Comfort Food at Its Best

April 30th, 2021

This column appeared in our local paper, and I couldn’t resist sharing it with a wider audience!

Sometimes when recipe inspiration doesn’t strike me, I call on friends (or friends of friends) who are good home cooks. Recently, I contacted writer and scholar Martha Ackmann.

I knew Martha would come up with something tasty. I also knew she would be fun to talk to. It didn’t occur to me that she would offer me a recipe from Dolly Parton … but when she did I was thrilled.

Martha is working on a book about Parton. I asked her, “Why Dolly?”

She replied, “My niche is women who’ve changed America.”

Her previous books have chronicled the lives of the Mercury 13, a group of women in the 1960s who were secretly tested as potential U.S. astronauts; Toni Stone, a pioneering player in baseball’s Negro League; and Emily Dickinson.

Martha explained that she has been interested in Dolly Parton since the singer’s early days performing on The Porter Wagoner Show.

“I want to take her seriously,” Martha said of Parton. “I love her music. I think it’s joyous and heartwarming, and it makes me feel better. Even the things she calls her ‘sad-ass songs.’”

“I’ve been spending a lot of the lockdown just doing the basic research, and boy is there a lot of it!” Martha added.

As a former resident of East Tennessee (my friend Bill played in the Sevierville County High School Marching Band with Parton), I, too, am a long-time Dolly fan. I believe Martha is the perfect person to write about this complex public personality.’

“I have always been impressed by her seriousness,” Martha told me.

She noted that Parton’s history has been entwined with food from the start of the star’s life. Martha cited Parton’s origin story, which recounts that father Robert Lee Parton didn’t have the funds to pay the doctor who brought the child into the world and ended up paying for the birth with a sack of cornmeal.

Food production was important throughout Parton’s time growing up poor with a passel of brothers and sisters, Martha informed me.

“Dolly’s family grew their own food not to sell but to sustain their large family,” she explained. “They had a big kettle for cooking hominy and stews, a ‘tater hole’ for storing potatoes and turnips. The walls of their kitchen were covered with nails for drying fruits, peppers, garlic, dill, onions, and beans.

“They grew asparagus behind the woodshed. Had both red and black raspberries. A smoke house for salted pork, ham, bacon. There were cardboard boxes in the cupboard for dried shellie beans, corn, black-eyed peas; and sacks of walnuts, hazelnuts, hickory nuts, chestnuts, beechnuts.

“A large garden, of course (tomatoes, okra, lettuce). Chickens, hogs, cows. They also ate a lot of game,” Martha concluded.

She argued that in some ways food has also helped shape Parton’s music. “As a child, Dolly always listened to the rhythm around her: birds chirping, the creak of a rocking chair. She also remembers hearing her mother snapping beans. The rhythm of those snaps sounded like music to her. Food equals music.”

Martha describes herself as “a good, solid, not flashy, evolving Midwestern cook.”

Like Parton, Martha’s Missouri family had rural roots. She recalls her country-born grandparents butchering their own meat in their tiny backyard in St. Louis. Martha is the designated cook in her own household. She was eager to try one of Parton’s signature recipes when I asked her for a dish.

Together, Martha and I selected Dolly Parton’s Chicken and Dumplings, a perfect recipe for our recent cool weather. Like any good home cook, Martha adapted the recipe a bit … and she admitted that she might adapt it even more next time she makes it.

She is considering more vegetables (leeks, beans) and perhaps some herbs (parsley, thyme, bay leaf) to the stock. She told me that the dish was satisfying as it was, however, and that it epitomized comfort.

“The dumplings were easy to make,” she elaborated, “and preparing them gave me an occasion to use my great aunt’s rolling pin! (Beulah Clementine Snook Erdel. Isn’t that a noble name?)

“All the time I was making the dumplings, I thought about Dolly’s mother feeding 11 hungry kids and the Missouri farm women in my own family rolling out countless pie crusts, biscuits, and dumplings. This is a good recipe for remembering hard-working women.” Here is Martha’s recipe. Listen to a little Dolly Parton music as you make and eat it.

