The mail brought more than Jenni Field was expecting.
In early September, the Garner baker and recipe developer, who blogs as Pastry Chef Online, received the latest collection from Chapel Hill cookbook writer and teacher Nancie McDermott by post. That was nice enough, considering that they had just recently converted an online-only relationship into a bona fide, real-time friendship. But when Field opened her copy of Southern Soups & Stews: More Than 75 Recipes from Burgoo and Gumbo to Etouffée and Fricassee, she noticed that it contained a warm inscription—"To Jenni Field, Amazing, precious, inspiring friend!"—from McDermott.
A few days later, another of Field's friends, the prominent California food stylist Denise Vivaldo, said that she had received a personalized copy of McDermott's book, too. With the afterglow of the gift rekindled, Field had an idea. She's an innovator in using technology to present lively online cooking demonstrations, where she puts both the fundamentals of basic pastries and the finesse of more advanced creations on display. So she decided to cook a recipe from McDermott's book in her Wake County kitchen while Vivaldo did the same from Southern California. Together, they would broadcast the results online to their own audiences, returning the favor of McDermott's nice note.
"I just thought it would be a fun way for two friends to help another friend promote her new book," says Field. "When Nancie said she'd join us, it really took off."
After a dozen cookbooks, McDermott has developed a reputation for empowering, educational recipes and as a champion of updated Southern cuisine. She re-creates many of the recipes her grandmother cooked on a wood stove at the family's Piedmont dairy farm—recipes subsequently ignored by her college-educated mother, who instead fed her baby-boomer children canned biscuits and frozen TV dinners. These days, McDermott will do just about anything to get more folks interested in real cooking, like bringing her good humor and smart tips straight to your laptop or smartphone. With the giddy enthusiasm of kids staging an impromptu theater performance, the trio will present "Cook the Book with Denise and Jenni" on Saturday afternoon.
The cooks plan to broadcast the program via blab.im, a recent social media format that allows for robust interaction between presenters and viewers. Those not wanting to subscribe to yet another platform, even if it's free, can watch the broadcast by registering for the event on Facebook. Field will archive the convocation for those who want to watch it later. McDermott is delighted and surprised that her book, a celebration of the homey and low-tech comfort foods of the South, will receive such high-tech treatment. As of Monday, more than 100 people, including one spectator from Australia, have registered.
"I feel like I got invited to the best party ever," McDermott says. "This is helping me with technologies I need to stay on top of. Like my friend Sheri Castle says, the Internet creates ways to experience the familiar pleasure of sharing recipes and cooking tips over the fence with your neighbor."
Indeed, McDermott chose a recipe from Castle, another Chapel Hill cookbook writer and teacher who grew up in a small town near Boone. They will cook Castle's "Watauga County Chicken Stew with Fluffy Dumplings." They'll finish the show by sitting down to enjoy the dish for dinner. The recipe has already earned attention; when Yahoo Food presented a weeklong spotlight on Southern Soups & Stews, Castle's dumplings earned prime placement.
"Nancie felt strongly that we should use a recipe that was readily available so there would be no barrier to people participating. I don't know if anyone else is doing anything like this, a virtual cook-along," says Field, who has been cooking her way through Southern Soups & Stews since its arrival. "We might have some people getting up in the middle of the night to join us."
Southern Soups & Stews reflects McDermott's scholarship on the diversity of regional Southern cuisine. The book collects a handful of previously published recipes from legendary chefs, including Southern champions such as Edna Lewis, Paul Prudhomme and Leah Chase. McDermott recognizes exceptional area talent, too, by including recipes from Bill Smith of Crook's Corner and Ben and Karen Barker, owners of Durham's now-closed Magnolia Grill.
Her examination of historic roots of recipes hinges on how seemingly similar dishes vary from place to place. The fluffy dumplings familiar to Castle from North Carolina's western mountains, for instance, differ wildly from the flat strips of tender pastry favored by McDermott's own Piedmont grandmother. Recipes also vary significantly based on available resources, especially coastal or inland locations, and the impact of fresh and preserved vegetables. Immigration patterns, particularly of West Africans who arrived on our shores to labor as enslaved people, come into play in Southern Soups & Stews, too.
"By keeping the stewpots of the historical Southern kitchen bubbling, we encourage remembrance and fuel creativity," McDermott writes. "Cooking and eating together helps us keep the old ways vibrant, and visible, where we can adapt them to suit what we have now; what we need and want—what we are hungry for today."
