Of Comfort and Gluten-free Chicken and Sweet Potato Dumplings

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
– “The Loss of the Future” (Wendell Berry)

“Roast Beef, Medium, is not only a food. It is a philosophy. Seated at Life’s Dining Table, with the menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrees, the hors d’oeuvres, and the things a la though you know that Roast Beef, Medium, is safe and sane, and sure.”
Roast Beef, Medium: The Business Adventures of Emma McChesney (Edna Ferber)

Of the many positive aspects of paved trails built along the greenways of cities, the sense of community among the people who use these trails is perhaps the most remarkable. Land, once wasted and ignored, is somewhat reborn. Mostly deserted rough trails once used only by wild creatures and the occasion avid trail-runner or cyclist are transformed by the addition of pavement into areas full of people of various ages doing various activities. Families on outings, cyclists, runners, walkers and skaters take advantage of the useful space created by the addition easier-to-maneuver concrete paths. Granted, something sweetly natural and primitive is lost when trees, rocks, and weeds give way to the human idea of the accessible; however, something as sweetly natural and primitive is gained as people, drawn from the isolation of their temperature-controlled, carpeted houses, actually see the others from the community in which they live. Community is primitive in itself. Humans traditionally live among and around each other. Any time of day, any day of the week, people on the greenway form a sub-community at the time they’re going about their individual, various pursuits. Cyclists, runners, walkers: all speak or nod greetings as they pass each other. During the many hours I’ve spend running on the Leon Creek greenway, I’ve seen cyclists, runners, and walkers coming to the aid of people who seem to need it for some reason. Recently Phil and I came upon a cyclist / in-line skater collision and a great number of people stopped to aid the fallen skater, who seemed seriously injured. Someone was on a cell phone, directing the emergency personnel to the location of the injured woman. Others were holding the woman and reassuring her. People on the greenway, who form the greenway community, are friendly and caring.

This concern for others was behind the curious relay in which I participated during a portion of my ten mile run on the greenway yesterday morning. Gwen, Phil, and I were running on the UTSA side of the paved trail when we passed a woman walking her plump, black dachshund opposite of the direction we were running. We exchanged morning greetings with the woman. Moments later Gwen and I heard the woman coming back toward us and yelling to get our attention. A young man wearing a maroon hoodie (why he was wearing such a heavy covering in such hot, humid weather is a mystery!), and with iPod earphones set snugly in his ears, had just run past Gwen and me. The dachshund woman was chasing him, trying to get his attention; when she couldn’t catch up with him she yelled to us. We stopped our run and turned to her as she ran up to us with a key chain in her hand. The hoodie-wearing man who had just passed Gwen and me had dropped his keys on the pavement; the dachshund woman saw them fall and picked them up. The key-less runner, with ears firmly plugged with earphones, was unable to hear the woman’s calls as she tried to chase him down. Since Gwen and I were running, were without dog, and were heading the same direction as the hooded runner, she asked if we might get the keys to the man. Gwen took the keys and we resumed our run, running as hard as we could to keep the man in sight. The weather was hot, the air was thick, Gwen’s knee was bothering her, and I had too-tight muscles from a weight work out the previous day (and our bodies have about twenty additional years usage over that of the clueless, key-less runner!); thus, we were unable to gain on him. About the time we began to slow, a cyclist approached us from the direction we were running. I stopped him, explained the situation, and he agreed to turn around and take the keys to the swift young man with whom Gwen and I could not catch up.

Relieved to know the keys would return to the ear-phoned young runner, he would be saved the crisis of having lost his keys, and we could slow down without worry, Gwen and I resumed our former pace. A few minutes later the helpful cyclist passed us again, informing us as he passed that the keys had been returned to their owner. We continued our run the best we could in the hot, humid, nearly unbearable weather conditions, and when we rounded the curve near the Hausman Rd trail-head, the young runner was waiting for us. The cyclist had explained to the man that Gwen and I, unable to catch up with the runner, passed the key on to him [the cyclist], so that he could ride and catch up with the runner to return the lost keys. This nice young man waited at that spot just to thank Gwen and me for our trouble; we explained that the dachshund woman was the first to pick up the keys, and passed them on to us. He thanked us again, and we continued our run. A dog walker, three runners, and a cyclist, the passing of keys from hand to hand . . . . what an interesting surprise, impromptu relay! Though one sees new faces every time, one sees familiar faces as well: those who tend to run, walk, or cycle at the same time of the day. Whether unfamiliar or familiar, the people with whom I share the greenway are comforting; they are decent and good. I know I am safe when I run in that space with them.