Martha with the Rolling Pin (courtesy of Ann Romberger)

Dolly’s Chicken ‘n’ Dumplin’s

(Adapted by Martha Ackmann)

Ingredients:

for the stock and the chicken:

1 3-pound chicken, cut up, or 3 pounds of chicken parts
2 teaspoons salt
pepper to taste
1 onion, peeled but left whole
1/4 cup chopped celery leaves
chopped carrots and celery to taste

for the dumplings:

2 cups flour, plus additional flour for kneading
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons shortening
3/4 cup milk

for assembly:
a little parsley for garnish

Instructions:

In a Dutch oven, combine the chicken and the salt with 2 quarts of water. Cover, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium. Toss in the pepper, onion, and celery leaves. Simmer the chicken, covered, until the meat comes off the bones. (This took Martha about 45 minutes.)

Strain the mixture, discarding the vegetables but saving the broth and chicken.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove it from the bones. Cut it into bite-size pieces. Set it aside. Turn the heat up to high, and bring the stock to a boil. Toss the carrots and celery into the liquid.

While the stock is boiling, begin to work on the dumplings. Combine the flour, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl.

Cut in the shortening with knives or a pastry blender. Stir in the milk, a little at a time, until the dough is moist. Turn it onto a floured board, and knead it for 5 minutes.

Roll the dough out until it is 1/2 inch thick. Cut it into 1-1/2-inch squares. Drop the squares into the boiling stock. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring gently from time to time.

Return the chicken to the pot. Stir it and heat it until it is thoroughly warm, about 8 minutes.

To serve, place 3 or so dumplings in a shallow soup dish, place chicken to taste on top, and ladle on some stock with carrots and celery. Serve warm, garnished with parsley. Serves 4 to 5.

Courtesy of Christina Barber-Just

Important Changes to Email Sign Up

April 28th, 2021

Dear Readers,

My current email subscription service, Feedburner, tells me it is about to stop sending this blog out via email. I’m in search of a new way to get the word out when I post.

If you currently subscribe to In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens by email or would like to do so, please email me at ourgrandmotherskitchens AT merrylion DOT com. (I’m not putting in the @ or . for fear of spam, but I imagine you can figure them out!) If I don’t hear from you, your subscription will be canceled.

I will notify you when a new email subscription service is up and running. And of course I will NOT share or sell your email address ever.

Please keep reading! I know I don’t post frequently, but I enjoy the feedback. I plan to share a new recipe very soon.

Warmly,

Tinky

Nana’s Matzo Ball Soup

March 22nd, 2021

Nana’s Matzo Ball Soup

Passover is coming. I’ll be making my grandmother’s matzo-ball soup this week on Mass Appeal and talking about her on our local public-radio station, New England Public Radio. Here’s the simple recipe, associated with Jewish grandmothers the world over. Happy Spring!

Ingredients:

2 eggs
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 tablespoons soda water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup matzo meal
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Instructions:

In a small bowl, beat the eggs. With a balloon whisk, whisk in the parsley, dill, soda water, oil, salt, and pepper. Then stir in the matzo meal. Cover the mixture, and refrigerate it for at least an hour but not more than 6 hours.

Oil your hands, and shape the dough into small balls (about 1/2 inch across). Pop the balls CAREFULLY into salted boiling water.

Simmer the balls, covered, for 25 minutes over medium-low heat. Do not peek at the balls while they are cooking. Drain the matzo balls.

Bring the chicken stock to a boil, covered, and place the balls in it. Simmer, covered, for at least 15 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.

Marching into Spring with Maple

March 17th, 2021
Courtesy of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association

We New Englanders love having four varied seasons. (Or five, if you count mud season!) I wouldn’t trade our climate for the monotonous sunshine of California or Florida. Nevertheless, at some point during the winter I begin to find the gray skies, snow, and ice a bit tiresome.

