by half (or the mixture comes no more than one-fourth inch up the side of the pan). Reduce the heat to a very gentle simmer.

2. Gently place the mushroom quenelles in the pan, leaving enough space between them to allow them to steam. Cover the pan tightly and steam the quenelles just until warmed through, about 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Gently remove the warmed quenelles from the pan with a spatula, fork or slotted spoon and set aside in a warm place.

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4. Add the blanched vegetables to the pan and cover. Steam the vegetables just until warmed through, about 1 minute. Strain the vegetables with a slotted spoon and mound on each of 6 warmed plates, and garnish each mound with a sprinkling of fleur de sel and cracked pepper. Divide the quenelles between the plates, about 3 per serving (you may not use all of the quenelles).

5. There should still be a thin film of liquid on the bottom of the warm pan (a few tablespoons); if it is mostly evaporated, add a little more vegetable broth and wine and swirl around the pan until warm (conversely, if there is too much liquid, drain the liquid until you have about 3 tablespoons in the pan).

6. Add the cold butter, a few pieces at a time and swirl the pan until they melt (do not whisk or stir, as the sauce could pick up metal residue from the pan and discolor). When the butter is almost melted, add more pieces, continuing until all of the butter is incorporated. The sauce will thicken as the butter is added. (Adding, or “mounting” the sauce with butter can be very tricky as the pan and broth must be just warm -- neither too hot nor too cold -- otherwise the butter will separate. If the butter does separate, whisk in a little cold cream to bind the sauce together for service.)

7. Drizzle a little of the sauce over each plate and serve immediately.

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Each serving, with asparagus only: 317 calories; 9 grams protein; 18 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 17 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 135 mg. cholesterol; 5 grams sugar; 505 mg. sodium.


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