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updated: 1/31/2018 7:30 AM

Southern dumplings are the fluffy clouds of comfort food

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  • Tomato Stew With Basil Dumplings.

    Tomato Stew With Basil Dumplings.
    Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post

  • Sheri's Shortcut Chicken Stew With Fluffy Dumplings.

    Sheri's Shortcut Chicken Stew With Fluffy Dumplings.
    Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post

  • Beef Stew With Sweet Potato Dumplings.

    Beef Stew With Sweet Potato Dumplings.
    Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post

 
By Sheri Castle
Special to The Washington Post

A simmering pot of fragrant stew earns top honors when it comes to comfort food, but the comfort doubles when it is topped with fluffy dumplings. They are the bonus prize in each bowlful - the unexpected delight that makes the meal special enough to feel restorative. Such a dish sure hits the spot on a winter evening, just right for a cozy family supper, although it can be the sleeper hit of a casual dinner gathering as well.

Dumplings come in a host of shapes and sizes around the world, but most are a type of simple bread or pastry that enhance or extend more expensive ingredients. The ones in the accompanying recipes are pillows of light yet substantial dough added to the pot shortly before the stew is served. They take their cues from drop biscuits rather than pastry, so there's no rolling, shaping or futzing. Just stir up the dough, spoon it into the pot, cover and come back in about a half-hour.

Each of the dumplings in the accompanying recipes is essentially made the same way, but the variations in seasonings pair them perfectly with their stews. The good news is that if you can make one, you can make them all. Be sure to taste the stews and dumplings together as you make final seasoning adjustments, because they work together as a team in the bowl.

Chicken with dumplings is the benchmark for Southern dumplings. Although the dumplings are the stars, the stew has to keep up its end of the bargain. Using a rotisserie chicken for the meat and the broth not only saves time, it adds flavor from the roasted skin and bones. The ready-to-use meat also eliminates the temptation to overcook the chicken. Old recipes often called for boiling the chicken for upward of an hour, which might have been a good advice for tough old yard birds, but can turn the meat into ropey strands. Rotisserie chickens are seasoned, so wait until the broth has reduced before adjusting the salt. The dumpling dough isn't heavily seasoned, so don't be alarmed if the stew seems a tad salty when tasted on its own - it will be balanced when the two come together in the bowl.

There is both dried and fresh basil in my tomato stew with dumplings, for good reason. Dried basil holds its own while the stew simmers. Delicate fresh basil, on the other hand, cannot hold up to extended cooking, so it's just right for adding shortly before serving. By using both dried and fresh, the dish benefits from the best attributes of both.

Adding potatoes to beef stew is always a good idea, but no one says those potatoes have to be russets. In the third of my accompanying recipes, the sweet potato in the dumplings call the tune for the aromatic spices that go into the stew. The amount of spice might look a bit heavy handed, but it turns out balanced and fragrant when the dumplings join in. Between the spices and the creative dumplings, classic family-friendly beef stew feels fresh and updated.

All these dumplings, which are about the size of a golf ball, float atop the stew as they cook, resulting in puffed tops, fluffy middles and tender bottoms - more like bread than noodles. When the pot lid is lifted, the aromas and experience are heady.

Tips for dumpling success:

• Because the dough is leavened (or raised, as some cooks would say), stir it together right before it goes atop the stew.

• Bring the stew to a boil before adding the dough. One might worry that the boiling stew would cause the dumplings to break apart, but actually the opposite is true. The hot liquid quickly seals the dumplings, so they rise instead of spread. It is akin to baking biscuits in a very hot oven.

• Don't peek inside the pot until the dumplings are likely to be done. Lifting the lid too soon or too often lets heat escape and deflates the dumplings.

• A one-ounce spring-release scoop, such as a #30 disher, makes quick work of creating uniform dumplings. Scoop, drop. Scoop, drop. But in lieu of a scoop, two large-ish soup spoons will do. Use one to lift the dough from its mixing bowl and the second to push the dough onto the burbling stew.

• Sheri Castle is a food writer and recipe developer based in North Carolina. Visit her at shericastle.com.

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