Brian’s Southern Chicken & Dumplings

Posted on Feb 4, 2016



This has been an extraordinarily good week. As you may have heard, I am an actor and I teach/ coach other actors. Well, this week those areas of my life have been blossoming in unexpected ways, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. But wait, maybe I can. What if I also pick this week to write and test my Chicken & Dumplings recipe? I call that a perfect storm of opportunity meets personal growth meets creamy deliciousness! And speaking of opportunity…

File this under “Unlikely Coincidences”: I got a call from my amazing agent, Jim Flynn, last week with an appointment for the Off Broadway reopening of Peter and the Starcatcher to audition for the understudy to four of the five roles Orville covered in the Broadway incarnation. If you’ve never met him, know that my other half and I are not what we in show biz call the same type. Not even remotely similar. Him. Me. Not the same.

But in long-running shows like PATSC, there are actually two understudies who cover the ‘adult’ male roles in PATSC (adult in that they aren’t playing the Lost Boys, not because they’re the porn roles.)  You see, long running shows need to have two covers for every role because all the actors, even the understudies, will eventually be out of the show due to illness, vacation, a death in the family etc, and if the actor playing a role gets sick or hurt while his understudy is, say, in Paris on vacation, the show wouldn’t go on.

[Actually, it would, but under the last-resort circumstances of having one of the stage managers play the role ‘on book,’ meaning they would hold the script and read the lines while trying not to get knocked over by the other eleven actors and at least four steamer trunks. Not an ideal solution. So most producers will opt to have each role double covered, hence the overlap in the roles Orville covered and the roles I was being asked to audition for.]

So I auditioning for the understudy track which serves as the secondary cover for the roles Orville for which Orville was the first cover, as well as to be the first cover for roles where Orville was actually the second cover. Confused? In a show where there are twelve principal roles, all needing double-coverage (except the role of Molly, as she is the only female in the show and there is only one female understudy), and only four offstage understudies who max out at five roles each (and the girl does fewer because she can only cover Molly and two of the less-manly male roles), do the math and watch the Stage Manager’s brain melt at the sheer possibilities.

In addition to the four roles Orville understudied, the fifth role I was being asked to prepare was the leading role of Black Stache which won Christian Borle a Tony award last June. The role is epic and complicated and brilliant, and a fantastic showcase for the actor. The sides (the scene an actor is given for the audition) were just for this role. The other roles were being saved for the callback. Clearly, any actor being seriously considered had to bring a credible Stache to the party first, and so I set to work discovering the Stache within me.

At the audition, I was told to expect to see the associate director and the casting director. Walking in, I was greeted by none other than Roger Rees, Tony winner for the legendary Nicholas Nicklebee, regular on Cheers and co-director of PATSC! Woo HOO! Auditioning for the director is always preferable to having to prescient with casting directors or associates. Sometimes, getting a callback from casting folks or associate directors can mean that when you come in for the callback, all bets are off because the director might see something entirely different in you than his associates saw (for more on this phenomenon, check out my friend Dan Sullivan’s book Places, Please! about becoming a Jersey Boy—the casting director called him back for an ensemble role only to have the director Des McAnuff call him back for one of the starring roles, much to the surprise of the CDs!)

The room was tiny with just enough room for a table and chairs on one side and on the other about a 5’x8′ area for me to play in. Stache is an over-the-top, bigger-than-life character. My first thought was that my Stache was going to end up in Roger Rees’ lap if I didn’t watch it! Well, that didn’t happen. My audition went really well and Roger was super warm and complimentary of my work and I walked out feeling great. I knew the show had already started rehearsals and they were looking for someone to begin work immediately, so I expected they would be calling with callbacks that night for the next day or the day after at the latest. But when I got home, I heard nothing. I went to bed that night a little crushed and woke up at 5:30am (what?) filled with Actor Mind Taffy (thanks Bonnie Gillespie for naming this so brilliantly), self doubt that my mind kneads endlessly and fruitlessly. A little journaling about the positive facts of the situation got me back to bed for a little more sleep. I woke a couple hours later to Jim calling with a callback! Actor Mind Taffy is SOOOO useless.

So for the callback, I needed to prepare two more (plus Stache) of the five characters I might be covering, each distinct and different from Stache and each other. All three involved different accents and different physical traits. In fact, the only commonality was that all three had to be unmistakably ME. So I had two days to learn these new sides and create characters that are different and yet distinctly my own. This is what actors do. And we love it more than bread or kittens. I had some serious fun preparing for this callback!

