Soupe de la Semaine: Chicken Noodle Soup with Basil and Spinach

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The Warhol print was probably tastier.

I realize that I tool on Campbell’s soups a lot — probably more than they deserve, especially since I am descended from Campbells on my Mom’s side (not particularly unusual for someone of Scots heritage). And while Clan Campbell were a prolific lot, it’s likely far more Campbell has passed through my alimentary canal than was ever in my bloodline.

In my youth, their ubiquitous cans were a staple in our pantry. I was especially keen on Scotch Broth, Vegetable Beef, and Beef with Vegetables and Barley. I NEVER liked their Chicken Noodle, since it always got served to me when I was sick. The association has stuck for decades. But in a strange twist of fate, I find myself making soups for an ill friend, so I decided to revisit my childhood chicken soup trauma.

There’s nothing wrong with chicken in soup; Tom Kha Gai is an all-time favourite. And Mexican chicken soups aplenty with tomato and chili and cilantro show up happily, and not infrequently, at table. But my challenge was to attempt to concoct something that was at once chicken noodle soup and not chicken noodle soup. A Zen kōan of a soup, so to speak. In order to achieve this aim, I needed to isolate those elements of trad North American chicken noodle soup that failed to delight me, and simply Marie Kondo them away.

ISSUE #1: The Broth
Typical canned chicken noodle soup features a briny broth with no more point of view than a real estate agent trying to sell you a house. I wanted a stock that would echo our more trad notions wthout being shackled to them.

ISSUE #2: Carrots
Love me carrots, I really do. But not here. There’s a reason Billy Connolly developed a routine based around how, when you regurgitate, there’s always “diced bloody carrots in it.”

ISSUE #3: Celery
Celery in commercial canned soups frequently develops a revolting, slightly slimy texture, and it played an outsize role in the sense-memory flavour of my canned nemesis. I could have opted for celery seed, but I really didn’t want the texture or the taste.

ISSUE #4: The Noodle
Nobody wants a limp noodle. Typically, they look like tiny tapeworms, they have zero toothiness, they shame the marriage of water, flour, and egg. My noodle was going to be strong and proud.

ISSUE #5: The Chicken
This will sound like the proverbial deli diner’s complaint that the food wasn’t good and the portions were too small. But the industrially processed 6mm chicken bit cubes were virtually flavourless, and distributed very sparingly. Hey, I get it — chicken is the soup’s most expensive ingredient, and more chicken = less profit. I responded by loading the pot up with about three pounds (1.5 kilos) of hand shredded boneless, skinless chicken thighs.

But enough of what I didn’t want. Here’s what I did want: simple, healthy (after all, I’m feeding a cancer slayer here), and tasty. I don’t know how you go about planning your recipes (other than having the good fortune to land here, for which I am grateful), but I typically overthink. I read books, I go online, I consult my bride, I mentally review every version of the dish I’ve ever ingested, I engage in an internal Socratic dialogue, I ask friends about their preferences, I fuss.

While in the store buying chicken, I came across a special on fresh basil. The die was cast: green stock. I also had some spinach powder in my pantry, which I suspected would complement the basil, as well as providing an excellent source of beta-carotene and iron. Besides, spinach made Popeye strong, and the Big C is more formidable a foe than Brutus (or, if I might betray my age, Bluto), so bring it on. [You can use regular spinach if you want; I just wanted to play with my new toy. This spinach powder is nothing more than dehydrated fresh spinach ground into green dust. No additives.]

One caveat: the fewer the ingredients, the better each one has to be. Because I had no homemade chicken stock, I used the best commercial stock money can buy. Free range chicken. Wine and olive oil I would proudly serve at table, not hide in the kitchen. Durum semolina pasta from Italy (even if I will use a different shape next time). Of course you can economise (if you have the time and the freezer space, you can save plenty on the stock by making your own), but even in my extravagance this is still cheaper per serving than what you’d probably pay for a bowl at a restaurant.

