File this one under “utter fabrications told to you by older sibling and believed for too long”. I must have been very young when my sister (15 months my senior) informed me that I should be wary of eating my grandmother’s suet dumplings because suet was the gooey material supporting bovine eye-balls. Quite where she got this idea from, I’m not sure, but she seemed to believe it and, as a credulous juvenile, so did I. And so convinced was I, that until some brief research yesterday proved her to have been telling porkies, I had held it up as truth for the intervening 25 years or so. Why I found her a credible source about this I have no idea – she’s been a vegetarian since the age of 12, and an extremely picky eater before that.
Suet is, in fact, raw beef fat that is typically from around the animals’ kidney or loin area, and while that may not be a much less appetizing prospect than eye-socket, it certainly helps explain why it should be used in the preparation of a traditional British dumpling. It’s basically a firm kind of lard that melts perfectly at the relatively low temperatures found on top of a stew, which is where a British dumpling is typically found.
American readers will be forgiven for commonly associating dumplings only with Chinese restaurants, or at the outside, with Russian or Polish cuisine, but in the northern reaches of Britain, suet dumplings are, or, at least, were a frequent sight floating on top of a thick stew during the winter. And indeed, suet dumplings do look and taste a bit like their Chinese counterparts – slightly chewy and definitely filling, except that they’re much less uniform in shape and are not wrapped in pasta, the filling is the dumpling, basically. Suet as an ingredient though, is not confined to the creation of floaters, it’s also used in the recipe for other traditional British favorites as spotted dick, pastry, Christmas pudding and mincemeat, demonstrating remarkable flexibility as a fat and flavoring.
Suet is also commonly used throughout the Caribbean in the preparation of patties, particularly in Jamaica, and I think that this is the reason for it appearing on the shelves of our local supermarket, as not far from us resides a large and vibrant Caribbean community.
We’ll definitely be exploring some patty recipes with suet in the near future (a $2 package goes a long way), but for the time being, please consider searching out some suet and making yourself a good old British dinner this weekend. It’s on oft-repeated maxim among survival experts that icy temperatures can best be braved when you’re core is fired with plenty of firm beef fat. I’m not kidding.
Chicken & Root Vegetable Stew with Herbed Suet Dumplings (serves 4-6)
- 4 bone-in chicken breasts, or (preferably) 6-8 bone-in chicken thighs
- 1 large yellow onion, roughly sliced
- 1 large leek, cut into 1 inch chunks
- 3 large carrots, cut into 1 inch chunks
- 2 parsnips, cut into 1 inch chunks
- 4 medium potatoes, cut into eighths, or 2 inch chunks
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 1 bouquet garni (store bought, or wrap parsley, bay and thyme in the green part of a leek and secure with string)
- pinch of hot pepper flakes
- 2oz (50 grams) dry white wine
- 3 tsp olive oil
- 2-3 pints (1-1. liters) chicken stock (depending on size of pot you’re using)
- 2oz (50 grams) plain flour
- salt and black pepper
For the dumplings:
- 4.5oz (125 grams) plus a bit more, plain flour
- 2oz (50 grams) grated or very finely diced fresh suet
- 2-3oz (50-75 grams) water
- 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tbsp chopped parsley
- Heat oil in large heavy casserole or dutch oven to medium.
- Dust chicken pieces with flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper and place in pot. Allow to brown well on all sides – about ten minutes.
- Remove chicken and add onions, carrots, potatoes, parsnips and leeks. Sweat until lightly browned, about 6 minutes.
- Add garlic and hot pepper, and cook for a further 2 minutes, or until garlic softens and perfumes room.
- Deglaze pot with white wine or 2oz of the stock. Make sure all the caramelized chicken juices come up before adding remaining stock (or enough to cover contents) and bouquet garni.
- Cover and allow to simmer for around 40 minutes.
- In a bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, chopped suet and parsley. Mix well.
- Add half of your water and stir. If dumpling mixture is too dry add more, but you’re looking for a dough that’s nicely sticky and elastic, not too damp.
- Then using two tablespoons, make quennelles with dough and removing the pot lid, gently plop them into simmering stew. Alternatively, flour your hands well and make squash-ball size dumplings and drop them in.
- Then, re-cover stew and allow to simmer for another 10-15 minutes.
- Serve in a bowl and allow to stick to your ribs. Repeat with second helpings.