Stewed up over dumplings

Yes, somewhere beneath all that root-vegetable goodness, luxuriating in a complex and savory broth, is a charming little dumpling, fluffy and plump.

Snowed in as we are here in DC, we were unable to travel out to a friend’s Superbowl party this past Sunday, so I decided to make a stew for dinner. Diving into my pantry, I pulled out some of those items from my last blog (“Panty…uh… Pantry Raid!”) that are necessary to the perfect stew. Stews should be savory with just a touch of sweetness; you can do this with tomatoes, dried fruit (like prunes or, as they are called these days, “dried plums”), or some of each. To balance out those flavors, I make a Salted Apple Dumpling, which combines chopped tart apples into the dumpling dough and is then lightly dusted with kosher salt just before they steam.

I got this idea a few years ago from one of my favorite cookies — a local favorite here in DC — known as a Salty Oat Cookie. I cooked at an event some years ago with the pastry chef from 1789, a fancy-schmancy Washington restaurant favored by politicos; she had created the cookie for another restaurant, Teaism, a cool Asian-fusion casual eatery that Rachael Ray once profiled on that show she does about how to eat out on $40 a day. The Salty Oat Cookie is truly delicious, and I am not a big oatmeal cookie fan. It is big and tender and it has this dusting of salt across the top which perfectly complements the subtle sweetness of the cookie itself. I have tried to replicate it but can never get it quite right, so I came up with the Salted Apple Dumpling instead. Sometimes you gotta know when to move on.

Don’t be afraid of dumplings — they are basically just steamed biscuits, and they have a fluffy texture that makes your mouth sing, especially when they soak up that luxurious stew broth. My stew recipe below is vegetarian, but you should make yours exactly the way you like. Pork, beef, and chicken would all work really well for this recipe, just make sure that you are browning them properly first and stewing those meats until they are cooked through. The vegetarian version comes together quite quickly because vegetarian proteins are really already cooked, so they are just being browned and then heated through; give yourself more time if you are using actual meat. I used a meatless “beef” strip, but it would work equally well with tofu, beans, or portobello mushrooms.

People often ask me why vegetarians bother even being vegetarian if they are going to put meat-like substitutes in their recipes. The simple answer is that many vegetarians grew up eating meat; we like beef stew as a flavor, but we don’t want to eat actual beef. My teenage daughter, however, has actually never eaten meat; when she was about 5 years old, she was with a group of friends before school in the playground and one of the boys was talking about how he had recently eaten a piece of alligator. Another child asked “What did it taste like?” The boy considered this and finally replied “Like chicken.” Everyone nodded their heads wisely, except our daughter, who stared at him for a moment before asking “What does chicken taste like?”

Here is the stew in progress, with the raw dumplings just added to the top, ready to steam into fluffy perfection.

Winter Stew with Salted Apple Dumplings

for the stew:

One pound protein (see above for suggestions)

2 cups potatoes — any variety — chopped into 1-inch pieces

1-1/2 cups Brussels sprouts, quartered (trust me)

1 onion, coarsely chopped

1 cup carrots, coarsely chopped

1 cup celery, coarsely chopped

1 cup mushrooms, quartered

1 cup frozen peas

1 cup frozen corn

1/2 cup prunes, chopped

1/4 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped

3 cups broth (any variety — I like to use mushroom broth)

1 cup red wine

salt/pepper/herbs (I like to add a couple of bay leaves, a little crushed rosemary, some smoked paprika, and a dash of cayenne)

olive oil

balsamic vinegar

for the dumplings

1 heaping cup all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1 egg, beaten

2 tsp. melted unsalted butter

1/3 cup milk

1 apple, chopped (Granny Smith is good, or soak some dried apple in hot water for 15 minutes and chop that up)

kosher salt

Heat a couple of teaspoons of olive oil over moderate heat in a stockpot. Brown your protein, then add the Brussels sprouts. Stirring frequently, allow the sprouts to get just slightly browned, then sprinkle a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over the sprouts and protein. Stir for a minute, then add the onion. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, then add the potatoes, carrots, and celery. Cook for another 5 minutes, still stirring frequently, then add the mushrooms, prunes, and sundried tomatoes. Stir together for a minute, then add the broth, wine, herbs, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then reduce heat to low and cover loosely with a lid (that is, allow some steam to escape, but not too much). Cook for about 30 minutes, until vegetables are tender but not mushy. If you are using meat protein, check for doneness (i.e. not pink in the center).

Add the frozen peas and corn and stir well; if the stew is losing liquid, add a little water. Keep heat very low while you mix up the dumpling dough. To make the dumplings, mix all dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then add the wet ingredients and mix together until you have a soft dough. Fold in the chopped apples until they are somewhat evenly distributed.

I can get about 6 large dumplings out of this amount of dough. Use a soup spoon to measure each one out — it will just look like a large lump, which you will nestle right into the top of your stew. Add each dumpling to the stew, about a 1/2 inch apart and sprinkle the tops of the dumplings with just a small pinch of kosher salt. Cover with the lid and let steam for about 12 minutes or so over low heat. They are done when the tops are springy to the touch and no longer sticky. Spoon a dumpling into each bowl and ladle the stew around it. If the stew broth has thickened too much while the dumplings were steaming, then just add a little broth or water to get it to the right consistency — not too soupy, but like a thin gravy. Serves 4.

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