INGREDIENTS
30 ml / 2 tbsp olive oil (I used Olea Farm Garlic Blush)
3 lbs. / 1.5 kg boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 10)
sea salt and pepper for seasoning chicken
2/3 cup / 150 ml dry white or rosé wine for deglazing (water or chicken stock work also)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 oz. / 115 g fresh basil, shredded or chopped (reserve about 10-15 leaves for garnish)
3 liters / 12 cups good quality chicken stock (I used Aneto Low-Sodium Chicken Stock)
1/4 cup / 60 g spinach powder (or 4 oz. / 115 g fresh spinach, shredded or chopped)
16 oz. / 454 g dried pasta, cooked separately (I used casarecci, but next time it will be gemelli, ciocchetti, or gigli)
2 tbsp. /35 ml / juice of one fresh-squeezed lemon (I plucked a fresh Meyer from our tree)
OPTIONAL: Shaved or grated Parmesan cheese for garnish.

DIRECTIONS
Cook the pasta and set aside. [You can even undercook it a bit, in fact, given that it will swim in the broth later. Dealer’s choice.] One piece of advice that has served me well is that the pasta water should be as salty as the sea. This, and seasoning the chicken well, meant the recipe required no additional salt.

♫ Brown the chicken in the pot, doo-dah, doo-dah. ♫

Season your chicken liberally with salt and pepper on both sides. In your soup pot, drizzle in about 2-3 tablespoons (30-45 ml) of olive oil, and cook the chicken. Depending on the thickness of the thighs, and the heat of your range top, this should take about 15 minutes. You’re looking for a little browning on the outside, but this is not intended to be fried chicken soup. When the chicken is done (I had to do mine in two batches), remove it to a plate.

What’s left after the chicken cooks is called the fond, and not just because I’m fond of it. When you deglaze the pot, the browned bits will transform into a very tasty sauce.

While the chicken is frying, dice the onion and chop the basil (and spinach, if not using powder), reserving a few basil leaves for later garnish. Afer removing chicken from soup pot, deglaze the pot with some wine or other liquid, then sweat the onion until it turns translucent. Add chopped basil, chicken stock, spinach powder (or chopped spinach), and reserved chicken thighs (including the juices that accumulated on the plate they sat on). Bring to a low boil, then reduce heat and simmer for at least half an hour to 45 minutes or so (plenty of room for error here without any harm).

After the first simmer, remove chicken (again! It keeps jumping in and out, doesn’t it?) and set aside. Allow chicken to cool sufficiently so it can be hand shredded (or chopped, if you must).

OPTIONAL STEP: Remove most of the solids (basil and onion) with a slotted spoon and process in a blender or food processor with a little of the cooking liquid. Alternatively, you could use an immersion blender. This will thicken the liquid slightly.

Return shredded chicken to soup and add cooked noodles. Simmer long enough to warm the noodles, at least 15 minutes. Add lemon juice a few minutes before serving, to brighten and balance the flavour. Taste and adjust salt and pepper, if necessary.

Soup. Mmmm-mmmm-good.

Ladle into bowls, and garnish with chiffonaded basil leaves.

Summer Vegan Bean Salad I

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Bless you, Steve Sando.

Summertime, and the livin’ is… damn sticky, for the nonce, in Southern California. And there’s another heat wave coming. The last thing I want to do is to, say, sit over a pot of saffron risotto for an hour. I’d like something cool, and refreshing, and clean, and if I were able to subsist on gin and tonic or Croma Vera Albariño, well, I’d probably do that. My doctor might suggest some other course; I bet she’d be just fine with this one.

The first trick to any bean salad is — duh — great beans. I’ve long extolled the virtues of Rancho Gordo’s heirloom beans, and that’s where I started. The bride and I are particularly fond of their Royal Corona beans, which are kin to the Gigandes plaki, often spelled as yigandes, used in the great Greek meze served under an expansive canopy of tomato sauce and often accompanied by Feta cheese and bread. Rancho Gordo founder Sando is something of a bean whisperer, and cultivates heirloom beans all over the world, working with local farmers at fair prices. He is a hero, full stop.

