The day that my son JR was born, almost exactly six years ago, was bitter cold. In fact, the whole week after he was born, the temperature hovered near zero. I remember this so vividly because JR had pneumonia and had to stay in the NICU for a week after he was born. I left the hospital forty-eight hours after the birth, and spent the next five days trekking down to Prentice — while my parents stayed at home with my daughter — so I could be with my baby. Having to get up and go old in the cold was the insult to the injury of being separated from my baby boy. As we approach JR’s sixth birthday, the temperatures in Chicago have plummeted down to the single digits, reminding me of that awful, stressful time that should have been a happy time spent holed up with my newborn.

Of course, now that I have big kids who go to school and swim practice and piano lessons, we can’t exactly hole up at home even when it seems too cold to go out. The recent three-day weekend, however, did provide an opportunity for some cozy, stay-at-home days. On the King holiday, my husband and daughter had places to be, but JR and I did not and neither of us left the house all day. When staying in on a freezing January day, I can think of nothing more comforting than making a big pot of chicken soup.

In the morning, I made my chicken stock with the bones and vegetables trimmings that I had stashed in my freezer. The smell of the simmering stock filled the house. I roasted some chicken breasts to provide the meat for my soup since I did not have any leftover chicken on hand. As dinner time approached, I shredded the chicken, sauteed vegetables and made the dough for my dumplings. By the time my husband and Zuzu returned from swim practice — can you imagine anything worse than swimming in this weather? I have to give Zuzu credit for getting in the pool every week — I had steaming bowls of chicken soup studded with fluffy dumplings on the table. We all felt warm — at least from the inside.

Chicken soup with dumplings is simple, comforting  food, but that does not mean that it should be bland. Starting with a flavorful broth is key. It is not necessary to make homemade broth — although it is fun to do so — but make sure to use a good quality brand if you do buy it. Also, season your vegetables well with dried herbs, salt and pepper. I lean towards dried herbs that go well with poultry like sage and thyme. I like to flavor my dumplings with extra pepper, chopped fresh herbs and Parmesan so that they are more than just fluffy balls of dough. And you can always finish the soup with more fresh herbs and even a squeeze of lemon juice to add brightness.

Chicken soup with Parmesan-Pepper Dumplings
Makes 2 servings

For the soup
1 cup cooked chicken*
2 tsp. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, trimmed and diced
1 quart homemade or good-quality chicken broth
1 tsp. each dried sage and thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

For the dumplings
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp. butter
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 TB chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. (It’s preferable to use a shorter, wider pot as opposed to a tall stockpot when making dumplings so that the dumplings have more surface area on which to float.) Add the onion and saute over medium heat until softened about 5 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and saute until tender but not browned, adjusting the heat as necessary, about 10 minutes. Season well with sage, thyme and salt and pepper and saute for a few additional minutes. Add the chicken and toss to combine. Add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to a simmer. Meanwhile, make the dumplings. In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper and whisk to combine. Combine the milk and butter in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add the liquids to the dry ingredients, stirring with a fork just until combined. Add the chopped parsley and Parmesan. Turn the heat up on the soup until the liquid is boiling again. Form the dumplings by rolling pieces of dough into a small ball. You should get about 10 dumplings. Drop the dumplings into the boiling soup. Turn the heat down to low and cover the pot. Simmer the dumplings for 10 minutes. Serve.

*Feel free to use leftover chicken or even supermarket rotisserie chicken. If you want or need to cook the chicken yourself, rub two chicken breasts with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast at 375 for 40 minutes. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, remove the meat from the bones and shred into bite-sized pieces. You can wrap the bones up in foil and freeze them until the next time you want to make chicken stock.

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Emily Paster

Emily Paster is a freelance writer and mother of two living in River Forest. She writes about food and parenting on her website, West of the Loop. Emily's print work appears frequently in Chicago Parent...