Fortunately, at just about that point every year maple season arrives. We have just entered Massachusetts Maple Month. I love maple syrup. Its viscous sweetness adds flavors to a wide variety of dishes, from salmon teriyaki to maple pudding.

I also love Maple Month because even when there’s snow on the ground I know the sap is starting to move through the trees, signaling that spring is on its way. Maple is the first local agricultural product of our year, and I welcome it.

I recently asked Winton Pitcoff, the coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association, whether he had any idea what kind of season we can expect this year.

He laughed.

“I like that there’s thing about maple,” he replied. “Nobody asks the tomato growers in March what kind of tomatoes we’re going to have.”

He noted that although it is too early in the season to make firm predictions he is optimistic. The sustained cold temperatures in recent weeks and the snow cover in the woods should help the trees “get some rest and charge up from the sap.”

He added that despite some recent years in which the weather has been less than ideal, the state’s maple farmers have steadily increased their capacity to make syrup. “That’s testimony to the skill of our sugarmakers,” stated Pitcoff.

He noted that this year’s sugaring season will be different from usual because of COVID-19.

Last year, the pandemic hit just as sugaring was gearing up. “It was hard,” he recalled. “It was particularly hard for the sugarhouses that have restaurants. But agriculture doesn’t stop. We still had a very good crop. People sold less during the season but sold a lot over the course of the year.”

People’s increasing reliance on home cooking and desire to support local businesses helped fuel the strong sales of the past year, according to Pitcoff.

This year, sugarhouses will again boil syrup, and maple weekend will take place in some form on March 20 and 21. Some restaurants and farms will be open; others may do curbside pickup and/or make appointments to spread visitors out.

Pitcoff recommended that readers check the association’s website or contact their favorite local sugarmakers to see what is planned as the month progresses.

“Each [sugarhouse] is going to do what they’re most comfortable with,” he told me. “We’re trying!”

Meanwhile, he encourages everyone to continue to support this native agricultural enterprise. “There’s nothing more local and regional than maple syrup in New England,” he enthused.

He suggested that all in the state try to develop new-to-us culinary uses for maple syrup, including adding it to coffee or tea instead of sugar.

I did my part by making maple ice cream. It might seem counterintuitive to make ice cream when the temperatures are still cold, but New Englanders eat ice cream copiously all through the year.

The ice cream is only mildly maple flavored; I didn’t want to make it overly sweet. You may always add a little more syrup. I hope this frozen treat pleases your palate this maple month.

Maple Ice Cream

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup maple syrup
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 pinch salt

Instructions:

Heat the milk until it is steamy but not boiling. While you are heating it use a separate bowl to whisk together the egg yolks and the syrup until the mixture is thick.

Whisk a bit of the hot milk into the egg mixture. Then whisk more, up to about 1/2 or 3/4 cup.  Whisk the milky egg yolks into the remaining milk. Cook over medium heat until the custard begins to thicken but does not boil (about 2 to 3 minutes on my gas stove).

Remove the custard from the heat and strain it into a heatproof bowl or pot. Cool thoroughly.

When the custard is cold whisk in the cream, vanilla, and salt. Place this mixture in your ice-cream freezer and churn until done. This recipe makes about a quart of ice cream. It’s lovely served with roasted or candied walnuts or pecans on top.

Here I make the ice cream in a video. And I’m also embedding a couple of Saint Patrick’s Day videos for recipes that have appeared previously on this blog, my favorite Irish Soda Bread and my Irish Cheese Fondue.

Enjoy this special day and month!

Tinky Makes Maple Ice Cream

Tinky Makes Irish Soda Bread

Tinky Makes Irish Cheese Fondue

Year of the Ox (or anytime) Dumplings

February 11th, 2021

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it’s long on holidays. When I was in second grade our class performed a short play in which each of us got to talk about one of this month’s special days.

In the next week alone several holidays are coming up: the Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday. I don’t have room to celebrate them all in this column so I am focusing on the first. I encourage you to do something for every single one, however.

