Chicken with dumplings. | Wikipedia

Even at the start of this week I was still seeing men walking around the centre of Palma wearing shorts. And they were young Spaniards, not tourists from a town on the Finnish-Siberian border.

And in every Palma neighbourhood I go through I see lots of skinny girls in tiny mini-skirts or shorts who are still showing off bare midriffs.

Some people don’t want to admit summer is over and it’s time to switch to warmer clothing. But not me. I had my new duffle coat shortened to jacket length in August and I’ve already worn it on a couple of rather cold mornings and evenings.

I put an extra Swedish duvet on my bed five weeks ago and I also went into bed socks mode at the same time. The socks are from the Bolivian Andes, knitted from alpaca wool — and no matter how cold it is my feet will always be warm in wool as snug as this.

And by mid-November I was already into cold weather comfort foods such as porridge for breakfast, plus lunches with polenta, risotto, steaming bowls of soup, Spanish dishes of lentils, beans and chickpeas and others guaranteed to provide winter warmth.
When it comes to keeping out the winter cold with the help of food, most of us have traditional recipes that fill us up and keep us warm. We usually have at least one dish we most associate with those days when there’s a touch of frost in the air.

At the first sign of cold weather, a friend makes a thick pea soup flavoured with ham bones — guaranteed to warm you up even during a snowstorm at Camp 5 on Mount Everest. Another friend finds winter weather comfort in a bowl of porridge made with 100grs of oats and half a litre of full cream fresh milk. And not just for breakfast, but at any time during the day or night.

A Majorcan friend who went to university in Oviedo and learned (apart from the biology of plants) that fabada stimulates inner warmth on cold days, does an improvised version of this dish as soon as Palma’s early morning temperatures fall below 10C.

His simple improvised version of this famous Asturian dish is made with white beans from a jar (the Ja’e brand that’s always available at El Corte Inglés) and authentic Asturian chorizos, panceta and black puddings.

Having been brought up in Scotland, where it can get rather cold in the winter (and it’s not all that warm during the summer months) I have several dishes I turn to when the cold weather sets in. In my top-10 list is the savoury dumpling, a favourite comfort food in Scotland as well as in other parts of Britain and also most northern countries.

You’ll find dumplings in just about every European country and their main reason for being in a recipe is that they help to keep the cold at bay.

My recollection of the dumplings of my childhood are still most vivid. They were always cooked in a tasty beef stew thickened slightly with Bisto and they took the place of the more usual potatoes.

They were a huge delight on really cold days, especially when the snow lay on the ground, deep and crisp and even — although not so even once we kids raced down nearby hills on our sledges.

It was after one of these sessions on snowy slopes that the dumplings were at their best.
The dumplings I ate in those days were somewhat smaller than a billiard ball and we called them doughballs, a word that’s not in the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

It gives doughboy, defined as a flour dumpling, and I thought doughball was perhaps one of those incorrect pronunciations one sometimes picks up as a child — and then repeats it forever after.

But doughball is in the American Webster’s also as a flour dumpling as well as a small quantity of dough used as fishing bait.

Many dumpling recipes, especially British ones, call for suet and that used to be a problem in Majorca because none of the shops stocked it. Those were the days before we had Nice Price and similar outlets east and west of Palma that stock British products. I’ve never seen packets of suet in Spanish supermarkets (not even in El Corte Inglés) mainly because it’s not an ingredient you come cross in Spanish recipes. When a Spanish housewife needs suet she gets it fresh from the butcher and chops or grates it as necessary.

The Spanish word for suet is ‘cebo’ and butchers don’t actually have it for sale, but it’s usually there for the asking. If you’re a regular customer most butchers will give you some without charging for it.

I once asked one of the butchers I use if he could sell me a kilo of very fresh suet. He put more than a kilo into a bag and refused to charge me anything for it. I didn’t need a kilo but I split it up into the kind of portions I normally use and froze it.

Even when you’re using only a small amount of suet it’s best to freeze it because it will then be easier to grate and, of course, also to rub into the flour. In the recipes I am giving, you could use lard instead of suet, but the dumplings will have a different texture.
If you’ve never made dumplings before, you must first learn the basic recipe. That’s the kind of dumpling you would serve with boiled beef and carrots (another great British winter warmer) or add to stews and casseroles. Once you master the basic recipe, variations on the dumpling theme are easy-peasy.

Basic recipe

For a basic dumpling you will need: 100grs flour, 1 level tsp baking powder, 60grs shredded or grated suet and salt to taste.

