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Susan Puckett

Jason Hill’s Ellijay Chicken and Dumplings

Jason Hill, chef-owner of Wisteria, used to gripe about leaving his Atlanta friends behind to spend weekends at his grandparents’ house in Ellijay—especially in the summertime. That meant endless hours under the broiling sun stringing green beans, picking okra, and gutting trout that he and his cousins had just reeled in from the streams. But never once did he complain about the food. Each morning, his grandfather, Newman West, would rise before everyone else to cook a breakfast of eggs, grits, bacon, country ham, and biscuits with sausage gravy. Typically, he’d make some extra biscuit mix that his wife, Flora Mae—“Nanny,” as Jason called her—would use for chicken and dumplings later in the day. Alongside, there would be field peas, pork-seasoned collards, rich casseroles, fried okra, and sliced tomatoes and green onions plucked from the garden.

The Wests never let a scrap go to waste, even after his grandfather built a successful construction business. “He came from nothing. She came from nothing,” Hill said. “‘Paw Paw’ was never a rich man, but he was very, very giving. He always carried his Bible around with him, and in it was a passage that he’d circled about the importance of sharing and giving away to those less fortunate. Around Christmastime, I’d go around with him to the houses of people he knew were having financial difficulties, and he would hide money under teapots and sugar bowls. He was just that kind of guy.”

Jason was sixteen when his grandfather passed away. His grandmother died a few years later. As her belongings were being dispersed among relatives, he requested her old wooden recipe box. “But when I opened it, all the cards had on them were things like, ‘fried okra, don’t forget the salt,’” he laughs. Yet even with those sketchy instructions, his memories of watching her in the kitchen were sharp enough to inspire many of the dishes he serves today at Wisteria, the Inman Park restaurant he has run for almost a decade. His forebears’ waste-not values and reverence for their Georgia roots come through in popular menu items like the black-eyed pea hummus with sweet potato chips, the iron skillet–fried chicken with bacon-braised collard greens and sweet corn pudding, and the coconut cream pie. Jason also keeps their legacy alive at the family dinner table, by occasionally whipping up one of his grandmother’s specialties, like chicken and dumplings—his four-year-old son Carter’s favorite. Using self-rising flour ensures fluffy, melt-in-your-mouth dumplings.

Chicken and broth mixture:
2 1/2 quarts rich chicken stock (see our recipe, or use high-quality, low-sodium commercial broth)
1 cup chopped carrot
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery (ribs only)
1 teaspoon minced garlic, optional
1 teaspoon each minced fresh thyme, sage, and rosemary
Diced, cooked meat from 2- to 3-pound chicken (about 4 to 5 cups)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour, mixed with 3 tablespoons cold water

1 1/2 cups self-rising flour
Few grindings of coarsely ground black pepper
3 tablespoons softened butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 to 3 tablespoons buttermilk or regular milk

1. In a stockpot or Dutch oven, combine chicken stock, carrot, onions, celery, garlic, and herbs. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to a simmer and cook until vegetables are almost tender. Add cooked chicken and the flour/water paste and continue to simmer.

2. Meanwhile, make the dumplings: In a medium bowl, combine flour, pepper, and butter. Work butter in with your fingers until consistency resembles coarse meal. Make a well in the center; add egg and buttermilk to the well; stir in flour until it begins to clump, adding a little more buttermilk if needed. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface; knead 5 or 6 times until dough holds together and roll into a log about 1 ½ inches in diameter. Slice into discs about 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick.

3. Raise the heat slightly to bring the chicken stew to a more vigorous simmer, then add dumplings, cover, and cook about 5 minutes. Uncover and simmer 5 minutes longer, until dumplings are cooked through.

Makes 8 servings.

This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in our June 2011 issue.

Jason Hill’s Poached Chicken with Rich Stock

3 to 4 pounds chicken pieces (all chicken thighs work great)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
1 large onion, quartered
2 to 3 large garlic cloves, cut in half crosswise
1 to 2 large carrots, peeled and cut in 2-inch pieces
1 to 2 celery stalks (ribs only), cut in 2-inch pieces
2 teaspoons kosher salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon peppercorns
1 bay leaf (optional)

1. Rinse chicken pieces, pat dry with paper towels, and season on both sides with salt and pepper. In a stockpot or Dutch oven, heat butter or oil over medium-high heat. Add chicken pieces in several batches; brown on both sides. Remove chicken and drain off all but 2 tablespoons of fat. Return chicken to pot, along with 2 1/2 quarts water, onion, carrots, celery, salt, peppercorns, and bay leaf (if using). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook 30 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.

2. Remove chicken; pour stock into a large bowl through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth-lined colander. Season to taste with more salt and pepper as desired. Refrigerate—or allow to cool and then freeze—until ready to use. Skin chicken and cut into bite-size pieces. Refrigerate if not using immediately.

