It's no comfort to know spring is coming when the heat is out. Comfort food is quite a different thing when there is no heat in the house as opposed to having a bad day or being in bed with a sniffle. And quite a few of us this winter have been without heat at some point.
Braving cold floors, cooking in my coat, waiting for the furnace man to tell us it was all over with the 10-year-old equipment, I reverted to tried-and-true ways of preparing food that were comforting and filling, and that could be eaten in bed so I could take off my coat.
In these, some of my favorite comfort foods, I admit to feeling happier when I have biscuits or dumplings included. But the dumplings could easily be changed up to any grain in the soup, and other ingredients added to all the recipes as well. Rice is a comfort food to many here in Charleston, for instance. That's the benefit of comfort foods; most are not rigid recipes, but appeal to the senses with textures and flavors that, well, comfort us, and make us feel better.
I also have learned to be a bit more prepared when inclement weather threatens, vowing to keep more soups and tasty stews pre-made in the freezer, which could even be heated on a neighbor's gas grill in a sturdy pan if need be.
The microwave was a blessing for reheating these dishes as well as heating rice pudding, speeding up time in the cold kitchen. And, frankly, what could be better than rice pudding in bed?
Chicken and Vegetables With Drop Dumplings
Chicken soup is truly a soul-warming dish; adding dumplings takes that notion to new heights. The vegetables can be omitted, or store-bought chopped vegetables and store-bought cooked chicken can be used. Be careful, however, of salty commercial broth, add salt judiciously, and add water if necessary before adding the biscuits if the soup is salty. If the cook prefers using rendered chicken fat instead of butter, it will make a tastier soup.
For the stew:
1 cooked chicken
4 to 5 cups chicken stock or broth
4 carrots, chopped roughly
1 medium onion, chopped roughly
2 celery stalks, chopped roughly
Freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup heavy cream or half-and-half (optional)
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (optional)
For the stew: Remove the chicken from the bone and cut into bite-sized pieces. Refrigerate if necessary until needed.
Heat the broth to a boil in a sauce pan. Add the carrots, onion and celery, reduce the heat, cover and simmer until just tender, about 10 to 15 minutes. If adding cream or half and half, add now. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper only if needed. Add the bite-sized chicken. Bring back to a boil and boil 1 minute to thoroughly reheat. Add the chopped parsley if desired.
This may be made ahead, cooled and refrigerated. Reheat and bring to a boil 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Prepare the dumplings.
There are two kinds of Southern dumplings. One uses drop biscuits. The other uses strips of dough. Either way, they are added the final 10 minutes of cooking time, so they will be tender and tasty, cooked in the flavorful broth. These drop dumplings are very soft and tend to break up. If a sturdier biscuit dumpling is desired, add more flour.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1?4 cup chilled shortening, roughly cut into 1?2-inch pieces
1?3 cup milk
Fork-sift or whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl, preferably wider than it is deep.
Scatter the shortening over the flour and work in by rubbing fingers with the shortening and flour as if snapping thumb and fingers together (or use two forks or knives, or a pastry cutter) until the mixture looks like well-crumbled feta cheese, with no piece larger than a pea.
If this method took longer than 5 minutes, place the bowl in the refrigerator for 5 minutes to rechill the fat.
Make a deep hollow in the center of the flour with the back of your hand. Pour the milk into the hollow and stir with rubber spatula or large metal spoon, using broad circular strokes to quickly pull the flour into the milk.
Mix just until the dry ingredients are moistened and the wet dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Bring the chicken and broth back up to a boil and drop the wet dumplings, a teaspoonful at a time, into the boiling broth. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 10 minutes. The dumplings will swell and break up a bit.
Add chopped parsley or ground pepper to taste to the dumpling dough.
- Recipe is adapted from "Southern Biscuits" by Nathalie Dupree and Cynthia Graubart
Chicken and Rice Soup
Follow above recipe for chicken and dumplings, omitting the dumplings. Add 1 cup or more uncooked rice to the soup when the 4 cups of broth are back at a boil, and boil 11 to 13 minutes or until rice is cooked. Proceed with the rest of the recipe.
This should only be done with the best of stocks and gravies, I'm afraid; but once done right, it is one of the most memorable things you've ever done with turkey or rich chicken stock or gravy.
4 cups really good turkey or chicken stock, or dilute gravy to make 4 cups good broth
1 cup butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe dumplings (see above)
1 cup milk
Bring stock to a boil in a large heavy pot. Add butter and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, prepare the dumpling or biscuit dough. Drop the dumplings by rounded tablespoons into boiling stock. Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook about 5 minutes, turning dumplings as needed, until they have swelled up through the stock and are puffy and cooked through. Stir in the milk. Bring back to a boil and serve hot. Go to bed with teddy bear.
After her grandmother passed, Cynthia Graubart's grandfather, Papa, said the dish he missed the most was his wife's breaded tomatoes. Cynthia baked it for him every time he came to visit. Store-bought biscuits can be used, or any favorite biscuit.
3 cups torn or cut biscuits in 1?2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1?2 cup butter, melted
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Grease a small casserole dish. Add crumbled biscuits and toss with sugar. Stir in the tomatoes. Drizzle the mixture with melted butter.
Bake 30 to 35 minutes until the biscuit crumbs are light brown.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning "Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking." She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com