Sixty hours later, I was in the rehearsal room (where PATSC had already been rehearsing for almost a week) with Roger, Wayne Barker (composer), the CD and associate director, and two readers (actors hired to read the other roles opposite the auditioners), bringing my versions of Stache et al to life and singing a little ditty of my choosing. It probably comes as no surprise that audition rooms can be stressful places, with hearts pounding, expectations racing and dreams rising and dashing and rising again with every breath. EVERY person in the room wants, *needs*, every audition to be brilliant.

What was SO remarkable about this experience was how successful Roger Rees was at creating an environment where actors can actually relax and succeed in revealing themselves through their best work. Roger himself greeted me  the moment I walked in with a warm handshake and thanking me effusively for coming back in (like the honor was his and/or I might have had something better to do). Then he introduced me to every single person in the room. This was a class act.

(Note: I wish I could say this is the norm, but sadly it isn’t. Most audition rooms end up being pretty darned “business only.” Earlier in the casting process, casting directors can see 100-150 actors in a day, and there is just no time for such niceties. And by the time you find yourself in a callback room loaded to the gills with creative personnel and producers, the stakes can be so high on both sides of the table that there is little energy left for warmth and creativity. Actors walk into these spaces all the time and have to replace that energy with their own positive and personal energy. Trust me, it can be a hard row to hoe.)

I worked my way through all the scenes and my song (with the composer accompanying me!) Roger had something complimentary to say after everything I performed. Everyone in the room had a genuine smile the entire time I was there. If every audition room could be so encouraging and inviting, actors would PAY to audition! In the elevator, I ran into one of the other actors called back and we were both high from the experience of getting to share our work in such a warm atmosphere.

Well, one of the half dozen actors at that callback got a call that night and they found themselves back in that room for rehearsals the very next day! Alas, that actor wasn’t me (this time.) But, ya know, nothing centers and calms and comforts me better than some Chicken & Dumplings! (Wow – awkward segue much? Anyway…)

I love the traditional Southern rolled type of dumpling rather than the biscuit-type of dumpling we Yankees are known for. But those rolled dumplings often end up pretty dense and heavy if they are mishandled. I wanted to find a way to lighten up a rolled dumpling without moving into fluffy biscuit territory, so I played with the amount of liquid in the recipe, looking for a lighter texture, but these dumplings fell apart in the broth. Gentle handling, a little resting and next to no kneading helped, but it still wasn’t what I was looking for. In the end, I found my solution back in the biscuit world: baking powder. Just a little baking powder leavened my dumplings just enough to be light, yet toothsome, but not in any way fluffy or biscuit-y. Perfect!

Options for making it lighter!

I use all chicken thighs on the bone for maximum flavor and because white meat can be fickle in soups and stews—even submerged in liquid they will overcook and dry out the moment their temperature rises above 165 degrees. Since liquids will simmer around 190 degrees, it doesn’t take long for the muscle fibers of chicken breast to contract and squeeze out all their juicy stuff, turning dry and rubbery in an instant. Chicken thighs are far mor forgiving, with more connective tissue that breaks down into unctuous collagen which both keeps the meat moist AND thickens the broth! If you really want to use breasts, don’t use boneless. The breast meat is not as flavorful as dark meat, so you’ll at least want all that extra flavor and collagen in those bones to make up for it. Then, reduce the cooking time of the chicken, removing it as soon as it reaches 160-165 degrees, about 20 minutes. Also, since you’ll be pouring off ALL the rendered fat from the skins AND straining the fat from the broth later anyway, don’t feel bad about going for the flavor boost that browning the skin provides. You can make this dish without that step using skinless chicken (either thighs or breasts) but the fat gram hit vs flavor boost ratio is very favorable and worth it in this case, IMHO. On the other hand, skipping the skin and just sautéing your bone-in thighs and/or breasts meat side down until they are golden will still leave a lot of flavorful fond on the bottom the pan, so if you are counting every fat gram and calorie, you can make some wonderful, guilt-free chicken & dumplings!
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Brian’s Southern Chicken & Dumplings


Prep Time: 15 mins | Cook Time: 45 mins | Servings: 8-10 | Difficulty: Medium


4 lbs chicken thighs
1 tbsp olive oil
1 ½ cup chopped leeks, cut into half-moons and thoroughly rinsed (or you can substitute 1 ½ cup diced onion)
3 cups large diced carrots
1 ½ cups large diced celery
1 cup white wine
6 cups water
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp chopped parsley

For the dumplings:
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
¼ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp garlic powder
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp ground chili pepper or cayenne pepper
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp vodka plus water to make ½ cup total liquid (optional; may substitute ½ cup water)


Chop the veggies so they’re ready to go when you are.

