I’ve been going through old American cookbooks to find various dumpling soup recipes with a bit of history behind them (shout out to my homies at the Multnomah County Library! May you live forever.) I’ve found five or six different soup dumpling traditions that I want to explore & share with the world. I’ll be recreating the dumplings per the older recipes, and then making any necessary tweaks from there.
I knew I wanted to make my first soup a Pennsylvania Dutch soup since their dumpling recipes were the first I ever encountered, as I was gifted a big stack of Pennsylvania Dutch cookbooks in my early 20s.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are such an interesting pocket of American culture.
The Pennsylvania Dutch are the descendants of Protestant German immigrants, and there’s nothing actually Dutch about them. The “Dutch” in Pennsylvania Dutch is actually a mutation of the word Deutsch, which means German.
Their dialect is also called Pennsylvania Dutch or sometimes Pennsylvania German. At one point one third of Pennsylvania’s population spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, but it’s more a rarity now. I knew an Amish family at the farmer’s market who still spoke Pennsylvania Dutch, so I’ve heard it a few times, and to me it sounded like German Spanglish…if you’re willing to go there with me.
I’ve always associated Pennsylvania Dutch food and culture with the Amish, but that’s not terribly accurate. Most Pennsylvania Dutch descendants are Lutheran and various sects of Protestantism, as well as Amish & Mennonite peoples.
Their food is very practical and economical, but made by people who love eating and spend their time living near their food supply. I’ve found lots of recipes for cheaper cuts of meat, as well as wild game – like squirrel! Delicious squirrel recipes that I am…scared to try…given the state of the squirrels I see in trees these days. (They are large and they eat pizza and pizza boxes.)
A few famous Pennsylvania Dutch recipes you might have heard of:
- Scrapple, a sort of terrine spectrum meatloaf, made from a mixture of meat scraps and grains, often served for breakfast, hot & with maple syrup
- Shoofly pie, a thick, molasses filling pie with crumbly top.
- Rivel soup, which is a cousin of a dumpling soup. Rivels are more like thick noodles, where these dumplings are more like floating biscuits. They serve the same function of making soup more hearty and filling. Chicken & Corn soup with Rivels is the most famous version of a rivel soup that I’ve found.
Anyhow, let’s talk about this particular dumpling soup now.
I adapted a dumpling recipe from Betty Groff’s Pennsylvania Dutch Cookbook. I changed her recipe just a scootch to make an ever so slightly drier dumpling that stays together in the soup better (AND can withstand a reheating the next day.) The rest of the recipe is similar in style to a few other recipes I found, but is mostly my own invention. Any opportunity to make a soup with parsnips & mushrooms I will take, and I will make.
Over and over, what ends up being the tricky part of dumpling soups is the ratio of STUFF. Getting the dumpling to soup to meat/vegetable ratios takes a bit of goosing, and a lot of pandering to the crowd. Everybody wants enough to dumplings, but also enough soup fillings. Some people want lots of broth, and some people want just enough for a wet dumpling. You also want to make sure that your dumplings are perfectly cooked, and that your soup vegetables aren’t complete mush.
The trick ends up being, of course, cooking your dumplings separate from the rest of your soup fillings. I know – this immediately sounds like a LOT of dishes.
I promise that in this recipe I attempt to minimize the amount of dishes you need to make, and also get the perfectly cooked dumpling, deliciously cooked meats and vegetables, and enough flexibility with broth to suit anyone’s broth to solids ratio needs…though with that said, every home-cook should reserve the right to tell their beloved friends and family to “shut up and eat it.”
There aren’t a whole lot of ingredients in this soup, but it packs a real savory punch. From tweaking this recipe, there are a few details I found that really make a difference:
THE HAM STOCK
Here’s your best situation: You decide to make this soup in three days. You find a ham at the grocery store. It’s on sale. It’s a butt portion, or maybe it’s shank portion. You roast that puppy up. You carve off the meat, freeze what you aren’t using for this soup, and dice up a half pound of ham for the soup that you’ll finish making in a few days.
You take that brown, succulent ham bone that is probably leaking it’s marrow out at this point, put it in a stock pot with onions, with carrots, with celery, some bay leaves, heck, some parsley stems and thyme, and you make that rich, delicious, roasted ham stock. The next day your stock is ready.
You then proceed to make the soup because the pieces of your puzzle have come together. Also you have a house filled with ham smells and ham product.
Here’s a pretty cool situation: You find ham stock in your grocery store. I honestly never see it in stores, but it could certainly exist and also be delicious. Probably not as delicious as the one you could make at home, but y’know.
Here’s another good situation: You decide to make this soup later today. You go to the grocery store and buy 2 quarts of chicken stock.
You go to the deli counter and say “hey hey, can I get half a pound of smoked ham, sliced a 1/2 inch thick?” and they’ll be like:
“you makin’ soup or somethin’,”
…and you can choose how you answer, because maybe you wanna talk about it or maybe you don’t. Can’t anyone have privacy these days? Maybe you’ve building a moat made out of ham – they don’t need to know. Anyway, you take your stock, and your ham, and you go home, dice up the ham, and make the soup. It’s delicious.
Here’s a bad situation: You decide to not make the soup.
Like any soup – the more delicious the stock, the more delicious the soup. Be aware that if you do indeed make a broth from a roasted ham bone, it will probably be much saltier than any chicken stock. The ham has already been cured, and that will effect the seasoning of your soup – which isn’t a bad problem at all. What it means is that you’ll probably need to add more seasoning if you’re using a chicken or vegetable stock.
This recipe is really pretty simple, without very many ingredients, but it packs REAL flavor…and a lot of it is because you take the time to brown each vegetable separately. Could you just chop everything up, throw it into the pot, stir it around and add some stock? Absolutely, but you’d be missing out on a lot of complex flavor and opportunities to season the vegetables properly. The dish really doesn’t sparkle without the browning.
There are three important things to remember when you’re browning anything.
- Get your pan hot. For smaller cuts like these, it really only has to be medium or medium-high heat. You don’t want anything to burn, it doesn’t have to be 100% brown, and you don’t need to make sure the vegetables are cooked through 100% since they’re about to simmer in stock.
- Don’t crowd your pan. Whenever you start frying something, the water inside evaporates into steam. This happens at a lower temperature than browning, so this will be one of the first changes you see happen in the food. This steam needs space to release into the air, otherwise the water vapor will start cooking your food. If your vegetables are packed into the pan, the steam will just sort of pass around the vegetables, and start making them mushy before they have a chance to get brown. This is sort of a classic cooking mistake I wish people talked about more, because it’s easy to have happen, but it’s also an easy fix.
- Don’t move it right away. If you want something to brown, let it sit there and brown for awhile. Your food is about to go through a lot of chemical changes, and it can’t happen instantaneously. When you throw your ham into that hot pan, let it stay still for at least 30 seconds, check a piece to see how brown it’s getting, then move them around and let it sit again.
I adapted the recipe to make the dumpling a little firmer, and just ever so slightly eggy. You want a lovely, light dumpling, but I also liked the dumpling not being quite so soggy, and feel like this is a happy medium. I recommend cooking the dumplings for 15 minutes, with zero lifting the lid, and zero peeking, but then let them sit with the lid off and the heat off for a few minutes. Doing this helps the dumplings firm up and make it easier to scoop.