Tuesday, April 26, 2011

chicken and dumpling soup with vegetables

For most of my adult life I've been on a quest for chicken soup that tastes like Campbell's Chunky Chicken Noodle, which they made back in the 80's and has, alas, gone the way of the dodo.

This is not that soup. However, it's built on some of the more interesting previous attempts.

The 'dumplings' referred to here are sort of a feather-light steamed biscuit. They are very fluffy, and full of butter and chicken flavor. This is serious comfort food.

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Take a smallish stewing chicken (about 2 lbs.) and put in a stockpot. Add enough water to submerge the bottom third, a generous dollop of olive oil, and the juice of one orange. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, about 90 minutes. You can do this early in the day, then turn it off and leave covered on the stove until dinner-prep time.

Remove chicken from broth. Strain broth if desired and return to pot.

Peel and chop 3 carrots, 3 stalks of celery, 1/2 yellow onion and 1/2 sweet red bell pepper. Add to broth. Throw in about 2 tsps salt, 1/2 tsp pepper, and 1 or 2 teaspoons each: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, adjusting the herb quantities to your own taste. Add about a tablespoon of chicken bouillon granules (or 2 cubes).

Strip the chicken meat, chop and return to pot. Cover and let the vegetables simmer about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the dumplings: Cut 4 tablespoons butter into 1.5 cups Bisquick* mix. It doesn't have to be perfectly blended. It's like making biscuits or pie crust; you want it incorporated but still lumpy. Dribble in milk a tablespoon at a time, stirring after each addition, until you have a shaggy dry dough, like Play-Doh that is nearing the end of its usefulness. (See note at the end.)

Make sure your soup is at a low boil, and there is enough liquid to let the solids swim freely. The dumplings will soak up a lot of liquid and you don't want to run dry. Add water if necessary.

Stir about 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 1/4 cup of cool water to make a thin gruel. Beat in 1 egg yolk. Beat in about 1/3 cup of heavy cream. Whisk into the hot soup and immediately reduce heat to a low simmer.

Drop golfball-sized forkfulls of dough into the hot broth. (They will float, and expand as they cook.) Simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, then cover tightly and cook for 10 more.

Serve hot in soup plates. Getting the liquid quantities right can be tricky, but the end result should be a thick stew or ragout. This is extremely comforting food, but not too filling if you can manage to control your intake.


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*Note: I use Bisquick because it's fast and easy. Any basic biscuit recipe will do, but you'll leave out the acid (lemon juice, vinegar, buttermilk, whatever) and add less milk. Boiled dumplings are perverse: the dryer they go into the pot, the lighter they will cook up. Too much liquid in the batter makes them gluey and heavy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

writing lessons from mediocre TV

I've been watching BBC's Merlin on Hulu this week. It's shallow, simplistic, and juvenile. The actors and the characters they play are rather likable, but the storylines are generally transparent, and in a whole season and a half no one has transitioned from A to B, they've just become more emphatic about their one-dimensionality. Arthur is arrogant. Morgana is defiant. Merlin is the good-hearted naif. Uther is vindictive. The result is that, episode after episode, the characters keep repeating the same lines again and again.

It's not all wasted time, however. When shows are this shallow I tend to watch them with the storytelling machinery running in the back of my brain, working over the dialogue, braiding in complexity and plotting how I could do it differently and make it work better.

More than that, I've codified a few simple rules that describe why shows like this are shallow and lame.

1. Paper-tiger plots will only get you so far. People usually have complex reasons for doing things, and giving lip-service to the counterarguments is not really enough when we all know the hero is going to do the right thing and there won't really be any consequences.

2. Don't ignore common sense (or internal logic, or historical accuracy) for the sake of a plot device. I think it was Roger Ebert used the phrase "moron plot" or somesuch --the kind of story that moves forward only because the characters are all idiots.

3. Don't sacrifice characterization for the sake of plot devices. Before I quit watching TV I had seen probably five or six David E. Kelly-produced series, and every single one of them at some point, featured one of the female characters doing something completely out of character in order to facilitate a major story line. Thomas Harris' "Hannibal" is another good example of this, although I'm more inclined to forgive that one because he at least made the effort to earn it.

4. Don't tread over the same patch of character growth more than twice. Your characters have to grow and change and develop or they start to seem really stupid. Genre television series seem to be particularly bad about this. The characters are expected to be iconic so they are never allowed to grow and/or change. I'm not sure if this is genuine audience expectation or the poor opinion of the show's producers about the expectations of their audience. Either way, it's pandering.

5. Don't give your characters stupid dialog just so they have lines. This is where having subplots helps; everyone has something to do so they're not reduced to wacky hijinks just to fill screen time. After a certain point, stupid isn't funny. It's just stupid.

I'm sure I could elaborate on this more, and maybe I will. With some good examples someone might find it useful.