Updated: Aug 18
Ever wonder why most recipes for chicken soup have you add additional chicken bouillon or stock? It's because your standard industrial agriculture chicken grows so fast and is fed such a bland diet that it just doesn't have much flavor -- you have to add concentrated chicken flavor just to get to normal. It's much easier, tastier, and healthier to use a stewing hen -- i.e., a hen or rooster that is at least 6 months old (and usually at least 2 years old) who is no longer laying many eggs and is now looking at "retirement" at a special "spa" where she will be treated to a special warm water salt bath or potentially a massage with olive oil. Although these older ladies don't have a lot of meat, a lifetime spent running around on pasture means that they are full of incredible flavor, every single part of them! The trick is to cook them for long enough that their flesh is no longer rubbery, but not so long that the meat starts to shred on its own into a million little bits that get stuck between your teeth. You can also make this recipe with younger heritage-breed chicken, so long as it's been raised outdoors, on pasture, and led a good active life.
To make it healthier, we load it up with a rainbow of additional veggies and herbs for a one pot meal that is comfort food for you that won't compromise your health. For a more traditional chicken and dumplings, stick to just the onion-carrot-celery mix and cut herbs down to 1/2-1 tsp. Another trick to up the chicken flavor is to use rendered chicken fat (from the skin) to cook the vegetables, but you can substitute a lower-cholesterol oil or even cook the veggies without oil in the broth.
Serves: 4-6, depending on how hungry you are
Supplies: We like to cook this in an Instant Pot or other programmable pressure cooker, but you can also do it stovetop. The second part of the recipe should be made in a dutch oven or similar deep, wide pot.
Active Prep Time: 20-30 minutes – Passive Cook Time: 50-60 minutes (with Instant Pot or pressure cooker) or 2.5-3 hours (stovetop) – Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (Instant Pot) or 3-3.5 hours (stovetop)
For the Soup Base
One 1.5-3 lb Flight Path Farm stewing hen
Sea salt or kosher salt
One large bay leaf
A few whole peppercorns
1 tsp apple cider vinegar (optional)
For the Veggies
Rendered chicken fat or oil (see instructions)
1 large onion, chopped
3 medium carrots, chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1-2 tsp of dried mixed herbs (we usually use 3/4 tsp crushed thyme, 1/2 tsp rubbed sage, 1/2 tsp crushed rosemary, 1/2 tsp crushed basil, and 1/4 tsp paprika)
1 bell pepper (preferably yellow or orange but whatever you have on hand is fine), chopped
1/2 package of frozen chopped spinach (or fresh chopped spinach, or other greens)
1 14.5-oz can of diced or stewed tomatoes
1-2 cloves of minced garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Dumplings
2.5 cups all purpose flour
2 T butter or chicken fat
2 t baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
3/4 cups milk, chicken broth, or water
2 large Flight Path Farm pasture-raised eggs
Remove the skin from the chicken and set aside (see notes at end of recipe). If the chicken has large amounts of fat inside the cavity, pull it out and set aside
Place chicken in the Instant Pot with salt, pepper, bay leaf, and enough water to almost cover the chicken. Pressure cook on high for 35 minutes. Allow pressure to release naturally. Check the chicken's texture -- the meat should pull away from the bone, and have a firm but not rubbery texture. (See notes at end of recipe for checking doneness and time comments). If making on the stove top, add it to a dutch oven with water and seasoning, and gently simmer covered for 2-3 hours until it is tender but not yet falling off the bone.
While the chicken is cooking, cut up your reserved chicken skin and chicken fat into small pieces. Place into the bottom of your dutch oven or a good heavy skillet that is not preheated. Turn the burner low, and let it gently heat and fry the chicken skin. Fat will slowly render out. Cook over a low flame until the fleshy bits are crispy and the fat has completely rendered out. Strain the fat from the solids into a jar, and feed the crispy bits to your favorite dog or cat (or human; I won't tell). Reserve fat for cooking vegetables later in the recipe, and chill any remaining for making the dumplings. (See notes at end of recipe for alternative method.)
Remove the chicken to a large bowl and allow to cool enough to handle; strain and set aside resulting broth, which will become the base of the soup. Taste the broth to check flavor; dilute with additional water if necessary. Pull the cooked chicken off the bone in large pieces and then cut into 1-inch chunks. Reserve the bones and funky bits of collagen in a large ziplock bag in the freezer to make chicken stock later. (Those bones are also full of flavor and minerals, don't throw them out!)
Place dutch oven over medium heat. Once preheated, add 1 tablespoon (or less) of chicken fat; once melted, add onion, carrot, and celery and sauté for a few minutes, until the vegetables start to soften. Add herbs and continue sautéing for a few moments, until they start releasing their fragrance. Add the bell pepper and sauté for a couple more minutes, then season lightly with salt. Add tomatoes with juice (chop them up if the pieces are large), spinach, and garlic; continue frying until all the veggies are well-incorporated. Add 4-6 cups of broth and chopped chicken. Check seasoning and add a big of salt and pepper if desired. Bring to a gentle simmer and cover, allowing to simmer for 5-10 minutes while you prepare the dumplings.
Combine the dry ingredients for dumplings and mix well. Add the fat in small pieces and cut in with two butter knives until crumbly. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and then add the milk (or broth or water) and mix. Add to dry ingredients and mix gently until incorporated. If batter seems too dry, add more liquid one spoonful at a time until you have a biscuit-dough like consistency.
Remove lid from pot of simmering soup, check seasoning again. Drop dumpling batter into the bubbling soup with a large spoon (about 1/4 cup worth for each dumpling). Cover and continue cooking for 10-12 minutes until dumplings are cooked through. Ladle out into bowls and serve!
Removing the skin before cooking is not strictly necessary, but will allow you to render more fat for cooking veggies. I usually leave it on the chicken, then peel it off and set it aside for the dog, who makes the saddest puppy face if I don't.
Different chickens vary a LOT in how much cooking they need. I start at 35 minutes because it is very unlikely to be too much. To check doneness, first pick it up out of the cooking liquid with a pair of tongs and give it a gentle shake. If limbs start to fall off, then that is a good sign; if it maintains structural integrity, then it needs more time. The skin should be pulling away from the ends of the drumsticks. Pull a piece of leg meat off and test the texture. It should be firm but not rubbery. If it is chewy and rubbery, then it needs more time cooking. I personally like the meat to not be falling off the bone entirely at this stage, but if it is, that is OK -- just make sure to keep the chunks that you pull and cut up later quite large, since it will shred more on its own in the soup.
An alternative method to rendering chicken fat that is easier (but requires getting started the day before) is to place chicken, skin, and fat in the water and cooking it all. Once the chicken is done cooking, remove it to a bowl and strain the liquid as directed. Allow to cool to room temperature and then move to refrigerator for several hours. The fat will float to the top and solidify, allowing you to easily scoop it off into a jar or pot for cooking.
I just barely snapped this pic before Paul snarfed down the last bowl!