The second trick to a good bean salad is a balance of flavours and textures. No one wants a limp bean any more than they want a wet noodle — and I mean that literally and figuratively. When I knew I would be building off a base of Royal Corona beans, I compiled a culinary dance card of prospective partners, seen below. Since this is a really adaptable bean, I knew I could go off in several directions, but not all at once. So: I decided to make it Vegan. I knew sun-dried tomatoes and marinated red bell peppers would be part of it for colour and taste and texture. Then it was a matter of filling in gaps. Celery for crunch. Capers for salt and tang. Slivered almonds for more crunch. Macerated red onion for a little assertiveness, but not too much, hence the maceration. Scallions and parsley for herbaceousness and colour. Fresh thyme for extra aromatics. There were some herbs and oil in the sun-dried tomatoes, and I decided to use them rather than rinse them off, and finish off the salad dressing as needed.

NOT “5 Livered Almonds.” The pen was malfunctioning.

This is truly a salad that can be assembled by an elementary schooler, as soon as she can be trusted with a knife (and has the upper body strength to open vacuum-packed bottles, or can inveigle someone to do it for her).

Macerating the onion in this case consists of dicing it and dropping it in a bowl with enough water to cover it, dumping in a glug — that’s a technical term — of some sort of vinegar, and about .5 cup / 170 g of sugar, then stirring it up and setting it into the fridge for an hour or so, to blunt the onion’s sharpness. It’s not quite a quick pickle, but it does temper its aggressiveness.

As for the beans, I made them in my Instant Pot®. Rinsed them, covered them with water, and set the pressure on high for 25 minutes with a natural release. You can soak them overnight if you wish, and cook them in a trad soup pot (I do this in winter, just for the atmosphere), but I was shooting for fast results. I drained the cooked beans and rinsed them with cold tap water, then dumped them in with the already macerating onion to cool them down some more. Kilotonnes of options here, feel free to follow your path.

Give it a bit to mingle flavours, and you may or may not want to top it with a vinaigrette. As it turned out for me, just a few drops of great old Balsamic vinegar and a sprinkling of black sea salt flakes (the flakes were black due to charcoal; they weren’t from the Black Sea) finished it off nicely, even on the second day.

Summer Vegan Bean Salad I
Serves 6-8 as a main course, with extras

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. / 454 g dried Rancho Gordo Royal Corona Beans, hydrated and cooked
24 oz. / 680 g (2 bottles, 12 oz./340 g each) marinated red peppers, drained
25-30 capers
3 large stalks celery, diced
1 red onion, diced and macerated (see note above)
1 bunch scallions (10-12), sliced
1 cup / 60 g chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp / 2.4 g fresh thyme, finely minced
16 oz. / 454 g julienned sun-dried tomatoes in oil (using the oil)
.75 cup / 85 g slivered almonds

Next go, we may find room for some of those other ingredients on the dance card, plus cucumber, jicama, nopalito, or something else!

Incidentally, if you’re not wedded to the Vegan thing, bacon & bleu cheese, prosciutto & Parmesan, or even chicken & chevre could be welcome additions.

One final and sad note: As I was writing this, I learned that the Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold died. He was as much a part of this city’s cultural life as Jim Murray or Jack Smith; he was the culinary literary equivalent for this city of the likes of Mike Royko or Studs Terkel or Herb Caen. He is simply irreplaceable, and his passing at 57 is too soon by decades. I cannot begin to imagine how much our lives will be impoverished by his absence.

http://www.latimes.com/food/jonathan-gold/

Soupe de la Semaine: Vegetable & Rice Soup [Instant Pot® recipe] [Vegan optional]

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Please, anything but this.

This soup was borne out of a need to use up a bunch of celery before it went south. [Seems like I make a lot of “necessity” soups.] Being an enterprising lad, I Googled “celery soup,” and got about 1.83 bazillion recipes for Cream of Celery Soup. I don’t want to demean the good folks whose soup provided Andy Warhol such a rich vein to mine for his art, but the cream of celery soup of my youth was possibly the worst-period-soup-period-ever. It was always the last can in the cupboard, and was only ever served out of dire necessity. To be fair, I think the only reason my mom kept any in the first place was so that it could be used as a sauce for some sort of ’60s casserole that has mercifully and permanently gone out of fashion. Fortunately, my Google Fu skills are strong, and I eventually landed on what appeared to be a terrific recipe by Martha Rose Shulman of the NY Times. It was modified to fit my ingredients, but it’s fairly faithful to the original.

