Alimentary, My Dear
Simply Delicious Dumplings
By Tamia Nelson
October 19, 2010
Dark clouds loom, and you make it to shore just in time to beach your canoe, string a tarp, and put up your tent. And sure enough, no sooner do you drive the last aluminum stake into the ground, than the first raindrops start to splatter down. You're wet and tired from wading the day's final set of rapids, and you're very, very hungry. Something quick and hot would sure hit the spot. But dry clothes come first. So you weigh your options as you peel off your sodden things. A can of stew or a packet of dried soup will fill the bill, you decide, though you'd like to bulk it up a bit. That's when you remember the biscuit mix you tucked away in your food bag at the last minute. Biscuits would make a great addition to the meal, but you're in a hurry and you don't want to bother juggling both a pot and a skillet on a one‑burner stove. Is there any alternative? Yes, there is! It's something you learned years ago, watching your mother put quick, steaming hot meals on the table on cold days:
Simply Delicious Dumplings
Think of dumplings as biscuits that have been to a sauna, and you start out in much the same way as you would if you were making skillet biscuits. It's as easy as one‑two‑three. Begin by pouring biscuit mix into a bowl or pot. That's Step One. Now add water, stirring with a fork or spoon all the while. Keep adding water (and keep stirring) until the mix comes together in a moist — but not wet — dough. Step Two is history. (Hint: You'll know the dough is ready when it starts to pull away from the bowl.) Finally, bring a pot of soup or stew to a boil, drop your dumpling dough into the broth, spoonful by spoonful, and cover the pot. Simmer for a few minutes. Step Three and out. From bubbling to bowl in ten minutes or less.
The amount of biscuit mix you'll need depends on the size of your pot. For a one‑ to two‑liter pot, I use about one cup of mix, along with enough water to bring the dough together — usually about one‑third to one‑half cup. Add the water gradually and stir constantly. If the dough ends up being too sticky and soft, just add a little more biscuit mix. On the other hand, if the dough seems too heavy and stiff, add a little more water. Go by the feel. It's not rocket science.
That's the short course, and it really isn't any harder than it sounds. Still, if you've never made dumplings before, it pays to give it a try in your home kitchen first. In fact, that's a good idea with any new recipe or technique. And I'll take you through the process step by step. I'd suggest starting with a prepackaged biscuit mix like Bisquick. First, the Bisquick goes into the bowl, along with some chopped green onions for extra flavor. Add your own herbs, vegetables, or seasonings if you want, but don't use too much. After a preliminary whisk to fold the onions into the dry Bisquick, it's time to add water — about a third of a cup in all. Don't forget to stir.
Once the dough is soft and starting to part company with the sides of the bowl, it's ready. Meanwhile, bring a can of chicken soup to a boil in a generously proportioned pot. (Dumplings expand as they cook.) With the soup bubbling vigorously, spoon dollops of dough into the boiling liquid, moving around the circumference of the pot to minimize overlap. Then, after the dumplings have simmered for three or four minutes, cover the pot.
In a few more minutes they'll be done, but just to be sure, open one up with a fork and peek inside. Chances are good that you'll find it is done. So remove the pot from the heat, dish the dumplings out into bowls and ladle soup over the top. It's the perfect lunch for a chilly fall day.
As you can see, dumplings are pretty basic breadstuffs. I used Bisquick for this demo, but DIY types will want to build theirs from scratch, and some paddlers even make their own biscuit‑dumpling mix in bulk. Lazier cooks — and I confess that I'm often lazy, at least where biscuits and dumplings are concerned — will be happy using a prepackaged mix like Bisquick or Jiffy. If you look at the package, however, you'll notice it tells you to add milk. Is that a deal‑breaker? Not in my experience. I ignore this advice when camping, with no adverse consequences. But if you're a stickler for doing things by the book (or package) you can always reconstitute some dry milk powder and add that, or just add the powder directly to the mix before adding water.
OK. Dumplings are pretty easy to make. That doesn't mean they're completely foolproof, though. So here are a few…
Tips for Making Perfect Dumplings
Dumplings are sort of like icebergs. Only hotter. The larger bit stays below the surface of the boiling broth, but the top part remains high and dry. To make sure it cooks through, simply cover the pot. This allows trapped steam to do the job. Dumplings also expand as they soak up liquid, so if you want your soup to remain soup and not become a stew, start with plenty of broth. (You'll probably have to add more water to a stew.) And don't be surprised if your broth turns cloudy as the dumplings cook. That's just flour.
What about portion sizes? Few questions loom larger at the end of a long day on the water, do they? Here's a rule of thumb: One cup of dry mix will yield about five dumplings the size of smallish lemons — if you use a tablespoon to scoop up dollops of the raw dough, that is. You'll have to decide how many is enough. I start with one cup of dry mix for two paddlers and adjust for conditions.
Pot size also enters into the equation. You want your dumplings to have elbow room while they cook. A one‑liter (one‑quart) pot around seven inches in diameter will just about accommodate the dumplings made from one cup of dry mix. The height of the pot is important, too. Dumplings expand up as well as out, so be sure there's ample room for them to grow without lifting the lid. Experiment at home before taking dumplings on the trail.
And what happens if your dumplings don't have enough space? This:
Whoops! The pot in question is one from an old Optimus alcohol cooker. It's been gathering dust in a closet for years, but I recently brought it out of retirement, with an eye to simplifying my camp kitchen. (Alcohol stoves are about as rudimentary as stoves can get.) First, though, I had to be sure the cooker's pots would be up the job. To that end, I prepared a simple chicken‑soup‑and‑dumpling lunch for two. The soup mix called for four cups of water, but I added a little more to prevent the soup from becoming a stew as the dumplings cooked. As the first photo in the triptych above shows, the pot was already near capacity. And things didn't get any better when I started dropping dollops of dough into the broth (center photo). The result (rightmost photo) was entirely predictable.
I had to think fast to save lunch from ending up on the stovetop. My impromptu action? To insure the dumplings cooked through, I turned them over with a spoon after the first two minutes — the lid wouldn't stay on, so I couldn't rely on steam — while dialing back the heat to minimize splatter.
It worked. In less than six minutes luncheon was served, and only a few drops of soup had been lost. But I'd learned my lesson. In future, I'd always be sure to use enough pot.
Now a final (encouraging) word: While the cookbooks and package directions are unanimous in admonishing you to reduce the heat to a "gentle simmer" before you start ladling dollops of dough into the pot, this isn't easy to achieve with many camping stoves. My advice? If your blowtorch of a burner simply doesn't do "simmer," don't worry about it. Just use a large pot and rely on your eyes and nose to tell you when your dumplings are cooked to perfection. Two or three minutes in an uncovered pot followed by another couple‑three minutes after you put the lid on is usually plenty of time — and if you can't cover the pot for any reason, just turn the dumplings over with a spoon. It's always a good idea to follow directions, of course, but it's a mistake to be their slave.
After all, the proof of any dumpling is in the eating.
Bread is big in the backcountry. Still, not many paddlers want to go to the trouble of baking something from scratch. Flatbread, bannock, or biscuits? All are good choices when you need to bulk up a meal. But if you want something filling and hot and you want it right now, it's mighty hard to beat dumplings. They're simple, good, and cheap — simply delicious, in other words. And how can you go wrong with that?
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