McDermott is an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and strives to support its mission of preserving the region's recipes, foods and culinary traditions. Southern Soups & Stews is the third volume in a series of popular titles focusing on such recipes; the first two covered cakes and pies. (She also has written extensively on Thai cuisine, which she first experienced in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer.) Her next cookbook will be part of the University of North Carolina Press' Savor the South series. (See "Gathering Around," next page.)
"I don't think it matters where you get your inspiration," says McDermott. "No matter how you get there, it's all good if people end up in the kitchen and then sitting down to eat."
Whether you want to join along with Nancie McDermott's big online meal, or just try the recipe on your own schedule, here's how to do it.
SHERI CASTLE'S WATAUGA COUNTY CHICKEN STEW WITH FLUFFY DUMPLINGS
(Reprinted by permission of Nancie McDermott from Southern Soups & Stews: More Than 75 Recipes from Burgoo and Gumbo to Etouffée and Fricassee)
My friend Sheri Castle grew up near the town of Boone, in Watauga County, North Carolina, and though she has long lived down in the flatlands of the Piedmont, her "mountain DNA" adds deep flavor to her writing and recipes. I love her chicken and dumplings recipe, which is different from what my grandmother made.
- Photo by Leigh Bisch
"There are as many ways to make chicken and dumplings across the South as there are ways to fry the bird," Sheri notes. "Local loyalties run deep, and people have their favorites. The style used in this recipe hails from my pocket of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We make fluffy, biscuit-like dumplings and let them float like clouds atop a simple stew studded with chunks of chicken, bright-orange carrots and flecks of herbs. This dish is so comforting that it feels restorative."
It would be lovely for someone who is under the weather, but it's fantastic when you're well, too. This has some steps, but not one of them is difficult or finicky, and the results repay you for every moment and each effort. Such beautiful soup—bubbling up around the fluffy dumplings, perfuming your kitchen, evoking grins from everyone at your table.
3 3/4 pounds whole chicken
4 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade, or a low-salt prepared stock)
3 cups very coarsely chopped whole onions, peel and all, plus 1 cup chopped
2 cups very coarsely chopped carrots, washed but not peeled, plus 1 1/2 cups chopped
2 cups very coarsely chopped celery, including leaves, plus 3/4 cup chopped
3 garlic cloves, crushed
6 fresh thyme sprigs, plus 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
2 to 3 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter or vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup butter, cut into small cubes and chilled
2 tablespoons lard, vegetable shortening or butter, chilled
3/4 cup half-and-half, evaporated milk or milk
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
To make the stew: Place the chicken in a large Dutch oven or stockpot and add the stock, coarsely chopped onions with peels, coarsely chopped carrots, coarsely chopped celery with leaves, garlic, thyme sprigs, 1 teaspoon of the salt and enough water to cover the chicken. Bring it to an active boil over medium-high heat. As soon as it boils, lower the heat to maintain a gentle but visible simmer until the chicken is cooked to the bone, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Using tongs, transfer the chicken to a large platter or bowl, leaving the chicken broth and vegetables in the Dutch oven. Remove the skin and bones from the chicken and add them to the broth. Continue cooking the broth over medium heat for 45 minutes more.
Meanwhile, shred or chop the chicken into big, bite-size pieces. Cover and refrigerate it. Strain the broth into a large bowl and discard the bones and vegetables. Measure the broth; you should have about 8 cups. If you don't have that much, add water to make 8 cups. Heat the butter in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the chopped carrots, chopped onion, chopped celery, thyme leaves and remaining 1 teaspoon salt; stir to coat. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Add the reserved broth and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.
Season with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt, if needed, and the pepper. Stir in the reserved chicken and heat it through. Keep the stew warm over low heat.
To make the dumplings: Put the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar in a medium bowl. Use a pastry blender or your fingertips to work in the butter and lard until the mixture is crumbly and flecked with thin flakes of fat. When pressed against the back of your thumb, a bit of the mixture should cling like a small leaf. Slowly stir in the half-and-half. The dough should be soft and sticky, but firm enough to hold together on a spoon.
Bring the chicken stew to a low boil over medium-high heat. Stir in most of the parsley, reserving a generous pinch to add at serving time.
Using a 1-ounce scoop or two spoons, make golf ball-size dumplings from the soft dough and place them gently on the surface of the stew, spacing them evenly around the pot.
Cover the pot and cook until the dumplings are firm, fluffy and fairly dry on top, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle the reserved parsley over the dumplings and serve at once.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Breaking virtual bread