09/17/2014 09:33 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Cooking Off the Cuff: Dumplings Inspired By a Classic Soup

The original idea was to serve ravioli as a first course: no one has ever complained about a dish of stuffed pasta. These were going to be filled with a mixture that came to mind because of one of the first "fancy" soups I learned: the leek and potato soup published by Julia Child more than a few years ago. It seemed to me that the leek-potato combination would make for good flavor and creamy texture - plus, it coincided with what I had in the fridge after a market expedition curtailed by an attack of back pain.

Then the same pain made me wonder whether it would be prudent to stand hunched over the cutting board rolling pasta and forming ravioli, so I ditched the idea of a starter altogether and turned my attention to an accompaniment for the main course (a reprise of the chicken stuffed with Swiss chard described last week). The day before, still thinking in terms of ravioli, I'd sweated the white and pale-green parts of three medium leeks, quartered lengthwise and finely sliced, in butter, so they were still in the picture. I'd also roasted a ripe red pepper with the idea that strips of it could be a garnish for the pasta.

There seemed no reason to jettison the notion of pairing the leeks with potatoes or of using the peppers as the garnish for ... something. So I peeled something less than a pound (say, 425 g) of firm new-season Nicola potatoes and simmered them in salted water until tender. At this point it wasn't entirely clear what wouldhappen: I could have sliced the cooked potatoes and fried them with the leeks and peppers, but there was a danger that in my zeal to brown the potatoes - and with my attentiveness diminished by backache - I might char the leeks and ruin their delicate flavor.

What would keep the leek-and-potato soup model fairly intact (not that anyone would recognize it apart from me - and Jackie, whom I'd told about it)? Something with pureed potatoes and something with a soft consistency. Something like gnocchi: Bingo. They wouldn't be gnocchi, exactly, because the butter-cooked leeks would add moisture and fat to the mixture and would alter its texture. So let's call them dumplings.

I pureed the still-warm potatoes using a food mill (a ricer would be fine) and mixed them with the cooked leeks, which I'd taken out of the refrigerator to warm to room temperature. To this I added a handful of finely chopped parsley and plenty of salt and pepper, then a whole egg plus two egg yolks. When mixed well with a rubber spatula, this formed a thick, rather wet batter to which I added enough flour (something more than a cup - around 125 to 150 g - though quantities will vary wildly) until spoonfuls of the mixture would hold their shape. Note that it would have been too soft to shape in the traditional gnocchi way, by forming ropes of dough and cutting them into little cylinders: to reach that stage would have taken enough flour to attenuate the potato-leek flavor. As a test proved, the eggs and flour were enough to keep blobs of batter together in simmering water - and their texture was just right: soft like gnocchi, and neither gummy nor floury.

I could have formed the dumplings using a damp spoon, or I could have squeezed them right into simmering water using a pastry bag, cutting them off as they emerged from the nozzle. But that would have meant last-minute activity with guests waiting at the table, so I used the pastry bag to pipe near-spheres (about an inch / 25 mm across) onto a floured parchment-paper-lined sheet pan, which I placed into the freezer.

When it was time to serve, I peeled the frozen dumplings off the paper and simmered them in salted water for a little over six minutes (they'd have taken less time had they not been frozen). As they cooked, I julienned the roasted red pepper and warmed it through in butter in a large skillet, to which I added, first, a splash of water from the gnochhi pan then the cooked dumplings. They were sturdy enough for me to toss them with the peppers, but fragile enough that I needed to do this gently.

These dumplings made an excellent side dish: flavorful, especially with the roasted pepper garnish, and harmonious with the chard-stuffed chicken and its sauce. They would also have made a good meal on their own. In the context of a dinner party, I think they were way better than the ravioli would have been; those would probably have wound up tasting too much like potato-onion pierogi, and that could have engendered a desire for second helpings, and everyone's appetite for the main course might have flown out the window.

Dumplings Inspired By a Classic Soup