Rub the suet into the flour and the baking powder and slowly add water to make a pliable dough. On a floured board, form the dough into balls slightly larger than a walnut.

Add them to saucepan of well-seasoned boiling stock and simmer for about 30 minutes. The dumplings will swell to about twice their original size, which is why they shouldn’t be too big before they are cooked.

The dumplings can be eaten with a well-flavoured gravy thickened with a little Bisto or they can be added to vegetable soups and beef stews and casseroles.

That is the basic recipe and it can take a myriad of variations, especially with the addition of eggs, spices and herbs, such as finely chopped fresh parsley.

Elegant dumpling recipe

When you have a bunch of crisp parsley you can make a most elegant dumpling in which butter, eggs and full cream fresh milk give a quite distinct texture and taste.

You will need: 400grs sifted flour, 2 level tsps baking powder, salt to taste, 2 tbsps butter, 1 beaten egg, 2 heaped tbsps finely chopped parsley, 100mls full cream milk.

Combine sifted flour, baking powder and salt in a mixing bowl and rub in the butter. Beat the egg with the milk and the parsley and add enough of this mixture to the flour to make a soft dough.

With a wet tablespoon scoop out dumpling dough, dropping it on to the meat and vegetables in a casserole or saucepan. Be sure to leave some space at the sides so the steam can circulate. Cover with a lid and steam for 20-30 minutes.

Scottish recipe

The Scots have a versatile oatmeal and suet dish called skirlie that can be made into tiny dumplings to be served in broth. It can also be eaten as it comes and served with creamy mashed potatoes. It is also used as a garnish for meats and feathered game, and it makes a lovely stuffing for roast chicken.

You will need: 250grs oatmeal, 2 finely chopped onions, 100grs grated suet, salt and pepper to taste.

Put the grated suet into a very hot frying pan and when it releases some of its fat add the onion and sauté until it is golden. Then stir in the oatmeal to make a thick mixture. Stir constantly over a gentle heat until well cooked, about eight minutes. Season to taste.
Up to this point, the mixture can be served with creamy mashed potatoes, meats and feathered game and can also be used to stuff a chicken.

When using the mixture for dumplings, take small spoonfuls and roll them into balls, not much bigger than a marble. Drop them into broth or vegetable soup with plenty of stock.

Onion and lemon dumpling recipe

A dumpling that tastes of onion and lemon is ideal for cooking atop meat and veggies. You will need: 100grs sifted flour, pinch salt, 1 level tsp grated lemon rind, 60grs grated suet, 1 heaped tbsp finely chopped shallots, half a lemon and 3 tbsps water.

Put the sifted flour and salt into a mixing bowl with the lemon rind, suet and shallots. Add the water and a squeeze of lemon juice and make a firm dough.
Shape the dough into small balls and add to a stew about 30 minutes before it is ready for serving. The dumpling should be arranged on top of the meat and vegetables. Don’t submerge them in the liquid.

Butter recipe

There are lots of dumpling recipes that use butter instead of suet as the fat and they always have a smooth texture. In the following recipe the chives give a nice touch of elegance. They are ideal for adding to flavourful beef or chicken broth.

You will need: 150grs sifted flour, 2 level tsps baking powder, salt and pepper to taste, 50 grs butter, 3 heaped tbsps finely chopped fresh chives, 1 tbsp finely chopped basil, if available, or other fresh herbs of your choice, milk for mixing.

Combine sifted flour, baking powder, salt and pepper in a bowl. Rub the butter into the flour and mix in the snipped chives and the other herb.

Add enough milk to make a firmish dough. Shape into small dumplings and drop them into the soup and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Dumplings must never be stodgy, so you should test a small doughball to make sure the texture is right. If not, you can then add extra liquid or beaten egg white to make a lighter dough.

Some cooks can go to the other extreme: the dough is too fragile and the experimental dumpling falls apart when being simmered. You then have to firm it up with extra flour.
The worst scenario is when you haven’t tested the dough and the dumplings disintegrate when they come into contact with the stock.

If that happens, put the dumpling fragments into a colander lined with a kitchen towel and press them with the back of a spoon to extract excess liquid.

Transfer them to a well-buttered gratin dish and put them into a medium oven for 20 minutes.

Make a basic bechamel sauce, perking it up with plenty of grated cheese plus chopped fresh herbs of your choice and spoon it over the shattered dumplings.

Sprinkle the surface with more grated cheese, dot with butter and brown under the grill. It’s not the dish you set out to make but it’s tasty — and it’s still a winter warmer.