Stop me if I’m sounding like a broken record here, but if there are two things I could ever want you to take away from this blog, they are these:

    1) You can do this. Goodness knows, I’m no chef. But I can make a tasty meal; that’s all anyone ever asks from an amateur.
    2) A recipe is a roadmap. There’s always more than one route to your destination. And, failing that, there are always other destinations.

Perhaps the two most delightful aspects to this recipe are 1) you don’t have to pre-cook the rice (a few minutes at pressure in the Instant Pot® does the job); and 2) you can make it vegan simply by removing the Parmesan cheese. If you can operate a knife, a spoon, a can opener, and a measuring cup, you can make this. You don’t even really need an Instant Pot®. It just will take longer on the stove (probably about 45 minutes to an hour of simmering, depending on how quickly your rice cooks up).

Doesn’t that look like a bowl full of healthy goodness? And we haven’t even added the tomatoes or the stock yet.

Vegetable & Rice Soup
Makes approximately 16 cups / 4 liters

INGREDIENTS
6 celery stalks / 400 g, diced
1/2 red cabbage / 400 g, shredded
1 medium onion, chopped
1 medium carrot, diced
1 bell pepper, de-seeded and diced (I used 6 mini peppers instead)
6 garlic cloves, minced
Salt (preferably kosher) and pepper (preferably ground white) to taste
1 cup / 180 g uncooked rice (I used brown basmati)
3 tbsp. / 45 ml extra virgin olive oil (spring for some good oil!)
1 28-ounce / 794 g can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
1 1/2 quarts / 1.5 liters water or vegetable stock (Better Than Bouillon enhanced my stock)
2 tbsp. / 50 g tomato paste
1 teaspoon / 4 g dried thyme
2 tbsp. / 3 g dried parsley flakes (or 1 tbsp. / 4 g fresh parsley)
A small (50 g / 1.75 oz.) Parmesan rind
Celery leaves for garnish (optional)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese for serving (optional)

DIRECTIONS
Chop up celery, cabbage, onion, carrot, bell pepper, and garlic cloves; place in Instant Pot® container. Sprinkle salt and pepper over vegetables and stir. Add olive oil and uncooked rice to container. Set Instant Pot® to “Sauté” and sweat vegetables, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes, until they soften a bit. Add chopped tomatoes, vegetable stock, tomato paste, thyme, parsley, and Parmesan rind (if desired — omit for vegan version). Mix briefly with spoon or spatula. Turn Instant Pot® to “Keep Warm / Cancel,” which will end the sauté function.

Place lid on Instant Pot®, making sure vent is turned toward “Sealing” rather than “Venting.” Press “Soup” button, making sure pressure is on “High.” Set timer for 16 minutes. Go answer some email or vacuum your front room.

When timer goes off, allow Instant Pot® to decompress naturally, or at least for 10 minutes, before carefully switching vent from “Sealing” to “Venting.” Remove lid, and adjust spices as necessary (soup will be hot). Ladle directly into bowls or mugs and garnish with celery leaves and/or grated Parmesan (omit latter for vegan version).

To borrow a phrase, “Mmmm-mmmm good.”

Saffron Risotto with Peas and Langoustine

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No, I didn't make my own stock or grate my own cheese this time; please don't judge

No, I didn’t make my own stock or grate my own cheese this time; please don’t judge

In what passes for winter in Southern California, one may on occasion wish for a wintry dish, and nothing fills that bill quite like risotto. There are a million ways to make it, but I had a hankering for some peas, and I had gotten a great deal on some frozen (and pre-cooked) langoustine, so I cogitated on what spice might work well with the two of them; I settled on saffron. I had some that my brother had brought back from Turkey, and a little (slightly fresher, if not as exotic) Spanish saffron from Trader Joe’s, each of which made it into the final mix.

