"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.

But 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!


Serves 6

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