Makes 5 to 6 cups chicken and about 2 quarts stock.

This is an extra recipe for an article originally published in our June 2011 issue.

Kevin Gillespie’s Warm Banana Pudding with Meringue

Born and raised about forty miles south of Atlanta in Locust Grove, Woodfire Grill’s Kevin Gillespie learned to cook by watching his paternal grandmother prepare gargantuan smorgasbords of humble South Carolina Appalachian fare for an army of relatives who wandered in and out of her house daily. Many of those dishes appear on his restaurant menu in more refined interpretations today: fanned slices of duck breast over field peas, sweetbreads garnished with chowchow relish, cornbread baked in cast-iron skillets seasoned with sizzling lard, and stewed rutabaga to accompany braised pig’s jowl and collard greens.

Recently, though, he has been on a quest to revive a banana pudding recipe made famous by his maternal great-grandmother. It differs from the standard boxed-mix-and-Cool Whip versions in two key ways: It is typically served warm, with a meringue top, and the velvety custard and banana slices are layered with pound cake slices instead of vanilla wafers.

“I only have one clear memory of the pudding—and it has stuck with me more than twenty years,” says Gillespie, in the Tabasco-red kitchen of his restored East Atlanta bungalow. “Every Thanksgiving, about a hundred relatives would come from all over, many bringing covered dishes. Part of the tradition was that a big pan of banana pudding—enough to feed about fifteen people—would be hidden somewhere in the house. Everyone would wander around the rooms looking for it, and whoever found it got to eat the first helping. One year, when I was about seven, I opened a cabinet to get a water glass and there it was. But I misunderstood the rules. I thought if I found it I got to eat the whole thing. And that’s what I did. My uncle caught me on the couch with an empty pan in my lap.”

The exact family recipe was never written down, so Gillespie re-created it from memory, adding his own touches like using fresh vanilla bean and adding coffee to the custard. “This recipe is full of steps that will make you think you’ve done something wrong,” Gillespie says. “But if you follow the instructions, it will work just fine.” The recipe could easily be cut in half for a smaller crowd.*

2 cups whole milk
2 cups half-and-half
1 whole vanilla bean, slit lengthwise
8 large egg yolks
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup very strong black coffee
2 tablespoons salted butter, room temperature
1/2 to 3/4 of a 9 x 5-inch loaf pound cake (store-bought or homemade, about 10 ounces)
8 to 10 ripe bananas

8 large egg whites
10 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract

1. To prepare custard: In a 3-quart saucepan, combine milk, half-and-half, and vanilla bean. Scald mixture over medium heat until bubbles just begin to appear around the rim, then pull it off the heat. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, whisk egg yolks and sugar until thoroughly blended. Add flour and salt; whisk until it combines into a clump. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the milk mixture and remove bean. Add about 1/4 cup of the milk mixture into the egg/sugar/flour butter mixture, whisking, to temper it. Continue adding milk mixture in 1/4-cup increments until it’s the consistency of pancake batter, and then add remaining mixture all at once.

2. Cook and stir mixture with a wooden spoon over medium heat, scraping bottom and sides frequently, until mixture resembles scrambled eggs. Remove from heat and whisk vigorously; don’t worry if some lumps remain. (To ensure a smoother texture, press through a sieve.) Whisk in sour cream and coffee, and then blend in butter.

3. To assemble: Cut pound cake into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Peel and slice bananas 1/8-inch thick. Pour a thin layer (about 3/4 cup) of the pudding into the bottom of a deep, 4- to 5-quart casserole dish or Dutch oven. (Alternately, use two 2-quart dishes.) Cover completely with a layer of pound cake slices, then with a layer of banana slices. Mash down with your hands to seal. Add half of the remaining pudding, then another layer of cake, and then another layer of banana slices. Mash down again. Cover with remaining pudding.

4. To prepare meringue: Preheat oven to 400°F. In an electric mixer, beat egg whites with sugar and cream of tartar until in between soft and medium peaks. Fold in vanilla and almond extracts. Cover pudding with a thick layer of meringue. Bake 8 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown. Pudding is best served warm, but it is delicious cold as well.

Makes 16 to 20 servings.

Gillespie’s Tips for Success
1. The trickiest part of this recipe, Gillespie says, is finding perfectly ripe bananas. If they are underripe, they will have a grassy taste; if they are too ripe, they will be mushy. He recommends buying bananas three days ahead of making the recipe, when they are slightly green, so that they develop tiny, black speckles.

2. Scald milk just below the boil. Tiny bubbles should just begin forming around the inside of the saucepan.

3. To scrape a vanilla bean into a pot of liquid, hold one end of the pod, push it against the side of the saucepan with the side of a fork, and scrape the seeds into the milk mixture.

4. Thickening pudding with cornstarch gives a glossier appearance, but flour gives the pudding more structure and also a velvety texture that Gillespie prefers.

This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in our May 2011 issue.

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