Chicken with herbed cornmeal dumplings

Time 2 hours
Yields Serves 6
Chicken with herbed cornmeal dumplings
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Cut up the chicken: Remove the giblets, saving the neck (discard the remaining giblets, or save for another use). Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut along the back of the chicken, removing the backbone. Cut or break the backbone into thirds (this will help to flavor and thicken the broth). With a sturdy French knife or cleaver, halve the chicken lengthwise down the breast. Cut each chicken half into 4 pieces, separating the leg and thigh, and halving the breast crosswise (the wing can remain attached to the breast or separated). Sprinkle the chicken pieces (including the neck and back) with 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and several grinds of pepper, evenly seasoning the pieces.


Heat a large, sturdy stockpot over high heat. When hot, add the olive oil and enough chicken to fit comfortably in a single layer. Brown the chicken on all sides, about 15 minutes (this will probably need to be done in 2 batches). Remove the chicken to a bowl and repeat until all the chicken is browned.


Reduce the heat to medium-high. To the fat in the pot, add the chopped onion, carrots, celery and leek, cooking until the vegetables just begin to color, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently.


Stir in the white wine and cook, scraping any flavoring from the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until the wine is almost evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.


Add the garlic, 3 sprigs parsley, thyme and bay leaf to the pot, and add back the chicken.


Pour in 10 cups water (this should more than cover the chicken), loosely cover the pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook, loosely covered, until the chicken is very tender, 45 minutes to an hour. Periodically skim the fat that forms on top of the broth as the chicken cooks.


When the chicken is tender, remove the pieces to a large plate or baking dish until cool enough to handle. Strain the chicken broth into a separate 3-quart pot, discarding the vegetables and herbs. You should have about 10 cups of broth. Skim any remaining fat from the broth, and season to taste.


Remove the skin from the chicken pieces and peel the meat from the bones. Shred the meat into bite-sized pieces; you should have about 6 cups of chicken. Place the meat in a bowl and set aside while you make the dumpling batter.


To make the dumplings: In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornmeal and one-third cup boiling water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the mixture cools, about 15 minutes. Stir in the flour, 1 teaspoon salt and the baking powder, breaking up any cornmeal clumps with your fingers.


In a small bowl, whisk together the egg and 2 tablespoons milk. Pour the milk mixture into the medium bowl, and drizzle over the lemon juice. Stir to combine, then gently fold in the herbs until evenly distributed. This should form a thick batter (it should have the consistency of thick cement, sticky yet spoonable). Add more milk if needed to thin the batter, 1 tablespoon at a time. (You may not use all of the milk.)


Bring the broth to a gentle simmer on the stove. Spoon 1-inch balls of the batter (the dumplings will expand as they cook) into the simmering broth; this makes about 20 dumplings. The dumplings will sink at first but will soon float; continue to simmer, loosely covered, until they are just cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes. Strain the dumplings onto a large plate or baking dish.


Add the shredded chicken back to the broth. Serve immediately, adding dumplings back to each serving.