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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Deserted Kitchen

MY MY's been a nutty couple weeks. The pots and pans look neglected and the stove is silent...err, the HOOD is silent, actually. Those of you with commercial grade hoods know of what I speak.

First, there was a weekend on my own and the Indian food takeout place up the street was calling my name. Why can't I order just one thing from there? Maybe it's the beguiling trio of flavors that make up my favorite combo: dal, tandoori chicken tikka and raita. The cool, yogurty raita balancing the spice of the tandoori condiments all mixed with the zing of the dal. Delicious! I ate Indian food all weekend...two dinners and a lunch actually, and I was very happy.

Then a Cubs game on a warm and sunny picture-perfect afternoon. The Cubs won their final regular season home game and we walked home, our bellies full of Wrigley Field Jumble: hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn, nachos, beer, twistee-cone ice cream, oh...and some cotton candy.

A string of birthday dinners out followed after which I realized I had not cooked in days. A momentary breath of autumn blew through town. The air was crisp. I grabbed the opportunity to make a chicken soup. Um, the abundance of carrots accumulated over a couple week's worth of CSA boxes had something to do with it as well.

This soup is something of a miracle. In an hour-and-a-half, you get a rich golden stock that is unlike anything that comes from simmering chicken parts in a pot for hours.

I used to think that's what you did. You got a chicken. You cut it up and chucked it in a pot with cold water to cover. Then you simmered. And simmered. And simmered. The final result was a disappointingly watery, just-as-bland version of what comes in the familiar red & white Campbell's can. I've tried different recipes and the soup always turned out somewhat disappointing. For a while I made a version called New York Penicillin, from Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. Essentially, it was the above method, but included a turkey wing for some mysterious reason and no discernable difference in the results.

Then, The Cooking Nerds showed me a way to get gorgeous, intense stock in a relatively short amount of time. It is tremendous soup eaten in the moment -- with some sauteed carrot and celery -- and truly, it has healing properties. We make The Soup whenever either of us is feeling under the weather, and it has the amazing power to transform a sniffling, achy, feeling-sorry-for-themselves person into their original, cheerful, healthy self.

Perhaps it was a little early to be jumping into the chicken soup season, but it was that autumnal nudge I tell you. The crunchy leaves under foot, and paw...and, I figured I'd freeze some for risotto. (People, you simply would not BELIEVE the risotto to be made with this stock!)

The main thing with this recipe -- and it comes as a slight shock initially -- is that you toss the bones and meat from the chicken, after you've strained the soup. I know. It seems wasteful. I know, I know. I almost couldn't do it, the first time I made The Soup. But what you realize as you're looking at the gray, sad hacked up bits of chicken--because that is the TRUE SECRET of this hack the bird up into two inch bits--and you realize, there is nothing left. All the richness is in the broth. The meat and bones are entirely used up.

The heat has returned--nearly ninety degrees for the past few days--and I'm relieved we were lazy and left the window units in for a few more weeks. Too hot to cook, we've been eating salad. But there is some liquid gold in our freezer just waiting for that next cold snap.

Some Notes:
The flavor comes from really hacking up the chicken into small pieces. And I mean small. It doesn't have to be precise, but for example, a drumstick or thigh should be in three, or even four pieces. I dream of getting a Chinese cleaver for this express purpose some day, but have yet go ahead and buy one. They seem intimidating.

You can also give this soup different twists, once you have your broth made. The recipe below is for a traditional chicken noodle soup.
Asian--add some shrimp, chopped cilantro, bean sprouts and hot peppers, sliced into thin strips
Spring--sauteed asparagus, leeks, carrots and sugar snap peas with some orzo

(Amazing) 90-minute Chicken Soup
adapted from Cook's Illustrated

Makes about 3 quarts, serving 6 to 8

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds), breast removed, split, and reserved;
remaining chicken cut into 2-inch pieces
2 medium onions, cut into medium dice
3 quarts boiling water
2 bay leaves
1 large carrot, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 celery stalk, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
2 cups hearty, wide egg noodles
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
Ground black pepper

Browning chicken and onions:
1. Heat oil in a large soup kettle. When oil shimmers and starts to smoke, add chicken breast halves; saute until brown on both sides, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add half of chopped onions to kettle; saute until colored and softened slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl; set aside.

Add half of chicken pieces; saute until no longer pink, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with cooked onions. Saute remaining chicken pieces. Return onions and chicken pieces (excluding breasts) to kettle.

Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken releases its juices, about 20 minutes. (This makes the house smell REALLY good.) **Good time to put the water on to boil in a separate pot.**

Remove the lid and increase the heat to high; add boiling water along with both breast halves, 2 teaspoons salt, and bay leaves. Return to simmer, then cover and barely simmer until chicken breasts are cooked and broth is rich and flavorful, about 20 minutes.

2. Remove chicken breasts from kettle; set aside. (This will be the meat that does end up in the soup.)
When cool enough to handle, remove skin, then remove meat and shred into bite-size pieces, discarding skin and bone.

Strain broth and discard bones and meat (it's all gray and sad). Let broth cool a bit and then skim fat, reserving 2 tablespoons for sauteeing your veggies.

3. Return soup kettle to medium-high heat. Add reserved chicken fat. Add remaining onions, along with carrot and celery. Sautee until softened, about 5 minutes. Add thyme, along with the broth and breast meat and simmer until vegetables are tender and flavors meld, about 15 minutes. Add noodles and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with parsley, taste for seasoning and serve. (This is where you can adjust ingredients for the Asian style soup, or the spring vegetable soup, etc...

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