Tomorrow, February 12 (also Lincoln’s birthday!), marks the start of this year’s Chinese New Year. I love lunar holidays. To those of us who measure out our lives according to the Gregorian calendar, holidays that don’t fall on the same date every year offer a welcome unpredictability.

This lunar new year comes on the second new moon after the winter solstice so it can fall anywhere from late January to late February. This year it’s right in between.

As many readers know, there are 12 signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Each is assigned an animal, and the animals repeat in a cycle of 12 years, roughly corresponding to the time it takes Jupiter to orbit the sun. This year will be the year of the ox.

People born in this year (or born 12, 24, 48, or 60 and so on years ago!) will exhibit ox-like characteristics. They will tend to be hard working, dependable, and generally solid.

The Chinese New Year is a time when Chinese families get together. During these reunions family members begin the new year’s celebration, which lasts for more than two weeks, by preparing food together. A special favorite, especially in the north of China, is dumplings.

My dumpling recipe isn’t necessarily authentically Chinese, but it has plenty of Chinese flavor and flavors. I have to admit that I cheated a little; I purchased my dumpling wrappers.

To me dumpling wrappers are like tortillas, something one makes best if one makes them all the time. I have never made them. I hadn’t even made dumplings themselves before starting to work on this article.

I actually strayed further by using store-bought wonton wrappers rather than dumpling wrappers. The wonton wrappers, which like most of the ingredients in the dumplings are available in most supermarkets, are slightly thicker than dumpling wrappers and therefore a little easier to work with.

I hope making and eating the dumplings will give you warm feelings of family and hope for the months to come. Happy Chinese New Year! Here’s to finding something to celebrate every day of the month and every day of the year.

They’re almost ready!

Year of the Ox Dumplings

Ingredients:

for the filling:
1/2 pound ground pork (or ground chicken if you don’t eat pork)
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped cabbage (preferably Chinese cabbage, but any cabbage will do in a pinch)
2 scallions (white part only), chopped
1 tablespoon grated carrot
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small finger ginger, minced
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 pinch sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch

for the dipping sauce:
3 tablespoons soy or tamari
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil or toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon chili oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon minced ginger
1 scallion, chopped (white plus some green)

for assembly:
24 wonton or dumpling wrappers (possibly even more, depending on how big they are)
1 egg
1 tablespoon water
canola or peanut oil as needed for frying

Instructions:

Combine the ingredients for the filling. Refrigerate them while you assemble the other ingredients.

Combine the ingredients for the dipping sauce in a bowl. Set them aside.

For each dumpling, spoon about 1 teaspoon of the filling into the center of a wrapper. Do not overfill your dumplings! Combine the egg and the water.

Use your finger to coat the edges of the wrapper with a bit of the egg mixture. Fold the wrapper in half to cover the filling, and seal carefully with more egg mixture. Put the filled dumplings on a plate or board, and cover them with a damp paper towel.

Pour enough oil into a nonstick skillet to cover the bottom, but barely. Heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add enough dumplings to make 1 layer. (The dumplings should not touch each other in the pan.)

Cook the dumplings until their bottoms begin to brown and then flip them over and brown them lightly on the other side. Reduce the heat to low, add a splash of water (about 1/4 to 1/3 cup). Watch out for sizzling and splattering when the water hits the oil.

Cover the dumplings. Cook for 2-1/2 minutes. Uncover the dumplings and cook them until the liquid has almost disappeared and the bottoms are crispy. Remove them to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining dumplings. Serve with the dipping sauce.

Makes a lot of dumplings.

I made a video of these to send to Mass Appeal so you can see my technique. (I use the word loosely! I used too much oil in the pan.) I also made my beloved key-lime pie as a Valentine treat on Mass Appeal. Here are those videos:

Tinky Makes Dumplings on Mass Appeal

Tinky Makes Key-Lime Pie for Valentine’s Day