I’m sure you may have expected to find some bright, verdant dish here on the page this month. Maybe you were hoping for a colorful plate of vegetables sounding the trumpet of springtime, bursting with fresh flavors and edible flowers. Perhaps, you thought I would wax poetic on the spring revival at the farmer’s markets? Nope. Not this time.
This dish, my friends, is dedicated to the betterment of my sanity. It is the proverbial (and quite unexpected) chicken soup for my soul. And, there’s no chicken in it. Sometimes a dish is in the right place at the right time and it is everything one needs at that moment. The “Chicken” and Dumplings at Fern — a feature on the new spring menu coming out the second week in April — was that for me.
Let me elaborate. I discovered this $16 dish at the same time my calendar was squeezing the last bits of joy from my soul. My deadline schedule had reached the kind of crescendo that makes one audibly whimper and I was rooting around, unkempt and delirious, looking for more hours in the day. Somehow I landed at Fern, the vegetarian restaurant on Central Avenue, when chef Matt Martin dropped a bowl of steaming hot chicken and dumplings in my depleted lap. Vegan “chicken” and dumplings.
Now, that phrase might sound delirious in itself, but chef Martin and the team at Fern have a way with vegetables that can transform beets into sausage and mushroom into hefty chargrilled steaks. In this dish, it’s all about the broth and the manipulation of tempeh into herbaceous, chicken-y bites. Chef Martin makes a fortified vegetable broth, Fern’s house vegetable stock with more mirepoix and herbs like parsley, thyme and oregano to give it some depth. Instead of making drop biscuits, Martin bakes vegan biscuits (toasted flour, soy milk and Earth Balance “butter”) ahead of time and pours the broth over them just before sending out to the table. The “chicken” is tempeh that’s been hit with a hard sear and more fresh herbs. To finish, and this is where I believe the magic happens, Martin thickens the broth with a vegan roux to fortify the broth into something more sumptuous and soul soothing.
The bowl arrives piping hot, brimming with mushrooms, carrots, celery, tempeh masquerading as your favorite roast chicken and three fluffy biscuits that soak up every last drop of the life giving broth. You emerge from the restaurant, as out of a blackout, stunned and satisfied.
Got a favorite dish in Charlotte? Share it me at [email protected].