Partly because of the presence of such a kind greenway community, I regularly run his portion of the Leon Creek, such as during those times when I want to get in a quick run (since it’s close to our home and familiar), or when I’m running alone and want to feel safe so that I can let my mind roam elsewhere while I run. I know the other people on the greenway “have my back,” as I have theirs. I know every turn and curve in this greenway; I know the slight inclines, the patches of clearing, and even the various odors and fragrances present at specific spots along the trail. People yearn for the comfort of familiar environments, daily routines, and intimate relationships. Perhaps nothing, though, is more soothing to one’s spirit than a well known, favorite dish we commonly refer to as comfort food. Comfort foods are those foods that remind us of home, childhood, people we love, and joyful times. Usually carb, fat, and sugar laden (all the GOOD stuff!), comfort foods are those foods we turn to when we’re feeling sad, sick, nostalgic, or uncomfortable in some way. We also turn to comfort foods in times of celebration; family gatherings, holidays, important sporting events all have traditional dishes associated with them.

One of my greatest fears when I was first diagnosed with Celiac was that I would have to give up my favorite comfort foods, which all happen to contain flour in some form. Suddenly, my traditional, delicious, soothing, go-to comfort food was neither familiar, nor comforting. At first I searched for and tried recipes specifically written to be gluten-free, but these recipes are often unnecessarily complicated, or they’re written to eliminate other food intolerances as well (so they’re also often lactose-free, egg-free, and vegan, low-sugar, low-fat, etc). When I want to recreate my favorite comforting dishes, I want to include all the sugar and all of the whole fat dairy. For Heaven’s sake: I’m already leaving out the gluten! Once we leave out all the other good stuff, what kind of food do we possibly have left? Sadly, I’ve never found a way to create a satisfying, gluten-free imitation Krispy Kreme donut. What I have found, however, is that with a little adjustment to my favorite recipes, I can easily turn most of my favorite comfort foods into gluten-free versions. I returned to my tried and true favorite recipes, tweaking them by experimenting with gluten-free flours until they taste just like the gluten-containing versions I enjoyed so well (before I found out that gluten was the culprit behind all my health woes). An unexpected benefit I found in being forced to cook with flours other than wheat flours is that I can actually add some flavorful, creative twists to these comfort foods and dress them up a bit – but not so much that they become unfamiliar and thus uncomfortable! As a result of this discovery, my chicken and dumplings recipe received a slightly new flavor: I simply substituted sweet potato flour for the wheat flour in the dumpling dough. The sweet potato dumplings have a welcoming feel of Thanksgiving or Christmas about them, which makes the dish that more comforting!

Gluten-free Chicken and Sweet Potato Dumplings

2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
½ onion, finely chopped
4 oz mushrooms, halved or sliced
*1 tsp chopped garlic
3 cups chicken stock
4 medium carrots, 1/2″ sliced
2 celery stalks, 1/2″ sliced
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp chopped fresh oregano
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
¾ cup frozen sweet peas
¼ cup dry sherry
27 g tapioca flour
¼ c cold water
¾ cup heavy cream

-In a dutch oven, add the first twelve ingredients. Simmer until the chicken is cooked through.
-With a slotted spoon, remove the chicken. Shred the chicken and return to the dutch oven.
-Add the sherry to the chicken and vegetable mixture.
-In a cup or small bowl, mix the tapioca flour with the water until the flour is dissolved and the mixture is
smooth.
-Add the tapioca mixture to the chicken and vegetables in the Dutch oven and simmer until the mixture
is thickened.
-Add the heavy cream to chicken and vegetables in the Dutch oven.

*I generally go light on garlic in my recipes; one can easily use a bit more garlic, if one chooses.

Dumplings

114 g (1 cup) sweet potato flour
29 g (1/4 cup) sweet rice flour*
98 g (1 cup) corn meal
2 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
7 tbsp chilled butter
3 tsp chopped, fresh rosemary
1 cup whole milk**
1/2 tsp kosher salt

-For dumplings, move a rack to the center of the oven; preheat the oven to 425˚.
– Whisk flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt together in large bowl.
-Cut chilled butter into tbsp sized pieces. ***Using a pastry blender, cut in butter until pieces are
pea sized. Gently mix in rosemary.
-Add milk and mix gently until wet and slightly sticky.
– Using a large spoon, drop scoop of dumpling mixture on top of chicken mixture. Repeat until
all dumpling mixture is gone. Sprinkle top with kosher salt, and put into oven.
-Bake until dumplings are golden brown, approx 20-25 min. To brown the dumplings more,
brush tops with butter, and turn on broiler for last few minutes. Make sure the dumplings don’t
burn.
-Serve from Dutch oven.

*Be sure to use sweet rice flour rather than rice flour; sweet rice flour is glutenous flour that helps to hold the dumplings
together.
**For richer dumplings, substitute half and half for the whole milk
***For the sake of efficiency, I often use my food processor to make the dumplings.

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