NOTE: ChickenDumplingSteps02

Leeks are tricky: Cut off the greens (you can leave just a tiny bit of very light green), slice lengthwise and slice into ¼-½ inch half moons. transfer them to a bowl of cold water to rinse them. You may want drain them and repeat just to be sure all the grit is washed away. Rinse your cutting board, too, so that no grit will stick to the carrots and celery when you chop them. ChickenDumplingSteps04 Try to get the carrots and celery into similar sized ½ inch diced pieces. I tend toward the chunky, and I think that works best in this recipe with its large chunks of chicken and wide dumplings.

Season the chicken thighs liberally on both sides with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

ChickenDumplingSteps01 Over medium heat, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large covered dutch oven. Working in batches, place the thighs skin side down in the oil. DON’T MOVE THEM FOR 6-7 MINUTES. You want them to get nicely golden brown, and if you try to move them too early, they will stick to the pot! Once Golden Brown & Crispy that has been achieved, remove the thighs to a large plate. NOTE: they will not be done at this point! Continue with the remaining thighs, careful not to crowd the bottom of the pan.



Once all the thighs are on the plate, remove all those Golden Brown & Crispy skins and discard. No, really. throw them away. FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T TOSS THEM BACK INTO THE HOT PAN TO FINISH THEIR JOURNEY TO DELICIOUS IRRESISTIBILITY. And DON’T chop the resulting crispy salty skins into strips to sprinkle on your final dish. And PLEASE… pleasepleasepleasedonot just SNACK on these chicken chips while you sip the rest of the white wine and finish making dinner. You have been warned. I wash my hands of the whole mess.

Tasty browned bits we call fond!

Tasty browned bits we call fond!

Drain all the rendered chicken fat from the pan (careful to wipe any drips on the outside of the pot – you don’t want a grease fire!) Return the pot to medium heat and toss in the chopped vegetables. Stir them around, scraping up the golden bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. ChickenDumplingSteps05

Cook for a couple minutes, then add the wine and finish scraping up the golden bits. Let the wine reduce for about 2 minutes. Add the bay leaves and thyme, 1 tsp kosher salt and ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper.

ChickenDumplingSteps06 Lay the chicken on top of the vegetables and add the water. The liquid should almost cover the chicken. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Cover the pot and cook for 20-25 minutes, or until the thighs reach 165 degrees, skimming the foam from the surface 2-3 times during the cooking.

Remove the thighs to a large bowl (do NOT reuse the plate from before because the thighs were still uncooked then). Fish out the bay leaves and thyme stems. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning. Continue to cook the broth for about 5 minutes, until the celery is tender. Turn off the heat. ChickenDumplingSteps08

Start with your dumplings now. In a bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. Drizzle in the olive oil and whisk again to distribute evenly. Add the liquid (water/vodka or water) and mix with a fork until all the dry ingredients are incorporated into a nice dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead or fold 3-4 times. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 5-10 minutes while you deal with defatting the broth.


Removing the skins means there’s not much fat to separate!

Using your fat separator, ladle in the fat rich top layer of the broth and allow to settle and separate. Strain the resulting broth back into the pot. You can accomplish the same thing by carefully skimming the fat off the top of the broth with a ⅓ cup measuring cup.


Dumpling goodness ready to go!


You can see the res pepper in the dough!

Back to the dumplings! Roll out the dumplings to ¼ inch thickness. Use a paring knife to cut the dumplings into 2 inch wide strips, then cut the strips into dumplings about 6 inches long.


That’s a lot of dumplings! Careful not to let them stick to each other as you put them in the pot.

Bring the broth back up to a low boil. Carefully lower the dumplings into the broth one at a time, making sure each one gets fully wet. Lower the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes. Cut off a bit of a dumpling with a spoon and test for doneness. They should be soft and pillowy (you don’t want ‘al dente’ here!)


Gently fold the chicken in.

In the meanwhile, pull the bones out of the thighs and pull the meat into large-but-still-manageable chunks. When the dumplings are done, add the chicken back into the pot. Add the parsley. Gently stir to incorporate the chicken and parsley without destroying the dumplings.


Someone didn’t heed my warning!

If you heeded my warning, you won’t have a garnish of golden delicious sallty/peppery crispy chicken strips to worry about. Good on you. I frequently fail to heed my own advice.

This recipe makes a lot, but it freezes really well and makes a great microwaveable lunch for work the next day. And if you are cooking for yourself (and you should!) you can half the recipe really easily, too.