Forking Stupid: Mastering the Knife With the Help of Prohibition's Jennifer Sherman

Nicole heads back into the kitchen for another first-time cooking experiment: chicken and dumplings!

By Nicole Finkbiner
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 7, 2012

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A cut above: Nicole shows celery who’s boss under the watchful eye of Chef Jennifer Sherman.

Photo by Ashley Catharine Smith

With cold and flu season kicking into high gear, what better dish to tackle in my second cooking lesson from a Philly chef than a comforting bowl of chicken dumpling soup? And who better to guide me than Jennifer Sherman, the executive chef behind Prohibition Taproom’s hearty menu?

In order to beat the lunch crowd, I met up with Jen at the Eraserhood gastropub bright and early, and she immediately put on a pot of coffee so as to avoid any disasters that might ensue from under-caffeination. We got to chit-chatting about Philly’s food scene—specifically, the fact that she’s one of very few female chefs in it. “Yeah, it’s definitely a boys club,” she says. “But I usually fit right in as one of the guys.” Women do, however, make up 90 percent of Prohibition’s staff, and Jen jokes about what an inhospitable environment it becomes at that time of the month. (That’s right, I just mentioned menstruation in a food column. Deal with it.)

Coffee drank, it was time to tackle the actual task at hand. And what a task it was. Having decided to feature the soup as a special that day, Jen and I weren’t just making a bowl; I was going to be helping her prepare several gallons of it. I was a little apprehensive, but Jen reassured me. “If I can teach 18-year-old boys who don’t speak English how to cook,” she said, “then I can teach you.”

Jen never went to culinary school herself; she taught herself to cook at home through trial and error. Perhaps because of that lack of formal training, it turns out she’s really good at simplifying a recipe for the inexperienced without using a bunch of fancy chef jargon. Example: “a stick of butter” vs. “four ounces of butter.”

Determined to refine my knife skills, Jen showed a great deal of patience when it came to cutting the vegetables: carrots, celery, fennel and onions. If she wasn’t cracking up at my naturally haphazard technique, she was offering feedback and instructions: “Slice thinner.” “Take your time.” “Use the tip of your knife.” “Get down a little.” “Keep your palm up.” “Put it flat side down.” “Give it some elbow grease.” “Watch out for your fingers!” Along the way, I learned a few interesting things—like that you always want to cut the root of an onion last, since that’s where most of its eye-irritating acid is contained, and that the leaves are the most flavorful part of celery.

Despite her many warnings, I did come very close to slicing off the tip of my thumb at one point, but by the last onion, I felt like a total pro. Actually, I was so proud looking at my perfectly diced cubes that I think I may have got a tiny food boner.

(Jen rewarded my good work with a “chef snack”: a raw carrot. I would have much preferred a brownie, but whatever.)

While the vegetables sautéed, she explained that chicken dumpling soup “has been around since, like, Little House on the Prairie,” and was once popular “peasant food,” since it was both cheap and filling. In other words, right up my alley. If you’re cooking for one, Jen recommends buying a full roasted chicken, using half of it in the soup and refrigerating the rest: “You can make a sandwich out of it, put it in tacos or mix it with mayo and make a chicken salad.”

Once the dough for the dumplings was mixed, and we began scooping it into balls, I had an abrupt realization: These were not Chinese dumplings we were making. In my defense, I didn’t know that “dumpling” was such a broad term. When I saw how they ballooned up in the pan, I then thought, Oh, so this is basically like matzo ball soup with veggies. But, again, wrong. While the consistency may have been similar, Jen’s dumplings were surprisingly sweet—which wound up really complementing the creamy broth. In fact, I sort of felt like I was eating lunch and dessert at the same time. “If you make a good stock,” she says, “it doesn’t matter what you put in it.”

As for the vegetables I so painstakingly chopped—well, next time, I’d probably cut them smaller, if only to help trick myself into eating them. 

Find the chicken dumpling soup recipe Chef Sherman taught Nicole online at blogs.philadelphiaweekly.com/style.

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