Risotto (or “little rice”) can be traced back to 16th century Milan, though rice’s role in Italian cooking predates that considerably, having likely been introduced by the Arabs who conquered Sicily in the 9th century. By many accounts, saffron arrived in Italy in the 13th century, though it’s not clear who brought it in. Why it took the Italians three centuries to marry saffron and rice in this dish is something of a mystery, but it just bears out the thesis that risotto is the great-granddaddy of the slow cooking movement. Arborio rice, which is central to the dish, is a short-grain rice named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown. [Some areas in Italy use other varieties of rice; Milanese chefs are said to prefer Carnaroli rice, while Vialone nano is more popular around Venice. Neither are as widely available in America as Arborio, though both can be found at Italian specialty markets or through Amazon.]

Two things about risotto: First, don’t be intimidated. It’s time consuming, no doubt, but once you get your head around that, it’s really not hard to make a very tasty, elegant dish that will wow your friends (or, in this case, endear me to The Bride). Second: There is no speed round when it comes to risotto making. Commit to stirring constantly for the better part of 45 minutes. Think of it as a kitchen meditation, where all the world’s cares drop away and you can focus on the gastronomical, physical, and spiritual union of stock and rice.

INGREDIENTS:

• 1 liter (4 cups) vegetable stock, maybe a bit more
• 75g (5 tbsp) unsalted butter
• 30ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
• 1/2 medium brown onion, finely chopped
• 1/2 celery stick, finely chopped
• 2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
• 375g (1 3/4 cups) Arborio rice
• 190g (1 1/4 cups) frozen peas
• 500g (1 lb) frozen cooked and shelled langoustine
• Pinch of saffron threads
• 125g (1 cup) finely grated Parmesan
• Salt & freshly ground black pepper
[Remember, grams are a measure of weight, and cups are a measure of volume, so there’s a little room for movement here. We’re not in a science lab.]

Stock warming nicely

Stock warming nicely

DIRECTIONS:
First, bring the stock just barely to a boil, then set it back to a simmer. If you have not yet defrosted the langoustine (they often to tell you to do it the night before by moving them from the freezer to the fridge, but I rarely plan that far ahead), take them from the freezer, put them in a sealed plastic bag, and set the bag in warm water. Since they will only be at this warming temp for about 40 minutes or so, you don’t need to panic about bacterial bloom or other fishy evils.

Butter and allium products bubbling

Butter and allium products bubbling

Next, heat the butter and oil in a large saucepan over low heat until foaming. Add the onion, celery and garlic, and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes or until onion softens. Add the rice and cook, stirring, over medium heat for 1-2 minutes or until the grains appear slightly glassy.

Stir until the rice is coated with butter and begins to turn glassy

Stir until the rice is coated and begins to turn glassy

Add a ladle (about 125ml / 1/2 cup) of the heated stock to the rice mixture and use a wooden spoon to stir until the liquid is completely absorbed. Why wood? It’s so much nicer than plastic, isn’t it?

Adding some stock, then stirring, and stirring, and stirring...

Adding some stock, then stirring, and stirring, and stirring…

Continue to add the stock, one ladle at a time, stirring constantly and allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next.

As the rice absorbs the stock, it gets creamier

As the rice absorbs the stock, it gets creamier

Cook until the rice is just tender and the risotto is creamy (this will take at least 25 minutes — DON’T RUSH).

Ready for the last little mix; langoustines, peas, and cheese all added

Ready for the last little mix; langoustines, peas, and cheese

Add the langoustine, peas, and saffron, and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes or until well combined and heated through. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Remember: the Parmesan brings its own saltiness, so have a light hand with the NaCl! You can always add more salt — even at the table — but you can’t take it away.

C'est fini! Or, more appropriately, è finito.

C’est fini! Or, more appropriately, è finito.

Spoon the risotto into bowls and serve immediately. Try not to consume it like a just-uncaged wolverine.