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"Potatoes or rice?"
That's one of the most common questions home cooks ask themselves, or their families, when preparing stews or braises, those perfect dinner main courses for delivering warmth and satisfaction on a cold winter's night. With such dishes, you need to serve some sort of starch as a side. How else can you soak up every last drop of delicious sauce, not to mention helping everyone leave the table feeling perfectly, contentedly full?
Of course, as a child, I ate more than my share of potatoes and rice (or other grains). But some of my favorite meals came when my mother or grandmother made traditional Austrian dumplings. Sometimes, they were the popular treat known as spaetzle (literally, "sparrows"), boiled and butter-browned dumplings that looked like little birds if you squinted your eyes and used your imagination. At other meals, there might be potato dumplings, studded with onion and bits of crispy bacon.
One of my favorite kinds was something known as servietten knudel, or a "napkin dumpling." And, no, that doesn't refer to the dumpling's ingredients any more than spaetzle does! This particular treat gets its name from the way it's traditionally cooked. A mixture of dried bread cubes, buttery sauteed onion and garlic, chopped fresh herbs, egg, and milk is securely wrapped up as a plump sausage shape inside a clean white cloth napkin and then poached in boiling water until firm, then unwrapped and cut into pieces. The result, similar in texture to a very moist bread-based dressing you might prepare to go with a roast, makes a perfect companion to any dish that features a wonderful, rich sauce. We often ate it with a spicy goulash or paprikash made with pork, beef, veal, or chicken.
You can enjoy a napkin dumpling with either of those Austrian favorites, or with any other braise or stew of your choice. And you don't even need a napkin to make it. I've developed another convenient method, first rolling up individual portions with sheets of plastic wrap and then sealing them securely inside a second wrapper of aluminum foil before cooking the dumplings in simmering water.
Once you've tried my recipe the way it's written, you can start customizing the mixture to your own tastes and to what you'll serve it with. Substitute whole-wheat bread for white. Caramelize the onions if you like.
Try different herbs or spices. Add a little chopped, toasted nuts, some dried fruit, grated cheese, or chopped mushrooms cooked down to a thick paste. In other words, vary it as you might for a dressing or pilaf recipe.
And when the question of "Potatoes or rice?" next comes up, smile and know that you have another option!
Austrian "Napkin" Dumplings Recipe
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Yield: Serves 6
Austrian Napkin Dumplings Recipe Ingredients
6 ounces unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 medium-sized yellow onion, minced
1 regular-sized loaf white bread, about 1-1/4 pounds, crust trimmed and discarded
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 tablespoons minced fresh marjoram
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 large cage-free egg
2 cups milk
Freshly ground white pepper
Freshly grated nutmeg
Butter-flavored nonstick cooking spray
Austrian Napkin Dumplings Recipe Directions
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F.
In a saute pan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and onion and saute, stirring frequently, just until tender and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes, taking care not to let the mixture brown. Remove from the heat and set aside.
With a sharp serrated bread knife, cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes. Place on a baking sheet and bake in the oven just until dry but not yet browned, about 20 minutes. Transfer the cubes to a large mixing bowl. Spoon the onion mixture evenly over the bread. Add the chives, marjoram, and parsley. Toss to distribute the herbs, onions, and garlic evenly among the bread cubes.
Break the egg into a small bowl and beat it lightly. Stir in the milk. Add the egg and milk to the bread mixture. Season with salt and white pepper to taste, and just a hint of nutmeg.
On a work surface, place 6 lengths of plastic wrap, each about 12 inches long. Lightly spray each length with nonstick cooking spray. Divide the mixture into 6 portions, spooning it across the center of each sheet of plastic wrap, leaving 2 to 3 inches at each end. Roll up each portion inside the plastic wrap to form a large, even sausage shape, twisting the wrap to seal each end. Securely wrap each plastic-enclosed portion in its own generous length of aluminum foil, folding and crimping together the edges to seal securely.
Halfway fill with water a pot large enough to hold all the dumplings. Over high heat, bring the water to a full boil. Season with salt. Carefully slip in the dumplings and reduce the heat to maintain a steady, gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes.
Drain the dumplings thoroughly. Very carefully remove the foil from each dumpling. On a work surface, carefully unroll the plastic wrap from each dumpling and, with a knife, cut each dumpling crosswise into 6 pieces. Place the dumpling pieces on each serving plate and serve with your stew or braise.
Austrian Napkin Dumplings, Side dish Recipe, Austrian Cuisine
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