This is the first of what I hope will be a series of reviews of cookbooks by authors I have long admired. I have favorite cookbook authors well represented in my extensive library, and it's not unusual to see multiple works by Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Lee Bailey, Patricia Wells, Lidia Bastianich, Deborah Madison, Mario Batali, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Jacques Pepin, Barbara Kafka, Michele Scicolone, Diane Rossen Worthington, Susan Wyler, Jamie Oliver, and many others. While I love all their books, each has one book that is very special to me. I'm kicking off this series with COOK WITH JAMIE: My Guide to Making You A Better Cook.
Last night I made chicken with dumplings. And not just any old chicken and dumplings. This recipe was a loose adaptation of a version that I found in Jamie Oliver's superb COOK WITH JAMIE: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook (Hyperion)--a book that I consider his very best (it belongs in any serious collection of cookbooks just for the vegetable recipes alone). Jamie's original creation is called rather charmingly, Tender-as-You-Like Rabbit Stew with the Best Dumplings Ever. Let's not get into the "Thumper" issue of rabbit. I've tried to get friends to eat it over the years and have failed miserably. I ate it as a kid (my mother's superb fried rabbit with mashed potatoes and milk gravy is still a vivid childhood memory) and loved it, Disney animation be damned. The recipe also calls for "a bunch of fresh tarragon," and while I happily follow Jamie recipes, tarragon for me is one of those herbs that needs restraint. But what made me drool over the recipe was the photo of the dumplings. They were brown and they were brown because they were baked in the oven without a lid on the pot like classic steamed dumplings on top of the stove. I had some chicken thighs in my freezer just begging to be used instead of the rabbit. I figured I could cut the recipe (which serves 6-8) in half. Here might be a perfect Sunday supper on a blustery Pacific-Northwest evening.
The recipe calls for the dumplings to be made first and when formed into balls, placed on a cookie sheet and refrigerated until you need them. The dumplings are a simple combination of self-rising flour, butter, salt and pepper, with some milk to bind them into a dough, which is then formed into a rope and cut into large pieces and shaped into round dumplings. Instead of the tarragon, I used finely chopped Italian parsley and about five green scallions, also finely chopped. You add a small dusting of freshly grated nutmeg over the tops of the dumplings before chilling them.
I proceeded with the rest of the recipe. Four large chicken thighs were dredged in flour and then browned in a combination of butter and olive oil in a four-quart cast iron enamelware Dutch oven. Next I finely chopped three strips of bacon and browned that while moving the thighs around the pot until crisp. I spooned off much of the fat and dropped in a little more than a quarter pound of quartered cremini mushrooms, to which I added a sprig of fresh rosemary, salt and freshly ground pepper, and "a large handful of baby onions," and a tablespoon of flour. A quick stir and then the recipe required 12-oz of dark beer. I had some and along with 3/4 of a pint of recently made turkey stock, and with the addition of the dumplings spaced evenly on top of the chicken and vegetables, the recipe was complete. You place the heavy pot, sans lid, into a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes.
I faced a bubbling, aromatic stew with plumped and browned dumplings on top. Comfort food in excelsis. The thing about these dumplings is they are crunchy on the outside, and indescribably tender inside. This is the kind of unfussy, and imaginatively flavorful food for which Jamie Oliver is famous. Other favorite recipes in the book include Creamy Butternut Squash (a sublime sort of steamed-baked casserole of sliced butternut squash, with cream, white wine and Parmesan cheese, with crumbled red chilies, fresh thyme, crushed coriander seeds), and a magnificent Whole Baked Cauliflower with Tomato and Olive Sauce. By far the creative recipe I've ever encountered for cauliflower, I practically OD'd on this delicious creation when I first read this book.
Throughout his by now quite lengthy career, Jamie Oliver has grown from London Lad to one of the most admirable cookbook authors, chef and culinary citizen of the world. He's given young and disadvantaged kids an opportunity to become restaurant professionals in his wildly popular 15 Restaurants, and last year introduced his successful school lunches program to the United States, via his short TV series on raising the nutritional consciousness of parents and school-aged children. I have many of his cookbooks in my collection, but COOK WITH JAMIE seems to me to be his culinary masterwork.