You know that scene from the second season of Mad Men, when Betty serves a globally-inspired “trip around the world” dinner to Don and his colleagues — gazpacho, rumaki, Irish leg of lamb, and German noodles, with Bordeaux and Heineken to drink? And it’s funny but also sad, because she’s trying so hard to look cosmopolitan and sophisticated? I never really got how true that rang until I started studying Nonnie’s cookbook.
The binder is studded with recipes made to seem exotic by the ethnic modifiers they carry — Scandinavian Duck, Devonshire Turkey Sandwiches, Spanish Omelet, Mexican Hot Sauce, Norwegian Salad, Hawaiian Chicken. The irony, of course, is that there’s nothing authentic about any of them; they’re basic midcentury Americana, as far removed from the traditional dishes that inspired them as a Chinese fire drill is from China. (The worst offender is probably Nonnie’s “Armenian Vegetable Casserole,” a melange of eggplant, peppers, and zucchini mixed with ketchup and baked for two hours. What? Exactly.)
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t think there’s anything particularly German about these green beans. There isn’t anything particularly anything about these green beans; they’re just steamed and tossed with bacon and red wine vinegar, a tasty preparation that doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. They’d go fine with beer, I guess, but eating them won’t exactly make you want to start goose-stepping.
The chicken and dumplings, however, might be a different story.
Yes, the recipe’s kind of a pain in the ass. It basically calls for you to make a quick chicken stock, then drop a mixture of flour and fat on top, then strain out the dumplings and cooked chicken and sad limp vegetables in order to use the remaining stock as a base for the gravy you’ll eventually drape over the final product. Cooking chicken, vegetables, and dumplings in ready-made stock — as most of the other recipes I’ve found do — would be a lot simpler, and would result in a lot fewer dirty dishes.
Then again, those other recipes leave you with soup. They don’t yield perfectly poached chicken and fluffy but hearty dough balls, all smothered in a smooth, creamy sauce that tastes like the very essence of chicken — a dish that’s exceedingly hard to stop eating.
Even though it isn’t exactly Instagram-ready.
Chicken and Dumplings; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 whole or cut-up fryer [a.k.a. just a regular chicken. I had the butcher chop mine into four, because I didn’t want to have to dig around for eight pieces of chicken in a pot of boiling broth]
Parsley sprigs [I went with two]
4 celery ribs and leaves [which I chopped, even though Nonnie didn’t tell me to]
1 carrot, sliced
1 onion [which I chopped in half, ditto]
4-5 whole cloves
2 teaspoons salt
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup sifted flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup milk [I used 1%, but any kind would probably do]
2 tablespoons oil [In keeping with the midcentury theme, I went for Crisco instead of olive]
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Place chicken in Dutch oven. Add just enough water to barely cover chicken. Add parsley sprigs, celery, carrot, onion (stuck with whole cloves), 2 teaspoons salt, peppercorns, and bay leaf. [Making a face with the cloves in the onion is optional, but encouraged.]
Cover; bring to boiling point, reduce heat, and simmer until meat is tender. [How long does that take, exactly? The answer is variable, depending on how juicy you want your bird to be, I went with 45 minutes, figuring that’d be enough time to yield a reasonably flavorful broth but not enough time to dry out the chicken. It worked beautifully.]
Sift together flour, baking powder, and half teaspoon salt. Combine milk and oil and add this, together with chopped parsley, to dry ingredients. Stir just enough to moisten.
Drop from tablespoon directly onto chicken in boiling stock. [Nonnie has “directly onto chicken” underlined, although I’m not sure why. Where… else would you drop the dough? And if it’s her way of trying to make the straining step easier, it doesn’t really work.] Cover tightly; return to boiling. Reduce heat (don’t lift cover) and simmer 12-15 minutes.
Remove dumplings and chicken to hot platter and keep hot. [The most annoying part of the recipe by far, since you want to keep the chicken and the dumplings but leave behind the celery, carrot, onion, and parsley, all of which have been boiled to death and won’t have much flavor left. A slotted spoon (for the dumplings) and pair of tongs (for the chicken) will help immensely, although it’ll still be a challenge to try to make the final product look pretty.]
Make chicken gravy: Strain broth. Measure 1 quart broth into a saucepan. [You’ll have leftover broth; don’t throw it away.] Heat to boiling. Combine 1 cup cold water and 1/2 cup flour; gradually add to broth, mixing well. Cook, stirring constantly [with a whisk, to ensure all the flour gets incorporated], until mixture thickens.
[My gravy reached the right consistency after reducing for about 20 minutes; I also found that after I’d whisked all the flour into submission, I didn’t have to keep stirring to maintain its lump-free texture. Just make sure you mix until all traces of flour have disappeared into the sauce, and it’ll be fine to stop stirring so diligently.]
Add 1.5 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. [Feel free to lick the spoon. And the whisk. And the pot, but only after it cools down.]
Pour over chicken and dumplings to serve. Serves 3-4.
Green Beans, German Style; main text Nonnie’s, italicized asides my own
1 lb. fresh green beans
1 onion, chopped
Salt and pepper
4 slices bacon, cooked crisp and chopped [It’s listed this way in the ingredients even though Nonnie then gives instructions about how to cook the bacon. Maybe she wanted us to be left with four extra slices of bacon? Wouldn’t be the worst thing.]
1 cup water
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Snap ends and strings off beans. [Or be lazy like me and buy fresh beans that’ve already been de-stringed.] Bring water to a boil; add beans, cover, and cook gently, about 8-10 minutes. [Don’t be alarmed when you realize that this isn’t nearly enough water to cover all the beans. You’re not boiling them — you’re essentially steaming them, enough so that they cook through but still retain a nice snap.]
Reserve 1/4 cup water, and discard remaining water. In another saucepan or skillet, sauté bacon; discard most of drippings (remove bacon and reserve for later), leaving enough to lightly sauté onions. [I cooked them until they looked lightly translucent, which I’d say should take around five minutes on medium heat.]
Add flour to onions and mix well. Pour in 1/4 cup of water from beans, and the vinegar, and bring to a boil. Add beans, salt, pepper, and bacon. Reduce heat, mix well, and cook until beans are hot.
The verdict: The beans? Pretty good. They’re not cooked to death, which is what matters most; the flour makes them a little sticky, but not unpleasantly so; the vinegar adds a subtle tang, but not enough that you’d notice it if you didn’t know it was there. They could definitely benefit from more acid, either extra vinegar or some lemon juice.
The chicken? Well, it’s pretty much perfect — hearty, comforting, indulgent but not an over-the-top calorie bomb. (There’s not even any butter in it! Was Nonnie feeling okay when she wrote this one down?)
There are only two cons. First: The recipe yields a whooole lot of gravy, way more than is technically necessary to moisten the chicken. This is only a con if you’re a gravy-hating monster. Second: The chicken goes into the serving dish bones, floppy skin and all, which means you’ll have to do some messy digging to get at the meat.
Thankfully, there’s an easy solution; just remove the chicken parts, strip the meat away from the skin and bones, and drop it back into the dumpling-gravy party. Voila: chicken and dumplings you don’t even need a knife to eat.
You certainly don’t need to follow my lead, but: I also took things a step further by adding those bones back to my leftover broth and returning it to the stove for another few hours. I ended up with an even more intensely chicken-y stock that, okay, also sort of tastes like gravy. I’m not complaining.